16 Books for 16 Days – Book 11: The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood, by Hugo Hamilton

“I know what it’s like to lose, because I’m Irish and I’m German,” explains Hamilton in this beautiful memoir of a mixed childhood in the years after WWII. Hamilton’s father says they are speckled, breac in Gaelic: spotted like a trout. With an Irish father and a German mother, Hamilton comes to Ireland as a boy in the 1950s and finds a homeland that will never fully accept him. Other children call him “Kraut” and “Nazi” and taunt him with “Sieg Heil!” salutes. Yet Hamilton is in many ways more Irish than they. His father never allows him to speak English and insists the family use the Gaelic form of their last name (O hUrmoltaigh), which many of their neighbors can’t even pronounce. Despite these efforts, Hamilton knows, “we’ll never be Irish enough.” There is much in this Irish memoir that’s familiar to the genre: the dark, overwhelming father; the tragic mother; the odd mix of patriotism and self-loathing (“the hunger strike and Irish coffee” are the country’s greatest inventions, Hamilton’s father says). But the book is never cliched, thanks largely to Hamilton’s frankly poetic language and masterful portrait of childhood. This is really a book about how children see the world: the silent otherworld at the bottom of a swimming pool, the terror of a swarm of bees, the strangeness of a city transformed by snow. By turns lyrical and elegiac, this memoir is an absorbing record of a unique childhood and a vanishing heritage. -Publishers Weekly

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