The Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany is awarded for outstanding political, economic, social, cultural or scientific achievements and for outstanding contributions to enhancing Germany’s standing abroad and its relations with its European neighbours. So this is not some kind of a literary award.
As a journalist and author of Irish-German background, Hugo Hamilton often draws on his personal knowledge of Germany and German mentality. Born to a German mother and Irish father, he grew up in Ireland, lived and worked in both countries and today resides in both Dublin and Berlin. Knowing both countries intimately – “from the inside” but also “from the outside”, he observes the small and large differences and often portrays them by directly contrasting them. He is therefore a great interpreter of mentalities, an “explainer” of the Germans to the Irish. And vice versa.
His writings bring the Germans closer to the Irish, and the Irish closer to the Germans.
His insights, often stated in a matter-of-fact style, sometimes in the seemingly naïve voice of a child’s perspective, are often humourous and show profound understanding. His observations are sharp without being harmful. Our German way of taking things literally, our preference for fixed categories – contrasted with Irish talkativeness, the Irish inclination not to take things too seriously – he pinpoints this, without drifting into cliche. Because, as we know from his memoirs, he knows what it feels like to become the victim of stereotypes.
In his highly acclaimed childhood memoir, The Speckled People, which have been translated into many languages and adapted for the stage, he explores his family’s multiple backgrounds. From the perspective of a little boy in Aran sweater and lederhosen, the narrator dwells on the differences and similarities between his German and Irish families. Without being accusing or being apologetic, Hugo Hamilton gives an impression of what it meant for him, as a child, to be an outsider, to not quite fit it. What makes identity? What creates a sense of belonging? What are the influences of the past, the heritage? These questions resonate throughout his works.
Above his personal experiences, he scrutinises German sensitivities and questions our way of dealing with identity, heritage and guilt.
In the face of our own historic heritage, we Germans are constantly “deserving our innocence” [a quote from Hugo Hamilton’s narration, Birthmark] through a culture of self-restraint regarding national symbols and sentiments. The Nazis’ instrumentalisation of “Volk” and “Vaterland” (nation and homeland) has caused us to regard nostalgia for our own origins with intuitive suspicion.
But doesn’t this leave the individual with an unanswered desire for belonging – a loneliness, as the title of Hugo Hamilton’s essay, The Loneliness of Being German – suggests?
He observes how the Germans’ desire for rootedness has sometimes found less suspicious outlets, like Ireland. A nostalgic notion of the supposedly simple, pious, innocent Ireland of yesteryear became the place of longing for many Germans, an imagined homeland of the soul.
Die redselige Insel, which appeared in Germany in 2007, took on these idealised notions. It was inspired by Heinrich Böll’s Irisches Tagebuch, which for a long time was the favourite reading of Germans on Ireland.
Fifty years on, Hugo Hamilton retraces Böll’s narratives and gives us an update, a contemporary description of the Ireland of the boom years. A modern, more secular Ireland, which at this period no longer produced masses of emigrants but also received more and more immigrants.
Their arrival, a fact which he has reflected on in other writings and interviews, brings change and today in Europe a young generation – the “Eramus Generation” – finds it normal to switch between countries and languages; identity is no longer fixed and monolithic.
Therefore, one can say that Hugo Hamilton is not only a great observer of the influences of the past, but also of current developments.
Through his works and his personality, he is a distinctive voice in German-Irish relations. He creates a literary link between Ireland and Germany and makes a significant contribution to our mutual understanding and German-Irish friendship.
This is an edited version of the speech made by Germany’s ambassador to Ireland Matthias Höpfner at the award ceremony at the German embassy in Dublin on Tuesday, October 13th.