My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home
by Michael Brendan Dougherty
Hardcover, 240 pages, $24.
Reviewed by Chris R. Morgan
Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland is the latest in a spate of books currently circulating among the American reading public that I call “pop jeremiads.” That’s a bit redundant seeing as how jeremiads are popular by design. But they’ve been frequent over the past five or so years, conveniently in concert with utterances of “the age of Trump,” and have taken on a recognizable form.
Pop jeremiads come in the guise of memoir, from the perspective of an outsider or a contrarian and within a particular identitarian framework: Between the World and Me for African Americans, Hillbilly Elegy for working class whites, The Souls of Yellow Folk for Asian Americans, Shrill (among many others) for women, and Bret Easton Ellis’s White for Bret Easton Ellis Americans. Through these firsthand accounts, and a good amount of shrewd observational skill, the writers of these books cast their visions onto the wider American scene, rendering a diagnosis of its current crisis, and, on occasion, proposing a remedy. The prose is always sincere, often dour, but never so corrosive as to repel a wider readership outside of the framed identities—and, more importantly, outside the intellectual milieu—for it is always keen to hone their empathy.
My Father Left Me Ireland hits most of these beats. It has a lyrically rendered personal story tied to a panoramic view of national malaise and a passionately defended corrective to it. Whatever its cohesion with the formula, however, this is nonetheless a book with a unique thesis, written by one of the most forceful and honest political commentators currently writing.
It is Dougherty’s debut book, comprised of seven letters addressed to his father, an Irishman who stayed in the homeland while he was raised in the New York metropolitan area by his Irish American mother. The first letters establish in wrenching detail the younger Dougherty’s sense of loss, of a father who was not in the country when he was born and who visited it sporadically and sometimes with no advance notice, only to leave as quickly as he came. “Already, the pattern of these partings was established. You leave; I cry. Then my mother tries to pick up the pieces.” Much of his contact is through letters “about the latest developments in his household, the home in which I played no role.”
The letters from son to father, as the subtitle indicates, also tell of home. They can be seen as a journey from one home—the isolated townhouses of his childhood in Putnam County, New York, filled with other “broken families”—to another—the one where he lives as a husband and father. Much is spent on the first home, run by a single mother, “overworked due to her circumstances” raising a son, working at IBM, and caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s (described in some of Dougherty’s most powerful prose). “There was great talk at the time about the heroism of single mothers,” Dougherty writes, “but not all the taboos were pulled down.”
She had stuck it out with the baby, assured that the world would increasingly accept, and admire, her decision.… Her form of being single was impaired by motherhood, having none of the real freedom and allure of those who were truly unattached.
Soon she succumbs to depression, financial difficulty, and illness. “She lived on the other side of the culture’s liberation, and her unhappiness in life was held to be her fault.”
But she also instilled in Dougherty her own love for Ireland. “My mother wanted me to know myself as Irish, and made her efforts.” She taught herself to speak Irish, she sang Irish ballads, wore a claddagh ring; they both attended Irish culture festivals in New Jersey and she read him Irish-language children’s books. “Nearly every night she put me to bed saying good night in Irish: ‘Oíche mhaith’.” By young adulthood, Dougherty knew enough of Irish history to “debate it with friends and teachers.” Yet Ireland remained abstract to him, “as distant from mine as medieval France was.” “The Catholic Church of your youth,” he reminds his father, “was a spiritual empire.… People you knew would be genuinely afraid of receiving Holy Communion unworthily.”
When you were a child Ireland’s president and a hero of the rebellion laid a wreath at the jail where his comrades were condemned to death and killed. The life of the nation was serious business.… Maybe Ireland would be poor, but it would be sanctified and creative. That is what one of Ireland’s leading writers calls the myth of Holy Catholic Ireland …
I grew up an only child with a single mother. I lived in a series of American suburbs, one seemingly more prosperous than the next. There were dozens of kids, not hundreds, and nothing as exciting as criminality. The Church was a friendly ghost. Nobody feared approaching for Communion. God would be merciful, surely.
Instead of the myth of Catholic Ireland, Dougherty grew up amid what he calls the “myth of liberation.” “The adult world … was plainly terrified of having authority over children.… The constant message of authority figures was that I should be true to myself. I should do what I loved, and I could love whatever I liked. I was the authority.” The myth produced a culture governed by individualism, meritocracy, consumerism, and cultural permissiveness. It “made my generation into powerless narcissists.”
We … worshipped authenticity—being your true self—even as most of us accused ourselves, in our own hearts, of being frauds. Some of us fell into despair and chemical dependency. Others coped through dual membership in the cults of productivity and self-care. A few now turn to internet father figures who tell them that life is struggle, that it is defined by self-assertion and dominance. And some, tired of trying to find a motive for existence from within, turned to political radicalism.
Despite this atmosphere, Dougherty writes that he did not become a “nihilist, living entirely in my own head.” He still had “an identity.” But the Irish American milieu of the time was one that began to wear on him. “Ireland was turning into a kind of New Age symbol” of Celtic crosses and druidic wisdom and other “cultural flotsam coming across the ocean.” Dougherty preferred to “curate” his own version through Yeats, Joyce, and the Pogues.
In a way, the clatter of Irish music, the strangeness of the Irish sky, and a repository of Ireland’s national genius were all returned to me, not as an inheritance to be treasured and passed on, but as ornaments of a life defined by enjoyment, consumption. And this curator’s approach seemed to let me enjoy them safely. That little bit of ironic distance prevented these things from really touching the parts of my soul and mind that were vulnerable to developing a deep conviction.
This was also happening in Ireland, whose citizens in the late twentieth century had come to embrace revisionism about their recent history, the 1916 Easter Rising especially, thanks to writers like Conor Cruise O’Brien, who wanted to “administer a shock to the Irish psyche.” As Ireland’s Minister of Posts and Telegraphs in the 1970s, O’Brien famously banned Sinn Fein members and pro-IRA sentiment from being aired on public broadcasting. He was against unification along absolutist Republican lines and briefly joined a unionist political party in the 1990s. But it was as much about aftershock from The Troubles, which left the Irish with the impression that national pride and sacrifice wrought diminishing returns. The Rising became “kitsch,” an inside joke. “The idea that events and ideals have real meaning, that something outside ourselves deserves our loyalty, is what’s ridiculed.”
The Easter Rising lasted for five days and, like every Irish uprising before it, was a complete disaster. It racked up over two thousand civilian causalities, resulted in thousands more unjust arrests and imprisonments of the Irish by the British, and effectively closed off constitutional routes to sovereignty. Public support for the rebels was low until Britain’s hasty execution of most of the Rising’s leaders. The Rising is an inescapable catalyst for Irish independence that, to some, came at too high a price. “Sacrifice breeds intransigence. The dead exert an unhealthy power over the living, persuading the living to hold out for the impossible, so that the sacrifice of the dead is not perceived to have been in vain.” These are the words of former Taoiseach John Bruton on the centenary of the Home Rule Act of 1914. Dougherty quotes these words only to refute them. “[T]here is nothing technical about the Rising,” he writes:
I see in the Rising that a nation cannot live its life as a mere administrative district or as a shopping mall; nations have souls. It’s a virtue when poetry colonizes our politics, even if today the situation is reversed. The life of a nation is never reducible to a mere technocracy, just as the home cannot be, no matter how much we try to make it so.
“For [Patrick] Pearse,” the Rising leader Dougherty holds as the example of his own nationalism, “the last generation are the constitutional nationalists, the Home Rulers who had abandoned the doctrine of full separation from England. They had lost their manhood.”
In his own home—his current one—Dougherty conveys this soul just as his mother did: through language. Actual use of Irish has been in decline, with a recent Irish census showing that only 73,803 people speak it daily, over three thousand fewer than in the 2011 census. “Some creatures decline in one environment but they don’t die. They adapt. And I think I caught the barest glimpse of how Irish has adapted itself and can survive lean times in this current environment.”
Dougherty recalls taking a “weekend immersion course” to learn Irish. He had picked up a few words as a child, but the experience of picking it back up in earnest decades later is humbling:
I was put in a class made up mostly of children. I was made to relearn what I had known and forgotten as a toddler. We counted, and practiced saying ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ … I make my living with words and can be astonishingly vain. Learning Irish as an adult means screwing up the simplest things, like counting from a haon to a deich.”
But the humbling had its upside. Learning Irish gave Dougherty “access to another part of” himself, “one that doesn’t seem so needful of admiration, that doesn’t couch itself in layers of irony and hide behind hand-waving verbal acts of self-creation.” It forced him “to be a child and to grow up again.” And he passes that on to his own children, filling his home with Irish children’s book as his mother once had. “A nation exists in the things that a father gives to his children, or else he is shamed before his father and grandfather, and his descendants too. The things that are needed for the future.”
My Father Left Me Ireland is the kind of book that conjures all those adjectives at which someone in the throes of irony would shudder: heartwarming, moving, deeply felt. But that is the point, and the center of the book’s strength. It is an ode to family and connectedness in a world bent on isolating one another. It is an ode, also, to a mother who in spite of, or because of, persistent struggle, most instilled in Dougherty the love of Ireland he so eloquently expresses in these pages. It is on this aspect of the book that the others are dependent. Without it their defects are more apparent.
“Culture is a funny thing,” Dougherty writes. “Somehow it is this collective personality that is constantly feeding you information about itself. It ranks and reranks everything in life—people, objects, and ideas.… Its judgments become so familiar that it exists like a voice in your head. And yet it is impossible to explain exactly how this happens.” Indeed. Though My Father Left Me Ireland is a beautiful personal book, personal books tend to enable personal reactions.
There was a time when Dougherty’s pastoral vision of Ireland would have been compelling to me. Like him I also grew up in the New York City exurbs, and my mom also embraced our Irish heritage in concert with the 1990s Celtic revival. She read Angela’s Ashes; we watched Michael Collins and The Secret of Roan Inish, we listened to The Cranberries, Clannad, and The Chieftains, and my brothers listened to the Dropkick Murphys; we attended Celtic festivals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; she tried to teach herself Irish, got a shamrock tattoo on her wrist, and visited Ireland twice. And there was, perhaps most tellingly, The Commitments soundtrack on cassette somewhere in our house.
That time is no more. As I came to make my own conclusions, the pastoral—whether revivalist or historical—just wasn’t in my blood, which has to share space with Scandinavia, Spain, Wales, and, time permitting, Scotland. I pursued a pathway that is probably too postmodern (or “curated”) for Dougherty’s liking, but hardly heterodox. It’s the pathway to the Ireland that relishes irony. “Irony is a marked characteristic of Irish writing,” Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote. “[T]he Irish predicament, with its striking contrasts between pretenses and realities, has been unusually favorable to the development of this mode of expression.” This is not the irony of “verbal self-creation” that plagues the United States, but the irony of hiding in plain sight and teasing out malicious absurdities in mundane logic, a habit born when a conqueror tries tenaciously and obsessively to bring barbarians to heel over the course of several cruel but fruitless centuries.
A vision of Ireland centered so firmly on the Easter Rising, especially as conveyed through Patrick Pearse’s severe and soaring rhetoric, is intense and verging on the death-haunted. It risks turning Ireland into a folk monoculture: vast and verdant but narrow at the same time. Is there room for the multilingual literary anarchy of Flann O’Brien? the similarly pastoral but more worldly “Ascendancy nationalism” of Hubert Butler? The Troubles-born punk of Stiff Little Fingers? The comic existentialism of Samuel Beckett? (Actually, there might be! Dougherty’s insistence that “the history of being Irish is setting yourself an impossible task, then failing to do it over and over again, until one day it is accomplished” has a faint echo of “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) Considering these questions as I read the book, I could not say yes or no.
Dougherty has written a quintessentially American document. American readers will detect easily the sense of longing for a land that is somehow distant and near at the same time, and the sentimentality for things lost or never possessed. That Irish Americans enabled a Celtic revival that hewed dangerously near the verge of an aspirational roleplay game is not completely their fault. Most of them contend with whole centuries and numerous social disruptions in American life separating them from their Famine refugee ancestors. In its perverse way, the “myth of liberation” is the price you pay for overcoming catastrophe. That is the story of pretty much all diasporas. But even the most assimilated American can bear traces of tradition, ghostly as they are, in faith, in family, in stories and gossip that survive generations of block parties, graduations, and wedding receptions. They may still carry a concept of sacrifice, though it may be more modest than the kinds Dougherty highlights. To that extent, Dougherty’s book can be admired in no small degree, if not fully comprehended.
Hubert Butler once complained that “to write clearly in America is like trying to take a country walk on an autostrada.” Dougherty’s book disrupts that assertion without effort, if not out of some innate Irishness then out of a love of Ireland and in bringing out what he believes is most vital in it. I disagree with him in certain respects, but I’ll give him that. We need more love letters and fewer jeremiads.