No boozing, no donkeys

George O’Brien

  • The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton
    Fourth Estate, 298 pp, £15.99, February 2003, ISBN 0 00 714805 4

Hugo Hamilton was born in 1953 to an Irish father and a German mother. When he was growing up, as he writes in this remarkable memoir, he spent a lot of time trying to prove that he wasn’t a Nazi. But he never could. The sight of somebody in lederhosen and an Aran sweater was irresistible to the local bullies. Later, his peers at the prestigious Coláiste Mhuire were just as intolerant. He and his older brother couldn’t put a stop to this; and neither could their parents or anybody else. This was in the solidly middle-class south County Dublin suburbs in the early 1960s, now regarded as the dawn of a less insular Ireland – a time and a place of which one might have expected better.

Hamilton is too resourceful and alert a writer to make his memoir yet one more book about a victim. But neither is he just portraying boys being boys. They are acting on prejudices learned from comic-books and movies, and from their elders. Expressions of comparable hostility, differently conveyed, surface regularly among local adults. The complacent butcher in his boater, fag in mouth and eyes glittering, makes insulting insinuations to Hamilton’s mother, Irmgard. And ‘there’s Miss Tarleton . . . wondering why my mother didn’t die fighting against the Nazis. But she doesn’t know that my mother lived against the Nazis instead.’ Difference is not so much unwelcome in these well-groomed streets as inadmissible. The fear that ‘we’ll never be Irish enough’ hangs over all. The image of Hamilton and his brother going down to the sea and fighting the waves recurs. Their pal is a stray dog. And the Hamiltons are the very opposite of Nazis: they are the speckled people.

At least, this was what the author’s father, an engineer from West Cork, said they were, meaning a breed of new Irish, forward-looking and self-reliant, with both an upright fidelity to their Irish birthright and a taste for Schubert on the gramophone and a ‘cognac-een’. Their bi-racial origins and bilingual practices uniquely qualified his family to live in the utopian Ireland which Jack Hamilton expected would soon arrive; he spent much of his free time attempting to bring it about. Meanwhile, his own household could be a prototype of the promised land. Speckledness was, in effect, a type of purity, articulated in terms which combined cultural high-mindedness with self-respect of an almost self-denying severity. These were people of the word, not of the fist, as the author was repeatedly reminded. But the word in question was German or Irish: ‘My father pretends England doesn’t exist.’ No word of English was to be uttered in Jack Hamilton’s brave new world, on pain of physical punishment as well as displays of paternal door-slamming and demoralisation equally difficult for his children to accept.

These displays were provoked not only by defaulting offspring but by the general inadequacy of the country, brought home by the failure of the part-time economic ventures with which Jack Hamilton tried to raise the general social tone. He wasn’t a natural salesman – his scheme to make a killing out of a suitcase of crucifixes carved in Oberammergau doesn’t inspire confidence – but refusing to do business in anything but Irish seems like the commercial version of a hunger strike (one of Ireland’s inventions, as he proudly tells his German in-laws). The result of the one-man Kulturkampf is that the family finds itself living in a society with which it doesn’t have reliable contact, a condition for which the head of the family blames the society.

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