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Adapted for the stage from the best-selling memoir, The Speckled People tells a profoundly moving story of a young boy trapped in a language war. Set in 1950s Ireland, this is a gripping, poignant, and at times very funny family drama of homesickness, control and identity.
As a young boy, Hugo Hamilton struggles with what it means to be speckled, "half and half... Irish on top and German below."
An idealistic Irish father enforces his cultural crusade by forbidding his son to speak English while his German mother tries to rescue him with her warm-hearted humour and uplifting industry. The boy must free himself from his father and from bullies on the street who persecute him with taunts of Nazism. Above all he must free himself from history and from the terrible secrets of his mother and father before he can find a place where he belongs.
Surrounded by fear, guilt, and frequently comic cultural entanglements, Hugo tries to understand the differences between Irish history and German history and to turn the strange logic of what he is told into truth. It is a journey that ends in liberation but not before the long-buried secrets at the back of the parents' wardrobe have been laid bare.
About the Author
Hugo Hamilton was born and grew up in Dublin. He is the author of six highly acclaimed novels: 'Surrogate City', 'The Last Shot' and 'The Love Test' (Faber); 'Headbanger' and 'Sad Bastard' (Secker); one collection of short stories; and the internationally acclaimed memoir, 'The Speckled People'.
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.
Reading Group Guide
"We are the German-Irish story. We are the English-Irish story. My father has one soft foot and one hard foot, one good ear and one bad ear, and we have one Irish foot and one German foot and a right arm in English. We are the brack children. Brack, homemade Irish bread with German raisins. We are the brack people and we don't just have one briefcase. We don't just have one language, one history. We sleep in German and we dream in Irish. We laugh in Irish and we cry in German. We are silent in German and we speak in English. We are the speckled people." -- from The Speckled People
Topics for Discussion
- Hugo Hamilton narrates this autobiographical memoir in the voice of a child. Why do you think Hamilton chose to filter his experiences this way? Does the child narrator say things that are too complicated for a child's voice?
- Wearing German lederhosen with Irish sweaters, Hugo views himself as "Irish on top, and German below (p.2)," and thinks that "as a child 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 on the outside who speak English (p.3)." Do you think the English speakers have as much a claim to his identity as his mother and father? What do the English speakers outside have to say about his disjointed Irish/German identity? How does he negotiate between the three?
- Compare the Hamilton's visit to An Cheathru? Rua to their visit to Germany. An Cheathru? Rua "was like being at home in the place where we all wanted to be for the rest of our lives (p.179)," and in Germany, "Nobody would ever call us Nazis. My father would have lots more friends and my mother would have all her sisters to talk to (p.217)." In one location, the whole family finds a united Irish identity, in the other, a German one. Are these identities assumed or real? Do you think it matters? How and why do they become foreign three times over once in Dublin?
- Hugo's father "had the big idea of bringing people from other countries over to Ireland (p.39)", and after marrying the German Irmgard Kaiser, believed that his children would be the "new Irish". What does he mean by "new Irish"? Is it contradictory to expect multicultural children to be more authentically 'Irish'?
- From populating Ireland with a new breed of children, to boycotting cinemas with no Irish 'exit' signs, to operating a candy factory from his home, to beekeeping - Hugo's father has the energy and drive to pursue his many ideas. Why don't these ideas work? What motivates his quixotic schemes? Hugo is often called a 'dreamer', but do you think he's more practical than his father?
Ideology - Fist people vs. Word People:
- Compare the qualities the novel attributes to the 'fist people' and the 'word people'. Which term best describes Hugo's mother? His father?
- Onkel Gerd instructs young Irmgard and her sisters to use 'the silent negative' when swearing allegiance to the Führer. Irmgard uses the silent negative when assaulted by Stiegler, and instructs her sons to do the same when they are taunted and called 'Nazis'. Given each circumstance, how effective is this as a form of resistance?
- Irmgard tells Hugo that "you can only be brave if you know you will lose (p.268)." How does the silent negative embolden Tante Marianne? Was the one-armed, one-eyed man brave in his actions?
- By the end of the novel, what does Hugo's father regret the most? His mother? Does his father accept losing 'the language war'? What meaning would you ascribe to each parent's use of the phrase "[I would] make different mistakes this time (p.282, p.289)."
- Hugo describes several incidents in which family violence turns to comedy then sometimes to sadness. For instance, when Hugo's father threw appelkompost at Hugo at the dinner table (and his mother started laughing), when the children threw mashed potato at the ceiling (where the lumps stuck), when Hugo threw an egg at his mother (and it became a game they played) -- tension dissolves into laughter. How does comedy work in these situations?
- When Hugo is being beaten by bullies in the changing shed, his tormentors accuse his of being a Nazi. What happens when he acts like he is one? How do they react when he yells "Sieg Heil, Donner Messer Splitten, Himmel Blitzen" (p.292) and other nonsense words? When he throws his own shoes into the sea? Does this scene make you laugh or make you uncomfortable? How does humor protect Hugo? "Laugh at yourself and the world laughs with you. Execute yourself and nobody can touch you" (p.294) -- do you agree?
- Dislocation is a pervading theme in The Speckled People, as each character attempts to create, or find, a place to call home. Irmgard tells young Hugo, "Homesick people carry anger with them in their suitcases. And that's the most dangerous thing in the world, suitcases full of helpless, homesick anger (p.280)." What else do the suitcases symbolize?
- Hugo's father's nationalistic zeal is an attempt to re-create Ireland as it existed before the British. An Ireland that predated his birth. Do you think his vision of an Irish homeland is authentic?
- Why is Mr. Hamilton ashamed of his own father? Why is Irmgard ashamed of her past? Is Hugo ashamed of his parents? How do you understand and come to terms with your family?
- Hugo's mother alleviates her homesickness for Germany by dressing her sons in lederhosen, maintaining German Christmas traditions, basically creating a German domestic life for her family within the confines of their home. Meanwhile, Germany itself divides politically and physically, so when she returns "she was lost. She couldn't recognize anything (p.296)." The home she longs for no longer exists. What, ultimately, can be considered 'home'? How does the novel resolve this question?
- What happens at the end? Are they still homesick? Why do they laugh?
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Specklepool looked away.