"Glory be to God for dappled things," wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. Others did not share his delight in variegated beauty. This, it seems, was especially true of Ireland in the Fifties and Sixties, where non-conformists of any kind were apt to be taunted in the streets. If, for example, you are lumbered with a name like Johannes O hUrmultaigh (how did Johannes turn into Hugo?), and you're obliged to go out wearing lederhosen and an Aran sweater, you will stand out like a hippogriff in a hayfield and should expect to attract generally hostile attention.
Dappled or speckled, as in barn-brack (from the Irish, bairín breac), the tea-bread dotted with currants and sultanas: this is Hugo Hamilton's term for people like himself and his siblings, of unassimilated ancestry. To be German-Irish on the outskirts of Dublin and, moreover, forbidden to speak the English language, is to be singularly out of step with the mores and street culture of the era. "You don't want to be special ... you want to be the same as everyone else, not an Irish speaker, not a German or a Kraut or a Nazi." But it gives you a perspective on things, and an identity, all your own.
Hamilton's discerning memoir, written in impeccable English, lets us in on a few of the peculiarities attendant on having a German mother who came to Ireland after the war (and immediately went to Lough Derg "to pray for all the bad things that happened in Europe") and a father over-imbued with the spirit of Irish-Ireland. The aim of Hamilton Senior is to restore Gaelic to the country. To this end, he tries to make his children bilingual in Irish and German but inarticulate in English, because "there is a lot of de-Anglicisation still left to be done". To utter a word of English in this uncommon household is to risk getting your nose broken. "My father said he was very sorry but the rules had to be obeyed."
Well, as it did in Nazi Germany, such strictness breeds subversion. Pleasures illicitly savoured by the young O hUrmultaigh (and his mother) include reading The Beano and listening to the song "Roses are Red" on the wireless. However, the complications of this upbringing, which encompasses the troubles of the world with coffin ships and concentration camps all jumbled together, bespeak a burdensome inheritance for the innocent narrator – even if it's all turned to a felicitous purpose in the end.
"When you're small," Hamilton begins, "you know nothing" – except what you are told and take on trust. Those truisms you may then go on to recreate in a comic, inadvertently appropriate manner: "The Irish people didn't know where they were going any more, because the names of the streets and villages were changed into English."
It's the child's-eye view that gives this book its poignancy and pungency, with all the author's linguistic resources subsumed under a single pellucid tone. By turns evocative, agitating and inspiriting, The Speckled People sticks up for diversity and principled dissent ("the silent negative"), while satisfactorily extending the scope of the Irish memoir.
Patricia Craig's biography of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury
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