Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

At Swim-Two-Birds is best understood against the background of the Irish Literary Revival (1890-1930). O’Brien is a member of the “second generation” of writers who followed William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, James Joyce, and Sean O’Casey into the establishment of a literature which aimed to be both contemporary and national. This movement drew on the indigenous dialect and folklore as well as translations from medieval and ancient Irish texts to give resonance to literary renditions of modern Irish life. For all of its achievements, however, it had little effect on the way in which the Irish Free State was administered or on the lives of its ordinary citizens. O’Brien’s work, then, has a complicated relationship with the literary pretensions of the Revival and with the actual quality of life in Ireland during the 1930’s. On the one hand, At Swim-Two-Birds parodies the romantic translations of Irish heroic texts done two generations before him, and on the other, the Sweeny passages are his own original translations from the Middle Irish Buile Shuibhne (date unknown; English translation, 1913). The novel also bears a heavy debt, in its technique and subject matter, to Joyce’s works, particularly A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). The novel can also be viewed as a document in the modernist movement, because of its prevailing mood of irony, its mythologizing of experience, its ambiguity, and its attention to the complexities of the individual consciousness.