Months ago, when I read an advance copy of Michael Brendan Dougherty’s memoir My Father Left Me Ireland, I wrote this blurb:
This rich, poetic book is not only about fathers and sons; it’s also about discovering, through pain and perseverance, the most profound meaning of patriotism.
What I meant is that “patriot” stems from the Latin word pater, which means “father.” MBD writes about what it was like to be raised as the son of a single mother, knowing that his biological father lived in Ireland, with a family he had created. He longed, really longed, for his absent dad. The book is in the form of letters to him. The subtitle is “An American Son’s Search For Home,” which signals the universal appeal of the memoir — by which I mean you don’t have to have a particular fondness for Ireland to love this book.
I’ve been told all my life that I didn’t need my father. He had left my American mother to bring me up by herself in New Jersey while he raised a family of his own back in Ireland. I was encouraged to believe that I was better off without him, that my broken home was just another modern family, no worse than any other.
But when my wife became pregnant with our first child, I suddenly realized that I was a vital link between my unborn daughter and her heritage. And I realized that my own father was that link for me, whether I liked it or not.
MBD says that he learned that having a homeland, roots, and a past really does matter, that we are not simply free-floating atoms. This memoir is how he came to that discovery.
His mom loved Ireland, and passed that love down to her son, who could not separate that love for the desire to have a father. As he grew older, MBD threw himself into Irishness, into learning all he could about Irish history and culture, as if to compensate for the dad he wanted to be with him. Eventually they began spending time together, and MBD met his dad’s Irish family. Still, he knew he could never really be part of Ireland, or Irishness, not in the same way he would have done had he grown up there.
I, on the other hand, am what many Irish people would call a plastic Paddy. A Yank. A tourist who stumbles on a ruined castle and thinks it’s the old family homestead, then babbles about how good the Guinness is wherever I happen to land in Ireland, when, objectively, the Guinness there is a bit shit.
For me, the most compelling part of the book is MBD’s reflections on the past, and how we make it, and remake it, to suit our needs and desires. He writes:
Let’s grant for a moment that we are all revisionists now. That we all retell stories in light of our motives. The next question would be: What are your motives? What does this retold story do to the people hearing it, or to the person telling it? If we want noble things in life, we will pull those noble things out of our history and experience. If we are cynics, we will see plenty of justification for our cynicism.
As I try to plumb our history in these letters, I don’t want to give in to despair on the one side, or an undemanding sentimentality on the other. We cannot help but bring our desires and our ambitions to our understandings, and so I think the only solution is to make sure we desire what is right and good.
MBD is aware that what he sees in Ireland has to do with how he sees himself. He writes about contemporary Irish people turning on their nation, its history, its ancestral religion, and its culture as a cesspit of shame, superstition, small-mindedness, and suffering. Many of them leave the country, looking for more economic opportunity, but also to escape what they consider to be its crushing gravity. They look for a life without limits. They look for what they imagine is freedom.
But this is choosing fatherlessness, warns MBD, and he’s here to tell you what it means to grow up cut off from one’s father (by which he means one’s ancestors, and one’s ancestral past. As a modern American, MBD was raised with the “myth of liberation” — that all of us are, and should be, self-created. This leads us to adopt “a curator’s approach to life” — that we can enjoy this and that, but always keep these things at a distance, without having to commit. This is how we live, and how we think we should live.
This is the context in which MBD’s imagination is seized by the history of the 1916 Easter Rising, a failed armed insurrection in Dublin by Irish republicans seeking freedom from British rule. He writes:
What I mean by the Rising becoming kitsch for me is that in my generation, our joke would be to say anything is serious at all. The idea that events and ideals have real meaning, that something outside ourselves deserves our loyalty, is what’s ridiculed. We were so conditioned to think of things like honor and shame as delusions. … But aloofness misleads us. This ironic distance is insufficient when we are really tested.
Imagine, he says, caring about your nation so much, and your honor, that you would risk your life to free it? These rebels stood up to the British Empire, and they did so on the basis of ideals, of course, but those ideals were grounded in flesh and blood and soil. This is the connection between fatherhood and patriotism.
Last night, I watched the 1976 movie Network with my son. I had forgotten how powerful the demonic boardroom speech by Ned Beatty, the corporation owner, was — and how prophetic. Listen to it now; it’s the essence of technocratic globalism. You should follow that link to watch Beatty deliver it, but if you only want to read the text, here it is. Excerpt:
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it!! Is that clear?! You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance!
You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.
It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU WILL ATONE!
Paddy Chayefsky wrote that as satire, but you get the point. Now, here’s MBD, explaining why a nation can never be a mere administrative unit, any more than a family can be:
The life of a nation is never reducible to mere technocracy, just as the home cannot be, no matter how much we try to make it so. I see that nationality is something you do, even with your body, even with your death. I see that a history of plunder does not oblige those plundered to despair; it obliges them to hope, and to act on that hope.
On the doomed 1916 rebels:
These men and women allowed themselves to be refashioned from something outside themselves.
In other words, they refused the modern way of living. Maybe it had not even occurred to them. They new that patriotism requires sacrifice, in the same way a father sacrifices for his children. This is something that came alive for MBD when his first child was born. He writes to his dad:
You predicted that having a child would “send me to the roots.” You were right. It’s not just the pile of history books and the Irish lessons. My daughter has sent me back to you.
Though MBD is frank about the brokenness within himself over his father’s absence, he comes to terms with it, and he even learns some truths about his dad that his late mother had kept from him. Their past — his and his father’s — was not exactly what he had been raised to think. MBD and his father can’t re-live the past, but they can, and they have, re-forged a family bond, and are building it strong within the next generation — MBD’s children, and their grandfather, and their aunts, uncles, and cousins in Ireland.
Here is a crucial point, one that takes it beyond the story of one family:
A nation or a society is not merely a contract between the living, the unborn, and the dead; it is a spiritual ecology that exists among them. 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.
If we cut ourselves off from the past, we pollute the spiritual ecology, and destroy what we need to live. The past cannot be something just to be consumed. We have to be dedicated to it in some way that costs us, in some way that incarnates it, and, to use a phrase I’m fond of, sediments it into our bones.
This is much harder to do today, and not just because we all live in a culture of broken families and the exaltation of rootlessness. It’s harder in large part because we are in what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “a secular age” — that is, an age in which we know, and can’t not know, that believing in God is a choice. In the same way, we can’t not know that we have the ability to refuse our patrimony, or to relate to it in ways we choose. Virtually nobody receives it in a pure way.
A professor friend of mine who used to teach college in Appalachia told me that it broke his heart to see the teenagers in his classes turn their collective noses up at Appalachian culture — bluegrass music, especially — because they were ashamed of it. They were acculturated by what they were seeing on MTV and elsewhere — a constant liturgy pumped into their homes, through TV and other devices, telling them that real life, and real freedom, was elsewhere.
If they chose to stay in Appalachia, they were aware that it was a choice. They might have done something different. That’s what I’m getting at here. Because this relationship is chosen, it has a more fragile quality. This is inescapable. It’s the condition we live in. This is why liquid modernity is so powerful: it washes away the land on which our feet once stood firm.
What makes My Father Left Me Ireland so compelling is that the author embeds these big ideas in a deeply personal story, a pilgrimage back home to his father, and to something greater than himself. As readers of my books The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and How Dante Can Save Your Life know, I undertook a thematically similar journey, with results that were both life-giving and tragic. My own turn homeward, toward my father, began when my first child was born. (I wrote about this in 2001, in a Wall Street Journal column titled “Paw’s World,” which I can’t find online.)
Reading MBD’s book, I kept thinking about my own father, and how he embodied our homeland (West Feliciana Parish) for me, and how I had made an idol of him, and of home. I didn’t realize this until I actually returned home, with my three children, and had to confront the messy realities of what was in my family, versus the past that I had created — and that they had created — for ourselves. My father did not abandon me — he was very much present for me — but he also could not hide that his son was a disappointment to him, because the boy was so bookish, and so bad at sports and hunting. This wound stayed with me for most of my life. It was the foundation on which I built my Catholic faith — John Paul II had all the best qualities of my father, but he also accepted me, or so I told myself — and that was the fault line that caused me to lose that faith.
I went home, but I was a kind of Plastic Paddy, because I had not lived the life there, as my late sister had. Nevertheless, I renewed my love of the South, and have given my children a connection to the South by virtue of raising them here. That matters, I am confident, but I’m not sure how it will matter. I loved reading MBD’s book because it was so relatable to my own journey, as it will be to every man or woman who feels displaced, and wants to know why. For the reader, what Michael Brendan Dougherty talks about in this beautiful, at times agonizing, narrative raises profound questions like: What does it mean to love America? What is a nation, anyway? What does it mean to be a family? What is worth sacrificing for? How do the past and the future bind us and blind us? Who are we, and how can we know?
Things like that. It’s uncanny how Michael Brendan Dougherty has managed to write a series of letters to his faraway father, and to write about the deepest philosophical and political questions of our time. But mostly it’s about a son who is also a father, and who discovered through his own quest for roots some home truths buried like treasure in the history of his own family and people.
My Father Left Me Ireland is a great Father’s Day gift, is what I’m saying.
UPDATE: Really sorry that I screwed up the title in the original posting. I said it was My Father GAVE Me Ireland, when in fact it’s LEFT Me Ireland. I apologize. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few days, and I let my family’s vacation slip up on me. I rushed to get it out before leaving for the airport, and didn’t have a chance to look it over before hitting publish.
By the way, I’m going to be in rural England for the next week or so. I’m going to be posting, but more lightly, because I really need to unwind, and to pay attention to my family. I’ll be approving comments when I can.