Speckled People: A Memoir od a Half-Irish Childhoodby Hugo Hamilton
"We wear Aran Sweaters and Lederhosen. We are forbidden from speaking English. We are trapped in a language war. We are the Speckled People." In one of the most original memoirs to emerge in years, Hugo Hamilton tells the haunting story of his German-Irish childhood in 1950s Dublin. His Gaelic-speaking, Irish nationalist father rules the home with tyranny, while
"We wear Aran Sweaters and Lederhosen. We are forbidden from speaking English. We are trapped in a language war. We are the Speckled People." In one of the most original memoirs to emerge in years, Hugo Hamilton tells the haunting story of his German-Irish childhood in 1950s Dublin. His Gaelic-speaking, Irish nationalist father rules the home with tyranny, while his German-speaking mother rescues her children with cakes and stories of her own struggle against Nazi Germany. Out on the streets of Dublin is another country, where they are taunted as Nazis and subjected to a mock Nuremberg trial. Through the eyes of a child, this rare and shockingly honest book gradually makes sense of family, language, and identity, unlocking at last the secrets that his parents kept in the wardrobe.
Unlike Frank McCourt, whose wretched Irish boyhood was chronicled in the bestselling Angela's Ashes, Irish novelist Hugo Hamilton did not grow up in a world of excruciating poverty and deprivation. More psychological than physical, Hamilton's youthful misery sprang from the cross-cultural confusion of his home life, a mulligan stew of unhappy contradictions concocted by his intensely nationalistic Irish father and gentle German mother.
In this fine literary memoir, Hamilton describes how he and his siblings were raised in post-WWII Dublin as "speckled people" (half Irish and half something else), forbidden to speak English and forced to dress in lederhosen and Aran sweaters to signify their dual heritage. He focuses a child-sized lens on his tyrannical father, a delusional Irish patriot trapped in the past, who speaks in slogans and fails miserably at every business venture; and his warm, loving mother, a tragic conciliator who emigrated to Ireland to escape the Nazis but who cannot escape her own haunted past.
Unfolding in Joycean rhythms that make it feel more like a novel than an autobiography, The Speckled People captures the baffled incomprehension of a child caught in the cultural crossfire of a war of words -- where language is king but silence prevails, where meaning gets lost in translation, and where the list of things that can't be talked about grows longer every day. Poetic, witty, and bravely unsentimental, it provides a boy's-eye view of what it's like to be a stranger in your own country. Anne Markowski
From Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Hugo Hamilton's charming book deserves to rank high on the list of distinguished memoirs that, with prodigious craftsmanship, combine the confusion, heartache, and joy of an Irish childhood, yielding incredibly affecting literature.
As the offspring of an Irish father and a German mother, Hamilton is one of Ireland's "speckled people" -- a term coined by his father for those of mixed ethnicity -- who struggle to find their place on the Emerald Isle. Hugo's father, a fierce Irish nationalist, forces his children to speak either Irish or German (but never ever English!), and Hugo finds himself suspended between his parents' competing cultures and histories. His father's grim determination to rebuild an Irish culture independent of the British stands in stark contrast to Hugo's mother, whose warmth and humor belie the ghosts that still haunt her: memories of her own childhood under the ever-encroaching shadow of the Nazis.
Told through the eyes of a child, The Speckled People resonates with a sense of youthful wonder and exuberance, and the simple, unadorned truth. And it perfectly illustrates Hamilton's literary gifts, in a re-creation of a world that is tender and deeply disturbing at the same time. Summer 2003 Selection
- HarperCollins Publishers
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Fourth Estate U. S. Paperback Edit
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Speckled People
Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood
When you're small you know nothing.
When I was small I woke up in Germany. I heard the bells and rubbed my eyes and saw the wind pushing the curtains like a big belly. Then I got up and looked out the window and saw Ireland. And after breakfast we all went out the door to Ireland and walked down to Mass.
And after Mass we walked down to the big green park in front of the sea because I wanted to show my mother and father how I could stand on the ball for a count of three, until the ball squirted away from under my feet. I chased after it, but I could see nothing with the sun in my eyes and I fell over a man lying on the grass with his mouth open. He sat up suddenly and said, 'What the Jayses?' He told me to look where I was going in future. So I got up quickly and ran back to my mother and father. I told them that the man said 'Jayses', but they were both turned away, laughing at the sea. My father was laughing and blinking through his glasses and my mother had her hand over her mouth, laughing and laughing at the sea, until the tears came into her eyes and I thought, maybe she's not laughing at all but crying.
How do you know what that means when her shoulders are shaking and her eyes are red and she can't talk? How do you know if she's happy or sad? And how do you know if your father is happy or whether he's still angry at all the things that are not finished yet in Ireland. You know the sky is blue and the sea is blue and they meet somewhere, far away at the horizon. You can see the white sailing boats stuck on the water and the people walking along with ice-cream cones. You can hear a dog barking at the waves. You can see him standing in the water, barking and trying to bite the foam. You can see how long it takes for the sound of the barking to come across, as if it's coming from somewhere else and doesn't belong to the dog at all any more, as if he's barking and barking so much that he's hoarse and lost his voice.
When you're small you know nothing. You don't know where you are, or who you are, or what questions to ask. Then one day my mother and father did a funny thing.F
irst of all, my mother sent a letter home to Germany and asked one of her sisters to send over new trousers for my brother and me. She wanted us to wear something German --lederhosen. When the parcel arrived, we couldn't wait to put them on and run outside, all the way down the lane at the back of the houses. My mother couldn't believe her eyes. She stood back and clapped her hands together and said we were real boys now. No matter how much we climbed on walls or trees, she said, these German leather trousers were indestructible, and so they were. Then my father wanted us to wear something Irish too. He went straight out and bought hand-knit Aran sweaters. Big, white, rope patterned, woollen sweaters from the west of Ireland that were also indestructible. So my brother and I ran out wearing lederhosen and Aran sweaters, smelling of rough wool and new leather, Irish on top and German below. We were indestructible. We could slide down granite rocks. We could fall on nails and sit on glass. Nothing could sting us now and we ran down the lane faster than ever before, brushing past nettles as high as our shoulders.
When you're small you're like a piece of white paper with nothing written on it. My father writes down his name in Irish and my mother writes down her name in German and there's a blank space left over for all the people outside who speak English. We're special because we speak Irish and German and we like the smell of these new clothes. My mother says it's like being at home again and my father says your language is your home and your country is your language and your language is your flag.
But you don't want to be special. Out there in Ireland you want to be the same as everyone else, not an Irish speaker, not a German or a Kraut or a Nazi. On the way down to the shops, they call us the Nazi brothers. They say we're guilty and I go home and tell my mother I did nothing. But she shakes her head and says I can't say that. I can't deny anything and I can't fight back and I can't say I'm innocent. She says it's not important to win.
Instead, she teaches us to surrender, to walk straight by and ignore them.
We're lucky to be alive, she says. We're living in the luckiest place in the world with no war and nothing to be afraid of, with the sea close by and the smell of salt in the air. There are lots of blue benches where you can sit looking out at the waves and lots of places to go swimming. Lots of rocks to climb on and pools to go fishing for crabs. Shops that sell fishing lines and hooks and buckets and plastic sunglasses. When it's hot you can get an ice pop and you can see newspapers spread out in the windows to stop the chocolate melting in the sun. Sometimes it's so hot that the sun stings you under your jumper like a needle in the back. It makes tar bubbles on the road that you can burst with the stick from the ice pop. We're living in a free country, she says, where the wind is always blowing and you can breathe in deeply, right down to the bottom of your lungs. It's like being on holiday all your life because you hear seagulls in the morning and you see sailing boats outside houses and people even have palm trees growing in their front gardens. Dublin where the palm trees grow, she says, because it looks like a paradise and the sea is never far away, like a glass of blue-green water at the bottom of every street.
But that changes nothing. Sieg Heil, they shout. Achtung. Schnell schnell. Donner und Blitzen. I know they're going to put us on trial. They have written things on the walls, at the side of the shop and in the laneways. They're going to get us one of these days and ask questions that we won't be able to answer. I see them looking at us, waiting for the day when we're alone and there's nobody around. I know they're going to execute me, because they call my older brother Hitler, and I get the name of an SS man who was found in Argentina and brought back to be put on trial for all the people he killed.
'I am Eichmann,' I said to my mother one day. 'But that's impossible,' she said. She kneeled down to look into my eyes. She took my hands and weighed them to see how heavy they were. Then she waited for a while, searching for what she wanted to say next.
'You know the dog that barks at the waves?' she said. 'You know the dog that belongs to nobody and barks at the waves all day until he is hoarse and has no voice any more. He doesn't know any better.'
'I am Eichmann,' I said. 'I am Adolf Eichmann and I'm going to get an ice pop. Then I'm going down to the sea to look at the waves.'
'Wait,' she said. 'Wait for your brother.' She stands at the door with her hand over her mouth. She thinks we're going out to Ireland and never coming back home again. She's afraid we might get lost in a foreign country where they don't have our language and nobody will understand us. She is crying because I'm Eichmann and there is nothing she can do to stop us going out and being Nazis. She tells us to be careful and watches us going across the street until we go around the corner and she can't see us any more.
So then we try to be Irish. In the shop we ask for the ice pop in English and let on that we don't know any German. We're afraid to be German, so we run down to the seafront as Irish as possible to make sure nobody can see us. We stand at the railings and look at the waves crashing against the rocks and the white spray going up into the air. We can taste the salt on our lips and see the foam running through the cracks like milk. We're Irish and we say 'Jaysus' every time the wave curls in and hits the rocks with a big thump.
'Jaysus, what the Jaysus,' I said.
'Jaysus, what the Jaysus of a big huge belly,' Franz said, and then we laughed and ran along the shore waving our fists.
'Big bully waves,' I shouted, because they could never catch us and they knew it. I pickedup a stone and hit one of the waves right in the under-belly, right there as he stood up and rushed in towards us with his big, green saucer belly and his fringe of white hair falling down over his eyes.
'Get down, you big bully belly,' we laughed, as the stone caught the wave with a clunk andthere was nothing he could do but surrender and lie down across the sand with his arms out.Some of them tried to escape, but we were too fast for them. We picked up more andmorestones and hit them one by one, because we were Irish and nobody could see us.The dog was there barking and barking, and we were there holding back the waves, because wedidn't know any better. The Speckled People
Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood. Copyright © by Hugo Hamilton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are saying about this
Meet the Author
In his first novel since the bestselling memoir The Speckled People, Hugo Hamilton has created a truly compelling story of lost identity and a remarkable reflection on the ambiguity of belonging.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
I enjoy books that tell of how people grew up in different cultures, but after beginning this book, I began forcing myself to read it just to get through it. The author *tries* to write from childhood perspective, but it doesn't work very well. I didn't get really into the story until the last 20 pages. The first 200 pages seemed to be the same story over and over again.