Cultural divide, family tie

I have to declare an interest in this book. My father was brought up in 1930s Dublin, the eldest son of driven and emotionally distant German parents. His name—slightly altered from the original by my grandfather to sound less obviously German—reflected an uncertain status. My father never wanted to be German, but was certainly not Irish either.

His problems with identity, however, were nothing compared to those endured by Hugo Hamilton 25 years later—if the story of his childhood in The Speckled People is to be believed. (There is no reason not to believe it, but you just never know with autobiography these days.)

Hamilton’s father is portrayed as a fanatical nationalist and propagator of the Irish language; his mother Irmgard is German, with an impeccable anti-Nazi background. She arrived in Ireland after the war, fleeing a personal horror as well as a national catastrophe.

Hugo grows up in the south Dublin district of Dun Laoghaire. His childhood is dominated by the extraordinary lengths to which his father Jack (or Sean as he insists) goes to enforce his idea of Irishness on his children, and the violence he uses to that end. Hugo’s brother Franz has his nose broken for speaking English; the father burns the poppies given to the children by a neighbour on Armistice Day; if an English song comes on the radio it is instantly switched off. ‘In our house it’s dangerous to sing a song or say what’s inside your head. You have to be careful or else my father will get up and switch you off like the radio.’

Hamilton’s father changes his surname too. In his job and his personal life he refuses to deal with anyone who cannot or will not use the Irish version of Hamilton, the morphologically challenging O’hUrmoltaigh. The town of Mullingar remains without electricity for weeks because he sends back all their letters addressed to ‘John Hamilton’ at the Electricity Supply Board where he works. As part of his personal and uncompromising language war, he bombards the Dublin Corporation with letters insisting they change the names of the streets into Irish (in this, at least, he was successful).

But while English is not tolerated in the O’hUrmoltaigh household, German is welcomed. The father is a fluent speaker and enthusiast for German culture, as is his brother—the all-but-silent Jesuit priest, Onkel Ted. So Hugo and his steadily increasing band of siblings are doubly ostracised outside the home, where few others speak Gaelic and where, to the Dublinkids of the 1960s, ‘German’ is synonymous with ‘Nazi’.

This is a long way from the fruitful blending of cultures we have become used to celebrating in Australia. Rather, it is the forcible and unhappy joining of two traditions with the specific and perverse aim of demeaning a third: the English language and everything associated with England or Britain.

Not that Hamilton despises either the Irish or German sides of his upbringing (although inevitably he yearns for the forbidden fruits of English). There is the wonder of the family’s German-style Christmases and magical holidays to the Connemara Gaeltacht. More importantly, his mother’s quiet heroism acts as a counterpoint both to the conflation of Germany with the Nazis, and to the father’s devastating furies. In a world divided between what she calls ‘the fist people and the word people’, she makes sure the latter tendency takes root in her children, despite the psychological chaos around her.

The facts of Hamilton’s upbringing are fascinating and appalling. They’re also frequently funny, though the comic scenes are almost invariably laced with tragedy or fear. He tells the story in remarkably bold prose, whose apparent simplicity masks an intricate structure. Telling the story from the point of view of the child risks self-indulgence, but this is the opposite: spare and even brutal sentences convincingly replicate a child’s thought processes.

Ghastly histories dominate his parents’ lives. ‘My father talks about people dying on coffin ships going to America and my mother talks about people dying on trains going to Poland’. These are only a grim backdrop to their personal nightmares, which become clearer to the reader in the same way they do to a child—gradually, in a jumbled and often terrifying manner.

As with any childhood, we are left with a mass of unresolved contradictions and hanging threads. Most concern the tragic figure of the father, whose secrets gradually leak out of the papers and memorabilia of his wardrobe. He suppresses the treacherous memory of his own father, who not only could not speak Irish, but served in the British Navy. Hamilton’s two grandfathers fought on opposite sides in the First World War, as did mine. Nor can he reconcile the uncomfortable positions that an infatuation with Germany in the 1930s invited, namely a lingering anti-Semitism.

It is an extraordinary achievement for Hamilton to portray this often monstrous man honestly, yet with empathy and even tenderness. His mad business ventures (such as importing hand-carved wooden crosses from Oberammergau) fail pathetically. As he grows older even he recognises that his devotion to restoring the Irish language is doomed. ‘My father had lost the language war, and everyone knew it.’
Onkel Ted, who tries to soften the edges between his brother and Irmgard, gives him a book to translate from the German on ‘training children without sticks’. The father is trying to curb his manically controlling nature. But it is all far too late, even before an awful and symbolic death strikes him down.

The Speckled People is an important book for Ireland, as well as a remarkable personal testimony and a vivid snapshot of 1950s and ’60s Dublin. Irish nationalism, so relentlessly romanticised, has always had its vicious, narrow-minded and racist strains, and these are exhibited with no restraint by the father (he is an admirer of the Portuguese dictator Salazar and thinks Cardinal Stepinac should have been made a saint).

The family was rescued from his bloody-minded fanaticism by a tolerant and courageous German. That could almost be a metaphor for the current debate on Irish identity, as it struggles with the first major influx of immigration in the country’s modern history. As in Germany’s dark past, there has been too much easy acceptance in Ireland that national identity is a natural and unchanging product of blood and soil.

‘Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your mind,’ Hamilton comes to realise. He had to learn that the hard way, and maybe Ireland will too. 

Mike Ticher is a Sydney-based writer and editor of no fixed nationality.



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