Anyone setting out to write about their Irish childhood should have in mind Roy Foster's gleefully ferocious attack on the Frank McCourt school of bestselling, cliché-ridden "miserable Irish-Catholic childhoods" written with "an utter lack of distinguished style". They will also be conscious of the glittering weight of more distinguished predecessors in Irish autobiography, from Yeats and Shaw to Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, Sean O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor and Patrick Kavanagh.
Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People triumphantly avoids the Angela's Ashes style of sentimental nostalgia and victim claims, and stands up well in the mighty, unending competition for most memorable Irish life-story. It does not subtitle itself a memoir (though the blurb calls it one), and it's not a straightforward reminiscence. More like the early pages of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, it's shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a child.
It incorporates in passing, but often without much annotation, a complex web of allusions to literature, politics and history. One example: the father admires Cardinal Stepinac, who he thinks "should be made into a saint". This refers to the exposure by Protestant nationalist writer Hubert Butler - very unwelcome to the Irish Catholic Church - of the wartime campaign in Croatia to forcibly convert half a million Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism. But Hamilton gives the story as he hears it from his father; it's up to us to provide the historical background.
Gradually, what the child-narrator sees and hears begins to turn into what he knows and understands - secrets, conflicts, histories, beliefs. It is a bold strategy, because it does so call Joyce to mind, but it pays off handsomely. This story about a battle over language and a defeat in "the language wars" is also a victory for eloquent writing, crafty and cunning in its apparent simplicity.
Hamilton grew up in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s with his brother and sisters. His mother, Irmgard Kaiser, came from Kempen, a small town in Germany. Her father fought in the first world war, owned a stationery shop and died when she was nine. Her mother was an opera singer; there were five sisters. She and her family lived through terrible times under the Nazis and in the war she was abused and raped by her employer.
She left Germany to go on a pilgrimage in Ireland and stayed on. The man she married, Jack Hamilton - or Sean Ó hUrmoltaigh, as he renamed himself - belonged to a west Cork family, from Leap and Skibbereen, that beautiful country marked with a history of nationalism, poverty, famine, religion and emigration. His grandfather was an Irish-speaking Munster poet; but his father - wiped from the record by his son - served and died in the British Navy.
n engineer in Dublin, Jack Hamilton dedicated his life to the anti-British, nationalist cause, and above all to the rehabilitation of the Irish language. He went around the country in wartime, making speeches for Irish neutrality and the Irish tongue; after the war he married Irmgard as part of his plan for "bringing people from other countries over to Ireland". He belonged to a group called Aiseirí (Irish for "resurrection"), whose publications were anti-semitic as well as anti-British. He campaigned for changing Dublin's street-names into Irish, and he sent his children to Irish-language schools. They were to be his "weapons" in the language wars. If they spoke English at home, he beat them.
"He says 'Irish people drink too much and talk too much and don't want to speak Irish, because it stinks of poverty and dead people left lying in the fields... The Irish language reminds them of the big famine when they had nothing to eat except the old poems in Irish... One day the Irish people will wake up and wonder if they're still Irish,' he says. And that's why it's important not to bring bad words like fruitgum into the house."
No English-speaking school-friends are allowed in; the great wave of Anglo-American music pulsing through the world in the 1960s stops at their front door. When the children come home wearing poppies on Armistice Day, they are ripped from their coats and hurled into the fire: only shamrock badges are allowed, on St Patrick's Day. This angry, determined, fanatical character is, in the end, stung to death by his own bees: a story so metaphorically apt, and told with such power, that it reads more like a Greek myth than a piece of history.
The children wear Lederhosen and Aran sweaters. They speak German and Irish at home, but their mother doesn't speak Irish. Outside, where the Dubliners all speak English, they are mocked and bullied by the other children as "Nazis". On their visits to the German sisters (warmly invoked), they compare Ireland and Germany. When they go to the Gaeltacht in Connemara, where everyone speaks Irish, they talk about the state of the Irish language - and the English prose of the book moves into lyrical rhythms, a kind of Synge-song: "All of us dreaming and sheltering from the words, speaking no language at all, just listening to the voice of the rain falling and... the water [whispering] along the roadside like the only language allowed."
Inside the Dublin house, there is a war going on between the father and the mother over intolerance and violence, and between the father and his children over language and beliefs. Both parents draw parallels between the British colonisation of Ireland and the Nazis' treatment of the Jews. Both insist on the relation between "language" and "home", and it's that link that makes the deepest story of the book. "My father says your language is your home and your country is your language and your language is your flag." Their mother tells them of all the exiles in the world: "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."
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