At Swim-Two-Birds Summary
by Brian O’Nolan

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At Swim-Two-Birds Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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All the action takes place in the mind of the anonymous narrator, a university student living with his carping and penurious uncle. This uncle continuously criticizes his nephew’s apparent indolence, in ignorance of the novel the young man is writing behind the locked door of his bedroom. This novel-within-the-novel features a man called Dermot Trellis, who neglects his bar business to write a novel of his own on the moral decline of modern Ireland. Trellis’ novel features two “original” characters, John Furriskey, a depraved villain, and Sheila Lamont, a girl of virtue and refinement. His other characters—the Pooka Fergus MacPhellimey, Finn MacCool, Paul Shanahan, the servant Peggy, and various cowboys—he “hires” from previous literature (Irish folklore, Celtic mythology, popular Westerns) to further the action. Whenever Trellis falls asleep, these characters rebel against his management, and in order to pursue their independent inclinations, they conspire to drug and then eliminate their author entirely.

As self-determining characters, Furriskey falls in love with and marries Peggy, while Finn MacCool betrays his trust as her father; Finn also tells the tale of the mad King Sweeny: Having insulted a saint, Sweeny has been condemned to spend his life as a bird, so he travels all over Ireland singing the praises of its places and trees (including the oddly named place which gives the novel its title). Meanwhile, the secondary (Trellis) plot is complicated by the birth of Orlick, the son of Trellis and one of his characters, Sheila Lamont. The fate of this new arrival is decided by a card game between the Good Fairy and the Pooka. When the victorious Pooka takes charge of Orlick, he discovers that the child has inherited his father’s literary talents. The Pooka then persuades Orlick to write a novel in which Trellis is extravagantly tormented preparatory to his execution. The novel concludes with a...

(The entire section is 462 words.)