Irish writer Hugo Hamilton grew up near Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s. But as a Fordham audience learned on Feb. 7, his family existed at the intersection of two imaginary worlds.
The first world was his German mother’s memory of her homeland. The second was a dream of Ireland held by his nationalist father, who strove to eliminate English influence in Irish life.
Hamilton and his five siblings would speak German in their home and Irish to their father because English, the language spoken by the vast majority of the country, was forbidden.
“We lived in an imaginary place that my mother had created in her stories,” he told an audience in the South Lounge on the Lincoln Center campus. “As a child, I knew exactly how to get from my mother’s house where she grew up to the bakery, though I’d never been to Kempen, where she came from.
“And then there was also this imaginary place that my father had, which was a vision of Ireland as an Irish-speaking country.”
Walking outside each day was like entering a completely different world, he said.
“Whenever we brought back some of the words from out there—any English words we spoke—my father would punish us.”
Hamilton mined his childhood experiences to write The Speckled People (HarperCollins, 2003), which won several international awards and was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards’ Book of the Decade prize.
He read excerpts for the audience, including one of him and his brother running through the lanes of Dunleary wearing Aran sweaters from the west of Ireland and lederhosen sent to them by their mother’s family. “Irish on top and German below,” he explained. “So we were unusual, to say the least.”
Though his parents robustly displayed their ethnicities, their attributes ran counter to traditionally held beliefs about Germans and the Irish.
“Generally, we like to believe that Irish people are very funny; they drink a lot, and we tend to believe that Germans are very straight, honest, serious and that they’re good at making cakes,” he said.
“The cake part was definitely true about my mother,” he said. “But apart from that, all the stereotypes were switched around in my family. My father was the idealist; very rarely did he crack jokes. It was my mother who was the funny one.”
Shaped by the politics of Irish cultural nationalism and his German background, Hamilton struggled to create an identity. His search led him to reject his parents’ ethnicities and, occasionally, his parents as individuals. As he grew older, he did not want to be seen with his father in public because he would be forced to speak Irish. Likewise, he avoided his mother due to the collective shame borne by Germans over the Holocaust.
“It’s very good if you’re able to shake hands with your father and come to some sort of agreement or understanding, but he died long before I could have that kind of conversation with him,” he said, “and I was well into my 40s before I began to embrace my Germanness again and the German language.”
Many members of the audience told Hamilton that his memoir resonated because they, too, possessed Irish and German heritage. Several referred to themselves as “speckled people” and told their own stories about intra-family squabbles based in ethnic differences.
“My story very closely mirrors yours,” he told one audience member. “I think for the children of any kind of migrant, there is always one foot left in the old country.
“When the Irish come to America, they never let anybody forget they’re Irish, but the Germans will disappear. They go into hiding,” he said.
“The Holocaust has brought terrible shame to Germany, but it’s also brought about a terrible denial of Germanness,” Hamilton explained. “Today, hopefully we can understand and accept the Holocaust and what was done without denying the Germanness.”
Hamilton’s appearance was sponsored by the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham and Imagine Ireland, a yearlong celebration of Irish culture that is bringing Irish writers, filmmakers, musicians, actors and other creators to perform in 40 states across America in 2011.