Sentinel, 2019, $24.00, 240 pp.
In the opening pages of My Father Left Me Ireland, Michael Brendan Dougherty’s epistolary memoir, he remembers a visit to his Irish father, on his native soil, when he was six. His father had neither married his mother, nor come back to America with her. Which leaves that “his” in “his native soil” strained—it cannot cover both Dougherty and his father, no matter how much either man might regret his division from the other.
What Dougherty remembers is, “the way you ended your sentences with a suggestive ‘you know.’ To this boy’s ears, it was an invitation to be with you in every story.” My Father Left Me Ireland is his attempt, as a new father himself, to look back over his life and see to what extent he and his father could or do share a story, a language, a home.
Dougherty’s fatherlessness was obvious, to him and to everyone around him. But the more he tried to prepare an accounting of himself for his impending daughter (“It occurred to me that in a few months I would have this life wriggling across my lap. I would have to tell her who she is.”) the more he noticed that the spaces his father left unfilled weren’t the only ways he’d been orphaned.
There wasn’t just an absence in his immediate family, but in the whole village that allegedly raises a child. Dougherty writes, “The adult world that I encountered was plainly terrified of having authority over children and tried to exercise as little of it as practicable. […] 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.”
He could write to his father, he could order Gaelic books, but there was no clear way to regain what had been given up by the generations that came before. Dougherty’s book is full of a coiled fury. His anger is not against his father, who he comes to understand longed for him as well. His forgiveness doesn’t lessen the wound he, his father, and his mother all sustained from his family’s fracturing, but it allows him to reach across the gap to offer and receive love now.
Rather, his rage is directed at the eunuchizing modern mindset that sees us as most free when we can be stripped of all the ties we have to others. A father can leave his children, provided the financial pain is assuaged by child support or governmental subsidy. A citizen cannot have too great a love for their own nation, lest they imply any other is lesser. A believer cannot bring their beliefs to bear in the public square, where all visions of the good need to have free access to the marketplace of ideas, provided they are not normative visions of a common good.
In Dougherty’s words,
This myth of liberalism was like a solvent that had slowly and inexorably dissolved any sense of obligation in life. It dissolved the bonds that held together past, present, and future. It dissolved the social bonds that hold together a community, and that make up a home. And, here, at the end of the process, I was alone. An atom that becomes separated from a larger chemical structure is called a free radical.
The pledge this leveling liberalism demands is that we never mourn for what we have lost. Never acknowledge it as a loss at all. And then, as sufficiently similar people, we can live together in peace.
When Dougherty turns back to Ireland, he doesn’t just look for the elements of nationality that my school would have celebrated in its Intercultural Unity Day—the food served in the cafeteria, the dances performed at the assembly, the traditional garb worn in the costume parade. He wants to find the hot-blooded tie to nation that goes beyond kitsch. He turns to the writings of Irish nationalists.
Dougherty begins arguing in his letters to his father about the Easter Rising, and Patrick Pearse, the teacher and nationalist who gave the order for the Irish Volunteers to mobilize in 1916. Dougherty’s letters are one-sided, so he begins defending Pearse against the implied affable disinterest of his father, the embarrassment Dougherty believes modern Ireland feels about the extreme moments of its history.
It’s not that Dougherty is in favor of blood and violence, but he becomes suspicious of a kind of love that wouldn’t ultimately resort to violence to defend the beloved. To love in this way is a habit he’s trying to learn, and he struggles with it as he does with his language lessons.
At a Gaelic language retreat, he has a breakthrough on both fronts. Near the end of their time together, he and the other participants find themselves disarmed, and lapsing into sincerity. Dougherty reflects that, in most contexts, he has been trained to suppress this vulnerability, or to cloak it in irony. As he gives himself over to poetry and song, and genuine revelry, he wonders if sincerity is suspect, not because, as he had felt, it makes him appear weak, but because it represents a threatening strength. Dougherty writes, “I suppose we do this for safety somehow, as if unwrapped passion itself is so flammable, it would consume our little worlds at the instant we exposed it to open air.”
This passion is what Dougherty has found, and he is right that it both gives life and provokes the kind of love that leads men to lay down their lives or take the lives of others. He has not simply found his roots in a blandly heartwarming, appealing-to-all kind of way. The hint of violence was there from the beginning, when he and his mother went to Gaelic language events, and the hat was passed “for the widows and orphans” as cover for contributions to the IRA.
What can be the check on such a love? G.K. Chesterton proposed that a true love of country can’t be a mindless show of patriotism, any more than a love for a parent requires us to blind ourselves to her faults. Chesterton explains, “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”
But a relationship to one’s parent is clearer, more natural than one’s relationship to a nation. One’s mother and father are always one’s original parents, even if they are absent or dead. When Dougherty and his father bring together both their families, everyone delights in pointing out the resemblances between the two men—similarities of gesture that Dougherty was unlikely to have learned by example. Dougherty writes, “It began to dawn on me that our relationship wasn’t a series of events, but an unalterable and primordial fact. The events were just the record of how we coped with this truth.”
But, although he argues that nations have souls, it is harder to believe that, for many people, belonging to a nation is as primordial as belonging to a family. Ireland is a small country, an island country, and one whose identity was electrified by repeated efforts to squelch it.
Can other nations, borders drawn in a careless way by retreating imperial powers, make this kind of claim? Can America, which slowly expanded to reach the sea, annexing land that had previously been Indian, Mexican, Spanish, French, and only sometimes accepting the people who already lived on that land? If, as Dougherty argues, “A nation cannot live its life as a mere administrative district,” how can a soul be grafted into a consortium of peoples corralled by others?
Ireland is not Dougherty’s only loyalty. He is a revert to his Catholic faith, a religion that makes the kind of “unalterable and primordial” claim that parenthood does. Catholicism is a story of family, but not of a purely natural family, one of lineage. That is the claim of the nation of Israel, and the Christian claim is that everyone else was grafted on to this promise, without any natural right to the covenant, but as a pure gift of grace.
It is a universal claim and a universal promise, which cannot be disrupted by the semi-arbitrariness of natural borders or by the confusion about what level of a polity we should claim as our home. Catholicism’s “both-and” blends the transcendent and the personal, with Christ as the one who knits these two scales together.
Dougherty’s book doesn’t make this claim to the reader explicitly. But, in his own telling of how he came back to being Irish, there is another biblical claim undergirding the book. In the prophecy of Isaiah that Christians read as prefiguring the birth of Christ, Isaiah foretells a radical peace, where “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,” and that when this whole menagerie of enemies comes together, “a little child shall lead them.”
Dougherty picks up Pearse and is moved by his willingness to sacrifice everything, but it is not the fierce revolutionary who originally caught his attention. It is his daughter’s naked need, the “unalterable and primordial fact” that others must sacrifice for her that spurs him to study and to seek to become the man he must be to be her father.
His father’s family is caught by the same pull of her need. They are suspicious or dismissive of Dougherty’s attempts to learn Gaelic, for the most part, and they won’t use the words they know to help him practice. But, when they come to his house, he catches them picking up the Gaelic children’s books he’s bought and settling down to read them to his daughter. He writes, “My intention was that my daughter learn Irish, but through her, I’m beginning to think all of you have a chance.”
The radical need of a baby is galvanizing—they exist entirely in the present, and need that present filled. But a different kind of dependency also jars Dougherty out of his own sense of place. He and his mother care for his maternal grandmother, whose Alzheimer’s “caused her to misplace herself in the timeline of her own life.” Although neither he nor his mother drift back with her, he finds that their own place in time shifts without their willing it. “This disease of the mind also misplaced us in time and history. The moments of anger and bewilderment my mother and I experienced then were the grief and bereavement of the future visiting us in our present.”
Our vulnerability and our weakness is a testament to the fact we are part of a tradition, not just an independent “free radical.” Someone had to hold Dougherty as a child, just as he now holds his children. Someone will have to care for him when he is old and feeble, just as he and his mother did for his grandmother. (Someone, the Catholics add, will have to set right the sins we have committed that are beyond our ability to atone for.) No amount of money, deracination, or hard work can erase the “unalterable and primordial fact” of our neediness.
So then, we must belong to others. Our lives are premised on some community outside ourselves. And, if that community is to be a good one, one that channels the kind of love Dougherty sees in Pearse, but tempers it so that it doesn’t fester into violent ethnonationalism, the fact of our need must be at the heart of what the community values.
The weak—babies, the elderly, the disabled—must be the first ones we point to when we explain who we are. We are all dependent—our periods of seeming independence momentary flickers or illusions. Rejecting the aim of atomizing liberalism as not just undesirable but untrue, we explain our community by saying, “We are the ones who are not our own.” Dougherty’s father gave him Ireland. All that we have is similarly gifted.