The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Daily Uprising

Seaghán Ó Murchú • April 18, 2003

Nearing the end of ‘The Speckled People’, Hugo Hamilton’s new ‘memoir of a half-Irish childhood’, I had to check the cover for this subtitle (missing from the title page proper, with British Library catalogue information absent inside; my copy’s filed in my library under fiction) to reassure myself that its pages were indeed fact. After so many Irish autobiographies churned in the wake of Frank McCourt’s deservedly popular recollections in which ‘everything that’s fact actually happened’, as McC more or less mused, I approached Hamilton’s contribution warily. I can’t believe it’s not a novel.

In its recurring seaside imagery-the writer grows up in a hazily postwar Dublin that gradually expands as late as Bloody Sunday for an indeterminate chronology reflecting personal recall-Hamilton’s memories ebb and flow steadily. The detachment of that view ‘like a glass of blue-green water at the bottom of every street.’ The commitment to recording this and many more interior land and seascapes creates a much less garrulous narrator than McCourt. Hamilton’s more charmless tales of poverty rarely mention the outside world for grand stretches of prose. Insularity constricts another Irish Dedalus.

His gift lies in being able to suspend the revelations that await his adolescent self regarding the secrets of his German immigrant mother and his Irish-Ireland father. He casts upon the earlier scenes of his childhood foreshadows of what haunts, in his estimation of his mother’s perspective on her adopted homeland, in a place where the natives’ observations hover between admiration and accusation. The delicacy of the spoken word battles against the look, the assumption, the half-smile. Inescapably, Hugo and his family refuse with ‘the silent negative’. They know even if they keep to themselves their maternal family’s anti-Nazi actions. Their foe? The Irish who unrelentingly sneer at their ‘Nazi’ presence. Hugo and his family also defy the English; while the great majority of Irish have become lost and speechless, after the famine unable to hear the conversations of their dead-the buried Irish speakers they have forgotten as their ancestors. Most Irish ignore the ‘future’ of Ireland: those in the Gaeltacht and even in Dublin who believe still in the Ireland Hugo’s father determines must exist.

Irish, he reasons, can only revive if de-anglicisation converts the city. Hugo’s father (after visits from Gearóid, a fellow evangelist and a successor to Joyce’s Citizen) becomes, in his son’s description: ‘Happy and proud one minute, sad and angry the next, because not everybody in Ireland is doing what he told them to do.’ In the Ó hUrmoltaigh house, only German and Irish could be spoken or heard. Outside, in the domain of Bearla, few friends can be found to play with Hugo: for their Irish is not good enough, or mostly non-existent. His father’s schemes to import German toys meet with failure: money can be found, it seems, among the Irish for pink cakes, drink, and tinned food but not for woodwork crafted with paint, lacquer, and pride. His mother’s attempts to sell these imports as Imgard plus her Cork husband’s surname relayed in her heavy Rhineland accent meet with similar lack of profit. The family grows, the older children bearing German first names and the later ones Irish ones, but all have little to live on but the father’s income from a rather ambiguous task: electrifying the countryside for the ESB.

So the years pass, and the revelations of the mother’s and father’s past emerge piecemeal in Hamilton’s meticulous but unflaggingly evocative rendering. Outside their house, the sea paces and Dublin bustles; within, Irmgard confronts an Irish reticence conveyed through her husband and his visiting relatives of a place where so much remains beneath the surface, where ‘words never touch ground’ or become audible. The wife of Máirtin Ó Cadhain teaches Hugo at the bunscoil. By no accident, the author of Cré na Cille provides Hamilton with his persistent controlling metaphor: listening to the voices presumed dead. Choosing to talk of the past to a present of diminished yet still chattering comrades, and residing in an ambiguous future. Hamilton enters this conversation.

Hugo, after a visit to the Dingle Gaeltacht, finds that the Brother at the Irish-speaking school near the GPO trots him out as ‘a living example of how history can be turned back.’ Hugo leaves school only to see Pearse again proclaiming the Republic. (It’s the on-site re-enactment for the RTÉ film of the Rising.) On the 50th anniversary, perhaps his father’s history will prove a dream from which all Ireland will have chosen to awake?

The opportunities reveal, as his mother instructs her children, both the rise of the fist people and the word people. The killer language-the hate of Hitler’s harangues, the jeers of the Irish against she whose family defied the Nazis, the rhetoric of prejudice: these appear as Nelson’s Pillar explodes, as the North follows, as Hugo’s father’s collusion with Gearóid’s right-wing paper Aiséirí emerges. Against this, the dying language-Hugo’s father, crushed by the Troubles and his neighbour’s derision of Irish-Ireland, finally starts tuning in the English programmes. Added to this tension: his realization of the compromises made by his mother to survive in Germany, and the hurt she carries with her into a strange nation where they are all ‘speckled people’, Breac. Barm-brack: half-Gaelic and half-not. German raisins in an Irish loaf. One sentence summarises: ‘One day they called Franz [Hugo’s brother] a f[-]n Jew Nazi and held him against the railings of the Garden of Remembrance.’ Fueled by such events, Hugo’s discovers his own potential for hatred, his own weariness with carrying on the Rising and ignoring taunts in wars of words, and his own confrontation with sudden ironic death.

I refrain from giving away all of Hugo’s revelations. But in his dramatisation of killer vs. dying languages, of conversations among the dead spoken and of silences withheld by the living, Hamilton presents a muted tone but a vivid assortment of vignettes. Contrasting what Gearóid insists upon, ‘the daily uprising’ for 1916, against the setting Hugo’s father constructs for his family in his quest for a more Irish-Ireland, we can learn from his characters. So much against the British that he looks towards Germany for love and lore, his father stands for one kind of resistance. His idealism balances and jousts against his wife’s own divided personality, a coping and caring woman placed within a postwar terrain where most call her the enemy. As you will read, Hugo’s father and mother both re-invent themselves while hiding away from speech their inner pasts, their early selves.

Like many surviving rebels against the state, his parents remodel themselves imperfectly. At the cost of their own happiness, they look to ideals and dreams to form a better future for their children. One of whom no longer Seán Ó hUmoltaigh but still somehow that young gaelgoir, has survived to tell his own tale of endurance and determination to resist.


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
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Index: Current Articles

19 April 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Rivers Change Their Course Sometimes but Always Reach the Sea

Anthony McIntyre


The Raytheon File: The Campaign against Raytheon in Derry
Liz Curtis


Republicans' Big Risk Redux: Walker Stumbles Too

Paul Fitzsimmons


A Tribute to Andy Barr
Joe Bowers


Rejecting Stereotypes
Liam O Ruairc


The Daily Uprising
Seaghan O Murchu


14 April 2003


Maghaberry Update


"We Won The Peace, Now Let's Win The War"

PRO, POWs, Maghaberry


"In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash"

Paul Fitzsimmons


Killer Peaceniks
Henry McDonald


Hillsborough and the Anglo-American Agreement to Wage War
Anthony McIntyre


An English View of the 'Ra
Eamonn McCann


In the Swim with Two Boys
Seaghan O Murchu


A Better World Without Him

Anthony McIntyre


Arrogant Propaganda
Paul de Rooij




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