At Swim-Two-Birds

by Brian O’Nolan

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The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

These fictional frames are extended by reference to various types of literature, each providing appropriate characters, cast from the resources of realism, folklore, mythology, and popular culture. Each of these characters is driven by one or two prevailing forces and contrasts or complements another character in the novel.

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One stratum of characters—such as the narrator’s uncle and Anthony Lamont—represents workaday Dublin. With his unerring ear for the intonation and cliches of common speech, O’Brien renders a convincing, realistic image of their materialism, servitude, and philistinism; they have no appreciation of the wonders of the imagination which constitute the world they inhabit. A related group is made up of the narrator and his university student friends: The most intelligent of the rising generation of Irishmen, they represent various degrees of independence from staid society, although the avenues by which they express their departure from convention betray their own immaturity: excessive drink, coarse conversation, and strained efforts to impress with a little learning.

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From Irish folklore come the Good Fairy and the Pooka, and from the popular romance of the American cowboy come the hired hands of William Tracy. These characters provide variant mythologizations of the archetypal struggle between Good and Evil, and the interweaving of their subplots, dialects, and Dublin city references develops the fantastic humor and satirical thrust of the novel.

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From Celtic mythology, on the other hand, come the weightier figures of Finn MacCool and King Sweeny. While together they form a heroic and eloquent contrast with prosaic modern characters and values, they are comic and tragic counterparts to each other. Finn’s sociability, versatility, size, and absurdity contrast with Sweeny’s alienation, suffering, and physical lightness. Between them, they represent a world of feeling and aspiration larger than those found in any other dimension of the novel, a world hospitable to women, drink, and poetry, which cultivates the love of nature, acknowledges the presence of a Creator, and accepts with humor the pain of the human condition.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

The narrator

The narrator, unnamed, a none-too-diligent young uni-versity student in Dublin who is writing a novel about another author, Dermot Trellis. The narrator tells about his carping uncle, his fellow students, and his drinking and wasting of time. He reads from and comments on his developing novel.

Dermot Trellis

Dermot Trellis, a character in the novel that the narrator is writing. Trellis is himself writing a novel to demonstrate the consequences of immorality. Trellis is a pimply and neurotic recluse who chooses to spend most of his time in bed. In the narrator’s story, the characters of Trellis’ novel rebel against the roles that Trellis has assigned to them, play out their own stories, and eventually attempt to kill Trellis. Trellis is saved when his servant, Teresa, enters his room, picks up some sheets of paper from the floor, and throws those pages that sustain the existence of the rebel characters into the fire.

John Furriskey

John Furriskey, an original character concocted by Dermot Trellis. Furriskey, a well-built, dark, and clean-shaven man of medium height, is intended by the author to be the embodiment of immorality and rakishness, but he rebels. He marries the servant, Peggy, whom Trellis intended that he dishonor. Peggy has discovered that Trellis’ control over his characters is suspended when he sleeps. Furriskey conspires with the other characters first to drug Trellis so that they can live independently of him while he sleeps and finally to torture and kill Trellis.

Orlick Trellis

Orlick Trellis, the illegitimate son of Dermot Trellis and Sheila Lamont, one of Trellis’ characters. Sheila was to have been a girl of virtue and refinement, whose honor is destroyed by Furriskey. Trellis, however, is so taken with the beauty and refinement of his literary creation, Sheila, that he assaults her. Their offspring, Orlick, came into the world full grown. Sharing his father’s writing talent as well as his pimples, Orlick, who comes under the influence of the evil Pooka, is recruited by the other rebel characters to write a novel in which Dermot Trellis is grossly abused and then, as a preliminary to his execution, placed on trial before all the characters.

The Pooka Fergus MacPhellimey

The Pooka Fergus MacPhellimey, an Irish devil conjured up by Trellis as a character in his novel. The Pooka, like Trellis’ other characters, has a will of his own. By besting the Good Fairy in a game of cards, the clubfooted Pooka wins the right to influence Orlick Trellis, whose inherited talent for writing is turned against Dermot Trellis. In Orlick’s story, the Pooka serves as the prosecutor at Dermot’s trial.

Finn MacCool

Finn MacCool, a legendary hero of Irish folklore who is “hired” by Dermot Trellis for use as an elderly character in his novel. He was intended by Trellis to be an elderly father outraged at the violation of his daughter, Peggy, by the villain Furriskey. The rebellious character Finn MacCool, however, forces himself on Peggy.

King Sweeny

King Sweeny, the subject of a tale told by Finn MacCool. King Sweeny of Dal Araidhe assaults a saintly cleric by the name of Ronan, who then invokes a curse on him. Sweeny is transformed into a bird man, fated to fly from roost to roost around Ireland, eating wild crest and acorns. In MacCool’s tale, Sweeny composes an epic describing his physical and mental anguish.

Paul Shanahan

Paul Shanahan and

Antony Lamont

Antony Lamont, minor characters borrowed by Trellis for his novel. Shanahan is an older man who appeared in many of the writer William Tracy’s romantic Westerns. Lamont is Sheila’s brother, who was to demand satisfaction from Furriskey after he had taken advantage of her. Shanahan and Lamont do not play the roles assigned to them but instead become principal conspirators against Trellis. They relish his physical torments and are simultaneously judges, jurors, and accusers of Trellis in the story written by Orlick.

Slug Willard

Slug Willard and

Shorty Andrews

Shorty Andrews, two tough cowboys borrowed from the Westerns of William Tracy by Dermot Trellis as minor characters in his novel. They also serve as accusers and judges in Orlick’s story.

The Good Fairy

The Good Fairy, a character drawn from Irish folklore by Dermot Trellis for his novel. The Good Fairy, an invisible pocket-sized creature, is intended by Dermot Trellis to contrast with the evil of the Pooka. Escaping the control of Trellis, the Good Fairy gives up the right to influence the newborn Orlick to the Pooka, who had beaten the penniless fairy at poker.


Peggy, a domestic servant created by Trellis as one of his characters. Trellis intended for Furriskey to take advantage of her and betray her. In fact, Furriskey behaves honorably toward her, and they are married.

Jem Casey

Jem Casey, a workingman’s bard who joins the other characters for the trial of Trellis.


Brinsley, the narrator’s friend and fellow student. Brinsley is the narrator’s drinking partner and the audience and critic for his developing manuscript.


Uncle, the narrator’s penurious and rather small-minded, but well-intentioned, uncle, with whom he lives in Dublin. Uncle is fat, with a red complexion and coarse and irregular features. A third-class clerk at Guinness and a commonplace man, he is deeply concerned about his unstudious nephew’s apparent slothfulness. He is appropriately pleased when his nephew passes his final examination with honor and presents him with a used watch.

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