All myths are held in common ownership. Their meanings and the symbolic uses to which they are put are always being contested. So, for instance, how Irish people approach the founding myth of Irish nationality, the 1916 rising, has been altered utterly by thirty years of political violence in Northern Ireland. At the very least it has meant that every engagement with the Rising has also to be an engagement with the claim by the Provisional IRA that it was continuing on in the tradition of justified violent struggle created by that event.
One particularly fascinating debate around 1916 has been the one about Roger Casement’s diaries, which have again been the subject of considerable interest and argument in recent years. Alongside the argument about the diaries’ authenticity, has emerged the related argument of whether or not Casement was gay.
Historically, the question is meaningless, of course, since it involves anachronistically applying to Casement a political and sexual identity, which did not then exist as we now know it. Ethically, too, it is on shaky ground, as it is predicated on accepting the veracity of the diaries, which don’t show Casement donning the latest fashions for a night out in the local gay club, but involved in some pretty exploitative sexual liaisons with young boys in the colonies where he worked.
But, of course, any debate about history is usually less revealing about the era under discussion than the time when the debate is taking place. As much as 1916 is the founding myth of Irish nationality, it is also in some ways the founding myth of Irish masculinity – its story of heroic and violent patriotism is still a constitutive element of Irish masculinity, albeit one whose resonances are more dimly felt. What the Casement controversy reveals is the extent to which the emergence of an Irish gay male identity over the last three decades has complicated our ideas of being Irish and being male.
This past year has seen the publication of three books of fiction which imaginatively engage with these tangled issues. They have also added greatly to the meagre store of literary representations of Irish gay men which previously existed
Jamie O’Neill’s widely lauded first novel, At Swim, Two Boys, is the story of the growing love between two boys, set in Dublin and its suburbs in the year preceding the Rising. Jim is the son of Mr Mack, the local grocer, and Doyler is the son of Mr Mack’s estranged friend and fellow veteran of the British army, now living in desperate poverty and dying of alcoholism and consumption.
One of O’Neill’s characters remarks at one point: ‘Parnell and Wilde. The two great scandals of the age: both Irish. It’s good to know Ireland can lead the world in something.’ It is the spirit of these two, and their tragedies of two decades before, that animate one of the most interesting ideas explored in this novel: political and sexual identity.
In casting his net wide over the political and class spectrum to gather his cast of fictional and historic characters, O’Neill has created a sense of the competing visions of Ireland that co-existed on the eve of the Rising. Only one of these, Romantic Catholic militant nationalism – comically and ironically represented in the figures of the sectarian gaelgóir Father Taylor and the aristocratic Eveline MacMurrough, and more seriously in the historic figure of Pearse – would triumph; it would become simply ‘Irish’ and that because of the Rising. It would also, of course, lose its militancy and its idealism and become ever more narrowly sectarian.
The radical socialism of Larkin espoused passionately by young Doyler would become a marginal voice in Irishpolitics. The moderate, predominantly middle-class nationalism of Parnell’s heirs in the Home Rule Party would become simply a historic period piece-destroyed politically by the Rising, and physically by the war in Europe, where people like Tom Kettle, who makes a brief appearance in this novel, would die. And it would become simply inconceivable that the Catholic unionism of Mr Mack and the people celebrating Empire Day on Dun Laoghaire pier ever existed.
And yet none of this was inevitable. Indeed, the novel emphasises that the militant nationalists, with their fondness for dressing up and playing at soldiers and their Irish speaking, were considered less a serious threat than vaguely laughable. Even within the Catholic Church, Father Taylor is a curate whose nationalism is disapproved of by his superiors. But in one of the most effectively written passages, O’Neill describes the transformative effect on the hitherto apolitical Jim of hearing one of Pearse’s speeches, illuminating the glamorous seduction romantic idealism can weave, and pointing to at least one of the explanations for its ultimate success.
Through the figure of MacMurrough, the novel explores the similarly diverse threads that were coming together and beginning to resemble what we would now recognise as a gay identity. MacMurrough has come to his Aunt Eveline’s house having been released from prison in England, where, like Wilde, he has served two years hard labour for ‘gross indecency,’ that is, having sex with other men. O’Neill makes fine use of detail to convey something of the degrading reality that lay behind that bland phrase, hard labour.
MacMurrough is something of a Wildean dandy; the carefully chosen clothes, the Turkish cigarettes, the ironic and catty one-liners. He also pays for sex with working class boys he picks up at the Forty Foot; the old archetype of the upper-class gent and his bit of rough. But through his dead friend Scrotes, an Oxbridge don who did not survive prison, there are references to other currents and ideas; the socialist Edward Carpenter and his belief in the Whitmanesque ‘love of comrades,’ and the more elitist interest in ancient Greek ideals of ‘manly’ (and mysoginistic) homosexuality.
MacMurrough refuses to accept his aunt’s assertion that he has been punished and now it is behind him, he is cured. Prison and the dreadful injustice he feels he, his friend Scrotes and, of course, Wilde, suffered, has lead him to something approaching the dominant modern belief that homosexuality is not an action (a sin anyone might fall into) but a type of person, an identity. Moreover, this culminates in something the modern reader will recognise as a sort of proto-coming out when MacMurrough answers the question: ‘You’re telling me there is a flaw in your character?’ with ‘I don’t believe it is a flaw.’
Like those nineteenth-century classical scholars, O’Neill is perhaps over anxious to prove the ‘manliness’ of MacMurrough; this dandy can put down his cigarette holder and take up his rifle with the best of them. This makes O’Neill’s book at once radical and conservative. Inscribing on to the 1916 myth a love story between two boys, and making his gay/homosexual characters active participants in the Rising, is still an audacious move. But is gay, or queer, or indeed any writing from the margins, about inscribing previously invisible histories on to collective myths, or is it about questioning and subverting those myths?
So, this is a book brimming with ideas. It is also rich in humour, in absorbing storytelling, and in beautifully observed detail. It is, however, too long – it loses much of its energy in the second half and perhaps O’Neill should have decided to write a novel either about Ireland on the brink of the Rising, or the Rising itself, but not one that attempts both. Perhaps it could have ended with the boy’s swim and the long awaited consummation of their love and entrusted their fate to our imagination; the ending is heavily predictable and feels downright gratuitous.
The (perhaps too self-conscious) reference to Flann O’Brien in the title also serves as a warning of some of the referential stylistic ties to come. Sometimes this works – the sub-Joycean opening pages where Mr Mack takes his morning walk are a pleasure – but at times can fall flat, as with the sub-Flann O’Brien three-way conversation that takes place in MacMurrough’s head as he wakes in the morning. The mock Hiberno-English inverting of sentences (‘In delicate clutch an Irish Times he held’-just the first of many) also stops being poetic after a while and starts to grate.
While the characterisation is strong in the case of MacMurrough, Jim, and even the hapless Mr Mack, Ooyler’s character is crushed under the symbolic weight he has to carry as working-class hero, Larkinite and doomed young freedom fighter. Not much time left over for burgeoning sexuality and courting young Jim. It is also the case that the love scenes between the boys have their share of somewhat mawkish and unconvincing moments.
Less epic scope, Jearlath Gregory’s Snapshots is a more modest first novel, but nevertheless a promising start to the career of a writer still in his early twenties. Set in Crossmaglen, and the notorious ‘Bandit Country’ of South Armagh, it is an episodic, picaresque, drink-sodden tale of those truly awful late teenage years spent in a dreary small town: ‘without the bombs and the bullets to chew over, the town would have collapsed of boredom.’
Moving back and forth between the perspectives of Oisin and Jude, interspersed with brief third person ‘snapshots,’ it is mostly a sequence of those utterly dismal parties which chiefly comprise of boredom, too much drink and bad, desperate sex. All of which Gregory captures in unrelentingly bleak detail. The style is chatty, composed of short sentences, with lots of yoof slang and local dialect. It is heavily ironic, though also touchingly poetic at times, and with much very dark, camp humour.
The entertaining glibness can however become somewhat wearying at times. Moreover, Gregory is on less sure ground when it comes to tackling the grimmer tragedy on which much of the book’s emotional force depends-and this is the novel’s most serious flaw.
It is interesting that in a novel set at the very end of the nineties the characters are not cheerfully embracing their gay identity, buoyed along by the glittering promises of the instant glamour that awaits them made by television soaps and glossy magazines. It is a world where growing up gay is still tough; a world where there is still the fear and loneliness of being different; still confusion and uncertainty and disavowals, and tearful confrontations with parents. And, of course, there is still a world out there where copies of the Sacred Heart Messenger, with cautionary tales on sensitive boys who go to the big city and come back wearing pink T-shirts, are placed on pillows by anxious mammies.
This is made all the more convincing by Gregory not reducing either of the two main characters to victims, they are both too resilient and knowing for that, nor contriving a glibly cheerful post-coming out ending. And since the boys spend their time exclusively in the company of their straight peers, the novel clearly sets the difficulties of growing up gay within the messy, tortured confusions and uncertainties of just growing up.
In some ways it is perhaps as much a novel about becoming a man as becoming a gay man. Most of the sex in fact happens between either of the gay characters and curious (or desperate, or both) straight male acquaintances. This is not, however, the stuff of fantasy: it’s far too squalid and wholly unerotic for that. The novel is also, of course, set in a very particular context, one where becoming a man is complicated immeasurably by politics and a war held at bay by a brittle cease-fire; by the undertow of violent tensions and legacies of bitterness. A place where brothers can become embroiled in bloody actions and families irreparably damaged by tragedy. The disappointingly unheroic world to which O’Neill’s army of comradely lovers was, perhaps, unwittingly marching.
The most accomplished of these three books is Keith Ridgway’s collection of short stories, Standard Time. Ridgway’s debut novel, The Long Falling (1998), was a brooding atmospheric story about an abused woman who flees her rural home to take refuge with her son in Dublin, only to be betrayed by him. Set in 1993, with the traumatic events of the X case as its backdrop, it was a salutary reminder of the differing Irish stories that co-existed uneasily with the optimistic narrative of progress, prosperity and metropolitan sophistication that was the Celtic Tiger.
Ridgway roots his stories in a firm sense of place; they are, with one exception, set in Dublin City. They are also given very contemporary settings; apart from three curious exceptions. Two of the stories are set in Dublin in the second half of the eighteenth century, and both make reference to a pivotal, but now relatively obscure, controversy in Dublin’s history: the decision to move the Custom House to the site where Gandon’s building now stands (Gandon features as a character in one of the stories) and the consequent shifting of the city’s main axis.
This choice of such an obtuse subject on which to hinge a short story is a stylistic counterpart to Ridgway’s thematic concern to write against the grain of what we consider to be modern Ireland. Consequently, we have here stories about quintessentially modern relationships (an Irishman visiting his male lover who is German and lives in Berlin; an Irishman brings his foreign male lover back to Dublin) alongside two stories of religious, specifically Catholic, obsession. He further assaults any preconceptions we might have, of course, by giving these latter two stories urban middle-class settings, and making one of the characters a successful woman in her thirties and the other a man.
Ridgway’s real preoccupation, however, is less with the social than the psychological landscape his characters inhabit. His stories display a sharp, almost forensic, eye for how the individual reacts to the shifting circumstances of life; to desire, to love and its disappearance, to ageing and death, to the random uncertainty of chance. This is less successful in the extreme situation of the Gothic bloodiness of ‘Ross and Kinder,’ than the more mundane events of stories like ‘The Ravages’ or ‘Sick as a Dog, Sad as an Angel.’ His character’s decisions are often baffling, sometimes tragic; their actions often selfish and hurtful, but Ridgway displays a sympathetic, if puzzled, understanding of them. This contributes to the collection having a lighter spirit than that which pervaded his ultimately quite bleak and pessimistic novel.
‘The Ravages’ is also an example of Ridgway juxtaposing the inner reality the individual inhabits with the outer, objective reality of what is happening – in ‘Headwound,’ for instance, we are jolted to find that we have been sharing the unhinged perspective of someone, who may or may not have just tried to kill his young son. That sense of uncertainty and mystery over the ending floats over many of these stories-most lyrically in the liminal quality of ‘How To Drown.’
Those stories about relationships between gay men stand in contrast to the other two books in that identity, being gay, is here a given. The rather meandering and overlong ‘Angelo’ is the only one which looks outside a relationship to the broader context in which gay has a social or political meaning, featuring as it does some very funny and satiric vignettes of Dublin’s gay scene. In stories like the almost perfect ‘The First Five Pages’ and ‘The Trouble with German,’ Ridgway explores sexual desire and emotional passion between gay men with a seriousness and insightfulness still extremely rare in Irish writing. He manages to show that these relationships are as messy and complicated, as liable to create unhappiness and misery as joy or satisfaction for those involved, as those between his heterosexual characters, while never reducing them to a bland mirror image of heterosexuality. A relationship between two men will always have a specific dynamic of its own; as will any relationship formed in the teeth of prejudice, as all queer relationships to a greater or lesser extent still are. In ‘Off Vico,’ he also writes about something unique to gay men, cruising and public sex, in a way which is refreshingly nonjudgmental, joyous and moving.