Literary Festival Celebrates the Life and Work of Heimbold Chairholder Hugo Hamilton

By: Sean Fannon

Hugo Hamilton, Villanova’s current Heimbold Chairholder and author of the memoir, The Speckled People, graced fans and Irish Studies enthusiasts during a recent lecture hosted by Joseph Lennon, Ph.D., director of Irish Studies, as he described his less than ordinary life growing up in Ireland. Born in Dublin of an Irish father and a German mother, Hugo, from a very early age, could fluently speak Irish, German, and English.

While some might find his skill a virtue to cherish, Hugo viewed it as a type of curse. His father believed that the future of Ireland could be found in its culturally rich past and its beautiful, yet dying, language of Irish. It was this notion that led his father to banish the speaking of English in his household, seeing it as a detriment to the progress of a fully Irish nation.  

From an early age, Hugo’s mother raised her children as if they lived in her hometown of Kempen, Germany. “I grew up in Germany for the first few years and then emerged onto the streets of Dublin,” Hugo said while reminiscing upon his childhood. With the constant push from his father, Hugo and his siblings sought only to fit in with the other children. “We tried to be as Irish as possible,” he recalls, but it was not until Hugo came to America that he could “feel Irish for the first time.”

Growing up in a home with an Irish father whose primary focus seemed to be the betterment of Ireland, Hugo began to see the contrasts between his father’s and mother’s style of parenting. “My mother had a great appreciation for our imaginations, while my father seemed to always be caught up in one of his many enterprises.” Hugo’s father, in an effort to bring additional income into the household along with trying to introduce his wife’s culture to others, took it upon himself to traverse the local neighborhoods with such things as German handcrafts or baked goods to sell. As Hugo pointed out, however, there was always something about his father’s ventures that prevented them from ever fully blossoming.

For Hugo, his three-month trip to Connemara, a small town in the West of Ireland to study the Irish language, provided him with a great respite from the harsh ways of his father. During his time in Connemara, Hugo lived with an Irish speaking family and worked to strengthen his grasp of the language.

Being trilingual, Hugo experiences constant translations occurring in his head. He said that when he speaks in English, “it is often filtered through two other languages.” As the lecture came to a close, the floor became open to questions. One question that stuck out was, “what language does [Hugo] dream in?” With a gentle smile on his face, Hugo responded to the question with a quote from his memoir: “I sleep in German and dream in Irish. I laugh in Irish and cry in German. I am silent in German and speak in English.”


Sean Fannon, ‘12, is a senior English major with concentrations in Writing and Rhetoric, and Irish Studies. He currently is serving as an intern in the communication office in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Sean has traveled to four different countries through Villanova’s study abroad programs and is always looking for the next place to explore. In his spare time, Sean can be found at any Philadelphia sporting event or just relaxing by the water in Ocean City, New Jersey.