Hugo Hamilton's father, John Hamilton - a character sketch
Perusing both memoirs by Hugo Hamilton is interesting from the point of view of the character of his father, John Hamilton. In short one could say on the evidence that he was very much a conflicted individual with many complexes. Which of us is not indeed? This is just an attempt to explore the quest for father as delineated in these two wonderful memoirs.
I shall take a thematic approach with this subject and outline what each memoir has to say on the character of Hugo's father - how this influenced his son and how he the father was in turn influenced by the absence of his own father in his own young life.
A. John Hamilton as portrayed in The Speckled People:
What makes both Hugo Hamilton's memoirs so powerful is that he manages a wonderful feat, that is, he is able to reconstruct or re-imagine his childhood and boyhood from a toddler's viewpoint, then from the viewpoint of a growing boy and finally in the second book from the point of view of an adolescent and young man. Hugo is an excellent psychologist and a wonderful sketcher of real people. His characters are all substantial. They come alive under his descriptions of them.
1. John Hamilton's past: Here is what Hugo, the young boy of say six years of age, knows about his father:
I know that my father comes from Cork and works as an engineer in Dublin and writes his name in Irish. When he was small, Ireland was still under the British. His father's family were all fishermen. His father fell on deck one day and lost his memory and died not long after that in a hospital in Cork city. But we never talk about that. (Op. cit., 10)
From this, and also in light of the fact that I have read both memoirs fully, it can be deduced that John is a fanatical Gaeilgóir - that is, a man who refused to speak English because it was the language of the "oppressor"; insisted that Gaeilge or German be spoken at home - his wife was German. I have long been interested in people who seek out causes and become fanatical in following them. He refused to allow his children play or make friends with other children who only spoke English. Indeed, Hugo was well into his late teens when he first heard his father speak English. Later in the book he records that:
He [his father Seán] didn't emigrate or drink whiskey or start making up stories either. Instead he changed his name and decided never to be homesick again. He put on a pioneer pin and changed his name from Jack to Seán and studied engineering and spoke Irish as if his home town didn't exist, as if his own father didn't exist, as if all those who emigrated didn't exist. (ibid., 37)
In psychological language we call all this denial. Then the sentence "But we never talk about that" is an ominous one because it means that there is a secret or some truth being denied or unrecognised or suppressed or repressed even. We learn that this man was somehow ashamed of his own father. We are never really told why - rather we are left to make our own inferences. His father had hidden away the photograph of his father, Hugo's grandfather, at the back of his wardrobe as well as all his service medals. On the one hand there is great denial and repression here, but there is also an unwillingness to destroy the picture. After all one would want to completely hate one's father to do that.
The youngsters once went playing in the wardrobe where these things were hidden. Unfortunately it fell over and they were trapped within it. When Seán came home it was only he who was strong enough to lift the wardrobe and let the children out. He rebuked his children thus, in Irish of course:
'Who gave you the right to look at my things?' he said, because he didn't want any of us to know that he had a father in the navy who could not speak Irish and once stood with the British in a war against the Germans, when his own country was still not free. (ibid., 14-15)
As a child, Seán had been taunted by the local lads about his father taking the "English shilling", about his dying on a British navy ship and his mother still being in receipt of a British pension. Hugo talks about how any youngster in any family will inherit not just a forehead or a smile or a certain type of hair from their father but also "other things like sadness and hunger and hurt." (ibid., 37)
However, I also get the sense that Seán's motivation in hiding the picture of his father is not just the repression and denial of his past. Hugo admits that his father had another motivation:
There were things they didn't talk about. She kept her secret and he buried his past as well. He hid the picture of his own father in the wardrobe. He didn't want to offend her, having photographs of a British sailor hanging in the house. But she had nothing against England. (ibid., 41)
Perhaps this was a rationalisation he used as an excuse for his actions.
It's important, also, I feel to point out that Seán was born with a limp:
Onkel Ted told me once that my father had a limp when he was born. So maybe his mother only made up the story about polio, because people were afraid of anyone who was deformed at birth and it was better to say you had a disease like anyone else. Or maybe my father made it up himself because they were always laughing and limping after him on his way to school and saying that he had a father in the British navy. (Ibid., 164)
2. Use of Corporal Punishment: Under this head I will be very careful indeed because corporal punishment was an acceptable part of family life before 1981 when it was banned from the school system here in Ireland. Hugo gives an account of how his father hit his older brother Franz so hard on the back of the neck for walking on the wall in the garden that the boy fell and broke his nose. The father was not being intentionally cruel. This was probably the way he himself was brought up. There are many instances of his good nature and generosity towards both wife and children in both books. However, after each incident where he disciplines his children by corporal punishment Seán is full of remorse for what he has done. Hugo has a certain amount of respect for his father because he senses his father's guilt and remorse and says:
I looked out the window and watched my father fill the wheelbarrow and bring it to another part of the garden, empty it and bring it back and start again. I watched him digging and digging, until the mountain was gone. I wanted to go down and tell him that my mother fixed Franz's nose with a story. (ibid., 31)
3. Anger: We also learn that Seán Hamilton is an angry man because he likes to slam doors from time to time. Hugo reports that "he's the best at slamming doors because he makes the whole house shake." (ibid., 47) He also inspired fear in his children.
4. Education/Indoctrination: Later we read that: "So my father sits at the table and we sit opposite him and he tells us why we can't accept poppies from anyone. First of all, he says, there was the British Empire. He takes out a map of the world and points to all the pink bits that were owned by the British... We'll get our own badges and flags and songs. On St Patrick's day, we get shamrock and green badges and tri-coloured jelly and ice cream." (ibid., 49) And a little later we read: "My father says that all people who died in the Irish Famine are still talking. They're whispering with dry lips and staring out with empty eyes. he says you can't go anywhere in Ireland without hearing them." (ibid., 71) Indoctrination is not a word I use lightly. Hugo says later: "In our house, it's dangerous to sing a song or say what's inside your head. You have to be careful or else my father will get up and switch you off like a radio." Therefore, no other ideas bar father's ideas are allowed in the house. In today's cliché Seán was a "control freak."
He also liked to be the person who knew all the answers. For example, he "didn't like my mother reading books that he didn't read first himself." (Ibid., 200)
Hugo says that his father wanted them to have all the things they didn't have as children, and that all the things he could not do he was going to make his children do instead. (ibid., 89) Hugo was a strong boy and he always liked pushing against his father: "I like giving the wrong answer. My father sits on the far side of the table in the breakfast room and says he's going to wait until I give the right answer, even if it takes all day." (ibid., 87). This became a battle of wills as Hugo grew up.
5. Father's Sensitive Side: One might even call this his feminine side. While Hugo had a bad attack of asthma: "My father came up and stuck a piece of folded paper in the window to stop the rattling. He put on the light for a minute to prove that there was no man coming through the wall, then he smiled and kissed the top of my head." (Ibid., 91) Being a conflicted man, after punishing anyone of his children, he would say something like: "I love each one of you...You are like no other children in the world." (ibid., 192)
There are, of course, some few times when we get a glimpse of the real Seán Hamilton. On their way up to the Drachenfelz, while on a childhood family holiday to Germany we read:
We carried on for a while, but then he stopped again and sat down on a bench as if his legs couldn't carry him any more. There wasn't far to go, but instead he started talking and telling us things that he had never told us before. he said that it was not true that he had rescued my mother because it was the other way around. If it wasn't for her he would have joined the priesthood like his brother Ted. (Ibid., 216)
Another example of Seán's tender side is his care for his sick daughter Bríd:
When my father came home he knew what to do. he sat on the bed and stroked her head. he got her to swallow another spoon of medicine inside her neck, and even when we were going to bed he was still sitting there with her and asking her puzzles... (Ibid., 244)
6. Creativity and Imagination: Seán Hamilton was firstly a teacher, then an engineer in the ESB involved in the rural electrification of Ireland. he was also a linguist who spoke three languages fluently: English, Irish and German. Not alone that but he wrote many articles for papers and magazines in Irish no doubt. He was also very creative insofar as he was very good with his hands, able to make boxcars, desks and furniture. He made many toys for his children to use as well. Not alone that, but Seán was also a beekeeper. He was also a great reader of literature and had a wonderful liking for music both classical and Irish. In short he was a highly cultured man. Hugo gives a lovely account of one of their stays as a family in the Connemara Gaeltacht and how his father and mother were so happy together living in an ideal world surrounded by beautiful Irish words. (See 179-182)
7. Family Secrets and Mental Illness: Seán's father John Hamilton had fallen heavily on HMS Vivid and had lost his memory. It was obvious that the poor man got badly brain damaged. He had spent some time in hospital in Manchester. Then when he was sent home he could barely remember his wife's name:
He remembered her face and her name, but then after a while he started forgetting that much, so that he could do nothing at times, only hold his head in his hands and say he wanted to go home. He was a stranger in his own home. And then he lost his mind altogether one day, because he took a knife in his hand. My father was still a small child and he was crying so much that the noise went into the sailor's head like a nail into the wall, so he stood up and said he would kill him if he didn't stay quiet...He stood in front of his own picture in uniform, holding a kitchen knife in his hand and shouting, until Mary Frances had to stand in front of him, in front of the man she loved more than anyone else in the world and tell him to kill her first. (Ibid., 170)
I'd imagine young Seán was three or four years of age when this happened. Now I can understand why he'd want to have the photograph hidden away. His poor father had gone "mad." The poor man died very shortly after this sad event over which he had absolutely no control.
8. Avoidance and Denial: One can understand how avoidance and denial set in. Hence we have Seán as father saying to his own son: "It's no good looking back...You should be looking forward. You're like a blank piece of paper and you should only look forward." All of this is of course avoidance and denial and goes in contradiction to all good sound psychological advice. If we do not attempt to deal with the problems from our past, deny and avoid them at all costs, then we are setting ourselves up for stress of all sorts, not to mention the demons from the nightmares that strike us from time to time.
9. Philosophy of Life: "What matters," he said, "is that a small man was able to walk up to a big man and not be afraid." There is a lot of truth in this. Much has been written about the "control complex" with respect to small men. Also Seán Hamilton had a limp. It would seem that both of these "shortcomings" strengthened his character.
10. Honesty: Seán has moments of regret and honesty and he admits he has made mistakes:
Sometimes he looks like he's tired of fighting and tired of making sacrifices all his life, and he is sad as he might as well not have bothered. There is no point in keeping the waves back any more. He says he made mistakes. It's not easy to say that you lost, but he came to me one day and shook hands and says he wished he could start all over again because he would make different mistakes this time...(Ibid., 282)
Above I have uploaded a very old picture of my father with myself on the left and my brother Gerard on the right. The picture was taken in 1960 I think.