The Gate Theatre prepares to launch The Mariner, writer Hugo Hamilton speaks to Otwo about the First World War, writing the past and the importance of language and silence

Hugo Hamilton’s writing career has been a long and varied one. Having written novels, memoirs and plays, Hamilton has an impressive repertoire of work built up over the years. His latest work, The Mariner, is a play about a man who returns from World War One, yet is unable to communicate. It looks at the differing ideas of mother and wife as they try to piece together the life of their loved one.

The play serves as more than art, and is in many ways a personal thing for Hamilton. It was inspired by his own grandfather, John Hamilton. ‘His picture was locked up in the wardrobe at home. My father didn’t want us to know anything about him, because he belonged to the Royal Navy. And so he was an enigma and a mystery to us all the time as we were growing up.’

And the depiction of the First World War on the stage of the Gate Theatre is important for one very central reason: the centenary of the First World War. There has been a reluctance to discuss the Irish involvement in the First World War now for many years, something that is close to Hamilton’s heart. “I suppose it was a source of shame at that time in Ireland, to have anybody associated with the First World War, or the British Navy or the British Army. It didn’t fit into that New Ireland. And I think that’s how we’ve grown up as a nation.”

Central to The Mariner is the theme of silence, which is also the common thread surrounding the First World War in Ireland. Silence is a deliberate tool in this play, Hamilton explains.

‘It’s very important, it’s actually the basis of the whole play; his silence, and how it becomes unlocked eventually. Each person in his life, his mother and his wife, both have different versions, they try to put together his story, but they have different versions of it that are conflicting.”

“In the background of all that is 1916, where he comes back into a country that has been shifting under his feet. And that’s what makes Ireland so interesting, that the First World War is what exploded the whole business of Empire, and gave rise to self-determination. And Ireland is in a way what Seamus Heaney called the ‘double agent’. It’s got a unique story, because it sorts of slips from the Empire at that point. All those soldiers coming back from the war, in British uniforms – it left them so badly wronged for it, because they seemed to be out of touch.”

The theme of silence is made clearer by the importance of language in his life. Having grown up with a German mother and an Irish speaking father, English is a third language to him.

“I grew up speaking German and Irish, I went to all Irish schools. I sort of slowly picked up the English language, so I mean, I’ve had a lot of time to practice, because I live here, but I’m still falling through the cracks every now and again. That’s what makes the English language exciting to me, because it connects me to the real world. That’s what happened to all Irish people, in a lot of ways. We translated ourselves into the English language, and that’s what gave Ireland such a great energy in terms of its creativity in language.”

It is clear that the past is something that is fascinating for Hamilton, who constantly returns to it in order to reflect, examine and consider. This is perhaps most poignantly seen in his 2003 memoir The Speckled People, the story of his childhood. What drew him to the form of memoir?

“I had written a number of novels, and I found I was skirting around the whole business of identity, and I realised that at one point that I had to go at the subject in a more deliberate way. And it just coincided with a time when I began to read my mother’s diaries, so I relived that childhood, in some way. And it was something that had been hidden for years, something we didn’t want to talk about very much. It was a kind of hidden, underground story. It then came out through the writing, it was something I never talked about with anybody, and that’s what gave it a rawness and an energy.”

He is reluctant to call writing a form of therapy, however. “I’m always reluctant to call it therapy, because there is something very expedient about therapy. I think as a writer what I want to do is more than that. More than just sort of confess what’s happened, you know. I think it’s a way of understanding – of shaping the past into a story.”

Despite his interest in the novel and memoir forms, theatre is something that fascinates him. Does he see his writing as having a new lease of life when it’s performed on stage?

“It leaves the written word behind, and sort of takes on a life of its own. It’s no longer a script, it’s no longer on the page. It just takes flight in some ways, in the rehearsal room, and that’s very, very exciting to watch, particularly with a director like Patrick Mason, and the actress that we have.”

Hamilton’s writing career has been a varied and intricate examination of the past. The Mariner will continue in this vain, while asking some very important questions about the cultural cover-up that has happened about Ireland in World War One. It is clear that Hamilton’s career will continue to flourish as it has for over twenty years. The Mariner will serve as both a piece of art, as well as an important part of remembering the First World War.