The speckled people is a memoir of a childhood in Ireland in the 1950’s, growing up between languages. Hugo’s mother is a german emigrant and his father is an Irish nationalist determined that his children will revive the Irish language. Hugo himself is just a boy who wants to fit in with the other kids – who all speak English.
The book is written in a soft language, floating in and out of the memories of a young boy. His father is a brutal tyrant and his mother lived through the nazi-occupation of Germany. She speaks German with her kids and the father insists they learn Irish, banning English from the home and beating them if they do not comply.
“We are the brack children. Brack, homemade Irish bread with German raisins. We are the brack people and we don’t just have one briefcase. We don’t just have one language and one history.”
The story of the loss of the Irish language is heartbreaking, and the cause of the father is a noble one. Yet it is tainted by the violence and stubbornness that contributes to the family’s poverty. The father is always trying to prove that the Irish can make it without the English and he will not accept anything from people who cannot pronounce his name, Ó hUrmoltaigh which is the irish-ification of Hamilton.
“Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.” (A country without a language is a country without a soul.)
-Paidraig Pearse (Irish freedom fighter from the 1916 Easter Rising)
The mother is homesick for Germany and for a brief happy moment they go there and are filled with joy as a family. It doesn’t last and they return to Ireland out of a sense of duty from the father. The book explores the themes of family, of nationalism and the small feeling of being from somewhere. How your language can be a home.
“[…]dream in Irish. We laugh in Irish and we cry in German. We are silent in German and we speak in English. We are the speckled people.”