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.

Matters are further complicated by history and politics. Playing upstairs, the children come across a box of material relating to their paternal grandfather’s service in the Royal Navy, the medal he was awarded, his unhappy end as a result of injuries accidentally sustained on duty, the lengths to which his impoverished widow had to go to get a pension. No language, no way of thinking, is available to help the family come to terms with such a discovery. And if that is difficult to talk about, how much more so is the children’s later unearthing of an anti-semitic screed written by their father in 1946 for the Irish-language periodical Aiséirí. The article has a handwritten comment by the editor saying that it doesn’t go far enough. The editor is the only friend of their father’s who comes to the house. All of this complicates the notion of speckledness. And to whom can the children turn, particularly when it’s their mother who is most distressed?

These revelations also demonstrate the particular need for autobiography in a culture like Ireland’s. The national narrative is limited to the generic and the typical and has no room for individual identities and destinies, no room for difference. In one way or another, all autobiography proposes to redraft public memory, to fill in its gaps, to edit its vocabulary of achievement and finality. But for all their gift of the gab, the Irish are still too vigilant, too insecure, and too lacking in useful exemplars to know how best to speak on their own behalf. ‘Whatever you say, say nothing,’ is an ethos of a kind; winking and nodding remain favourite means of expression.

There can be a whiff of treachery about telling one’s own story. The Irish autobiographer risks being seen as the evil twin of the national narrative’s stock villain, the informer. And the risk is all the greater because of the confessional self-consciousness of Irish life – there might even be something Protestant about speaking on one’s own behalf, the right of private interpretation and all that, even though Protestant autobiography is rare. Irish society is not so backward as to deny that the unexamined life is not worth living, but it is inclined to think that it’s best if you don’t carry out the examination yourself.

As Hugo Hamilton is well aware, however, it’s the existence of another side that makes a story, and makes a story make a difference. It’s possible to take the facile view that Jack Hamilton’s Irish fundamentalism was an attempt to compensate for his father’s Naval career, but his son describes a complicated loner, a man who ‘would rather show us the future’; who feels to an almost unbearable degree the need for purpose and commitment in the nation’s name but seldom finds it; whose desire for a secular belief system is a painfully contradictory combination of the doting and the despotic. His editor friend describes him as ‘a real Irishman with a gift for being against’. But it’s being for that turns out to be his greater, and more troubling, gift. The comprehensiveness of his Irishness has resulted in a type of homesickness, a chronic wanting which can hardly be the moral that the story of Ireland is meant to exemplify. Despite his best efforts and intentions, it does not appear after all that ‘your language is your home and your language is your country.’ Full as the national narrative is of accounts of lives given for Ireland, in which personal destiny performs in flawless and evocative concert with national aspiration, dreams of harmony seem often to materialise as dissonant experience.

Hamilton describes what happened when details of the role played by Cardinal Stepinac and his clergy in Croatia during World War Two were given to the Irish public in the early 1950s by Hubert Butler.

Nobody in Ireland could ever believe that priests helped the Nazis to kill children and save their souls. Nobody could ever believe Catholic priests helped a big SS man named Artukovic to escape to Ireland after the war and live in Dublin for two years before he emigrated to Paraguay . . . My father says Cardinal Stepinac should be made into a saint.

A minor episode, perhaps; certainly not one that’s often talked about. But this controversy is worth recalling not only for its moral and historical interest but also for its relevance to matters with which Irish society still has difficulty, such as free speech, the nature of Irish neutrality and the treatment of refugees and asylum cases. Ireland is not as innocent or as open as it likes to pretend, and there’s no harm in that being remembered.

To Irish readers, such amendments and amplifications of the authorised version of who we are and where we come from still shock with their unfamiliar sincerity, but this silenced or forgotten material is essential to the autobiographer.

I look out the window and see the light changing on the red-bricked terrace across the street. I see the railings and the striped canvas sun-curtains hanging out over the front doors. There’s a gardener clipping a hedge and I hear the sound of his shears in English. Out there is a different country, far away. There’s a cloud moving over the street and I can see the gardener looking up. I hear my mother behind me saying that there’s something strange about the light this afternoon. She says the sun is eclipsed by the cloud and throws a kind of low, lantern light across the red-bricked walls and it feels like the end of the day.

‘Falsches Licht,’ she calls it . . . She comes to the window to look for herself and says it again, false light.

A spot of time; a stock-in-trade of modern autobiography. But its epiphanic possibilities are deferred here in favour of enclosure and estrangement. Rather than providing illumination, the light can play false: it is an agent of illusion and vague menace, an unexpected illustration of how the foreign resides in the familiar, as though it were natural for it to do so. All that can be done is to face it, and name it. But the child can’t name it, any more than he can conclude that what he’s looking at is a different country; this is how the adult voice makes its unobtrusive presence felt, as an instrument to give a paragraph a pivot rather than simply to add data. (A note about tone. It’s pretty uniform throughout, a risky decision, not only because of its impact on important set-pieces, such as the reconstruction of Irmgard’s sexual brutalisation at the hands of the Nazis, but because maintaining the same tone can dull a sense of development. But the risk pays off: as well as being understated, the tone persuasively conveys the onrush and unpredictability of the forces shaping consciousness, rather than a sense of the consciousness thus shaped – which in turn emerges through the memoir’s theme of resistance.)

Readers of Hamilton’s fine second novel, The Last Shot (1991), will be familiar with parts of his mother’s story – her girlhood in Kempen in the Rhineland, and some aspects of her wartime experience, though not her sexual exploitation, which is told with immense courage and sympathy and in shocking detail. But Bertha in the novel is no match for Irmgard, partly because here we can appreciate the powerful example of her quite ordinary family’s principles and staunchness. Onkel Gerd, the Kempen Bürgermeister, ‘would not join the fist people. He was not afraid to resist.’ Irmgard’s sister Marianne stood up at a public meeting in the Salzburg opera house called to announce the failure of the July Plot and expressed her regret at the news. And although ‘you’re better off dead than not being able to speak, my mother says,’ when speaking is impossible there’s always ‘the silent negative’. Hamilton’s concluding image is of himself walking along a wall, keeping his balance as best he can. It’s tempting to see this as a tribute to his mother’s poise.

She is the one who has to salve the injuries to family life inflicted by her quixotic husband. She has to contain and explain the disfiguring banality of her children’s daily experience. And there’s nobody to talk to, only her diary: ‘when it’s silent she thinks of all the things she has to keep secret.’ She must find a language to make good the insults and other inadequacies of the vernacular. Her husband must keep to a language which overrides the realities that the vernacular underwrites. Irmgard’s Germany was an abortive motherland; Jack’s Ireland a maiming fatherland (he has a limp and a deformed ear). And yet the pair of them are counterparts, bedfellows. As she speaks her native language, she too hears in it the syntax of her exile. The language of her youth has been usurped and debauched. She is cut off from her own time, her own home.

The home of the speckled people is isolated. A puppet theatre is installed in the Kinderzimmer, and the children put on a show in which the puppets are forbidden to speak, are afraid to speak, and which ends in the murder of the speech tyrant. There are family holidays in Connemara: ‘My father was speaking Irish all the time and laughing and I knew he would never be angry again.’ But stranger and more credible than this holiday mood is the author’s glimpse of Jack buying an Evening Press, as though he were an ordinary man. There are family holidays in Germany, where everybody seems to feel at home. And if it isn’t really home, it’s something as important. It’s breathing room. Hamilton wonders how it would be if German and Irish were on speaking terms, instead of being deprived of each other, as Irish life would have it. He imagines Claus von Stauffenberg talking to Patrick Pearse, the language barrier overcome by the strength of their beliefs: ‘They were not afraid to lose.’ Jack should not fear losing either, although he does, the attrition of idealism catching up with him. But reluctantly, though in the end gracefully, he accepts his teenage son’s defection.

Freedom from the language regime means freedom of choice. Hugo’s Onkel Ted, his father’s Jesuit brother, reminds him that not only does the young man himself have more than one story, Ireland does, too. One of those stories has to speak for ‘those who are homesick and can’t breathe very well in Ireland’. And it is a good thing to have a number of stories and a number of tongues to tell them in, and to be a speckled person because one chooses to be.

There are things you inherit from your father, too, not just a forehead or a smile or a limp, but other things like sadness and hunger and hurt. You can inherit memories you’d rather forget. Things can be passed on to you as a child, like helpless anger. It’s all there in your voice, like it is in your father’s voice, as if you were born with a stone in your hand.

The current spate of Irish autobiography has come at a time when the country finds itself engulfed by a contemporaneity for which it was unprepared. Aidan Higgins’s three volumes of reminiscences and Dermot Healy’s The Bend for Home are worth anybody’s time, but what the public mainly wants are soft-focus recollections of the ‘rare oul times’, when life was simpler and we had some idea of whether we were coming or going (we were mainly going). As well as finding favour with audiences at home, these wanderings down the old boreen have been enthusiastically endorsed by an international audience grateful for an Ireland whose cultural co-ordinates of simplicity (the rural) and suffering (poverty) are still held to memory dear. Here is an ethnicity with which they can feel a certain ease or even solidarity – being Anglophone and white – but which also can be fetishised for its many failures to be white and Anglophone enough. And for domestic readers, to be told that they were innocent once upon a time is some consolation for a world lost to condoms and credit cards; it’s a way of thinking that the new Ireland is not the real us, that we didn’t know what we were doing.

But since Hugo Hamilton’s is an Ireland without kitsch – no boozing, no bare feet, no donkeys – it’s also an Ireland without innocence. His native place isn’t a landscape or a marketplace. Language-dominated as it is, it’s more state of mind than country; or perhaps what matters about countries is that they are states of mind. For once, Ireland comes across as a place more of consequences than of gestures, of complex inner lives instead of performances aching to be plausible.