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Speaking to the Walls in Englishby Hugo Hamilton
I was born in Dublin (1953) and grew up in a speckled, half-Irish, half-German family. My mother spoke German and told us stories about her country, the ruined post-war Germany she had left behind to come to Ireland. My father was a revolutionary Irish nationalist who wanted us to speak Irish and would not allow a word of English in the house. In fact, he would punish us for the most minor infringements and I recall when we were very small how he once broke my brother Franz's nose for uttering English words he had brought in from the street.
In my book The Speckled People, I describe how we had no idea what country we belonged to. 'You don't know where you are, or who you are, or what questions to ask.' We had the Germany that my mother was often homesick for. We had the ancient, Irish Ireland that my father aspired to go back to with such ruthless dedication and self-sacrifice, to the point that he used us as his weapons, his foot soldiers in a language war. And finally, outside our hall door on the street was a different, far away country, where I could hear the gardener 'clipping the hedges in English.'
In many ways it was inevitable that writing would become the only way for me to explain this deep childhood confusion. The prohibition against English made me see that language as a challenge. Even as a child I spoke to the walls in English and secretly rehearsed dialogue I heard outside. I wanted to be like everyone else on the street, not the icon of Gaelic Ireland that may father wanted us to be, nor the good German boy either. My mother dressed us in 'lederhosen' and my father, not to be outdone, bought us Aran sweaters from the west of Ireland. So we were Irish on top and German below. We were 'the homesick children,' struggling from a very early age with the idea of identity and conflicting notions of Irish history and German history.
We were meant to be speckled, a word that my father took from the Irish or Gaelic word breac, meaning mixed or coloured or spotted like a trout. But that idea of cultural mixture became an ordeal for us, full of painful and comical cultural entanglements out of which we have been trying to find some sense of belonging ever since. There were no other children like me, no ethnic groups that I could attach myself to.
On the streets of Dublin we were mocked for being Irish speakers and mocked for being German. At a time when Ireland itself was very remote and isolated from the rest of the world, we were called Nazis and put on trial. The Nuremberg Trials and the Eichmann trial which were prominent in the news at the time were re-enacted in a mock seaside court where I became Eichmann facing justice and summary execution. The great irony in all this is that we could never deny anything or explain that my mother's family actually stood against the Nazis in the Third Reich. Her uncle, a lord Mayor refused to join the party and was ousted from his post in 1933. They had a phrase for passive resistance. 'The Silent Negative' my mother called it, but this silence was eventually turned into action when her eldest sister began to harbour Jewish people in Salzburg.
It must have been doubly painful for her and her children to be called Nazis on the streets of Dublin. The German people were on trial. It was painful for her, too, to discover that after she escaped from the ruins of Germany in 1949 and came to Ireland on a pilgrimage, she married an Irishman from Cork whose initial courage and idealism increasingly began to resemble the stark, uncompromising principles she had experienced under Nazism. Before they met, my father founded a political party in Ireland and made speeches on the streets of Dublin. To us, he was always making a speech and 'foaming at the mouth.' He seemed like a man who had failed to convince the nation and who then tried to create a republic of his own inside the home, a country that would be fully Irish and fully German.
Our home would exclude everything English. In the opening passage of The Speckled People I describe myself and my brother Franz standing at the seafront throwing stones, trying to hold back the waves as my father wanted us to do. We were conscripted into his battle, holding back British and American culture at a time when pop music and TV influences were beginning to march into Ireland, the time of Nat King Cole, the time of Elvis and The Virginian. My father saw it as a matter of winning and losing, surviving or going into extinction.
And perhaps this is the fundamental question that still faces us today, the question that forced me to become a writer and tell my story. I first became a journalist, then a fiction writer. I wrote five novels and a collection of short stories in which I attempted to address these issues of belonging. But it was not until I began to deal with my own childhood that I faced up to this very basic issue facing everybody in the world. I remember a school teacher relating Irish history as a hurling match where our team was losing but won the match in the last minute. I remember my mother saying that German history was a very brutal hurling match.
Will one language win out in the end? People die out? Cultures disappear. There are winners and losers in our world and it's best to belong to the winners, to speak the language of the winners. This question lies at the core of German history, the basis of Nazi aspirations to dominate the world which involved the extermination of other races. It is at the core of British colonial history, too, and Irish history, where the language was forced into extinction, first by brutal force and then be successive waves of poverty, famine and emigration. Maybe this is the reality at the centre of our contemporary world, that as my father and his defeated colleagues finally saw it in the end, we would all be speaking one language in the end.
As a writer it was not simply a matter of telling the strange anecdotes that marked our speckled childhood in Dublin. It was more the challenge to interpret these historical events, to recreate this language war through the eyes of a boy. I had to revert, in many ways, to the childhood experience itself in order to understand without any sense of judgement or overt adult analysis, the kind of confused world that we entered into. As James Lasdun in the New York Times put it, '...the Irish nightmares of history are reprised through the German, and vice versa...' I play my father's attempt to roll back history against my mother's story in Nazi Germany. What has stuck with us, however, is the much more tolerant and pluralist outlook that she had on the world. I suppose the redemption for us as a family, and perhaps also the hope for the future, is that we can now see ourselves as speckled people.
My mother rescued us from the worst excesses. Counter to all the stereotypes, it was my German mother who had the sense of humour which softened my Irish father's hard regime. She was the storyteller and made us aware of the ironies that we had to live with. She pointed out the sometimes comical difference between Irish truth and German truth. She began the resistance with which I eventually questioned my father's absolute laws. She also began to uncover the secrets which they both kept from each other and from us in the wardrobe. It was my mother who began to write this memoir when she kept a diary and opened up the truth.
As a child it was impossible to explain these ironies and contradictions to myself. It is only as a writer that I could go back into that childhood mind in order to extract some meaning from this alienated experience. All I can remember doing as a child was hiding. I developed ways in which I could conceal myself from the world, ways in which I could be invisible and not have to face the issues of identity, the most effective of which was remaining silent, in my own imagination. We became very isolated and reticent.
Much had been written about the silence that befell the German language after the Second World War. As much has been written about the silence in the Irish people, or how as my father put it, they transferred their belongings into the English language instead. My mother described it as a kind of homelessness and I suppose, as children, we felt acutely aware of this on the street without knowing how to explain it in words. I recall in my twenties how I was afraid to ask too many questions for fear that people would then ask me awkward questions and I would also have to reveal myself.
It was no wonder that I ultimately became interested in words. In an RTE radio documentary, the Irish writer Jennifer Johnston described me as using words 'with such care.' I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I was always looking over my shoulder, glancing back at my father to see if the words I was about to say were allowed. I can remember my Irish relatives coming to visit from time to time and then the house would be full of 'English and smoke.' But we were afraid to speak back to them in English because of my father. As a result, we became cautious and I was always careful before stepping into speech. I was trying to forecast the result of my words before I spoke.
Becoming a writer was the only way of liberating myself from this silence, the only way that I could come out from my hiding place and finally tell the story of my childhood, a story that was so full of shame and embarrassment that my only impulse was always to run away from it. People often remarked on how extraordinary it was for children to be brought up with three languages in Ireland. But they never realised how difficult that was, how the opposite was true. We were homeless. I was always a person without a story, without identity, without language. In many ways, I never thought I had a story until I began to write it down.