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In Search of the Lost Nation

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In Search of the Lost Nation

Michael Brendan Dougherty explores the meaning of fatherhood in Ireland and America. May 16, 2019
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home, by Michael Brendan Dougherty (Sentinel, 240 pp., $24.00)

IMy Father Left Me Ireland, Michael Brendan Dougherty explores his cultural inheritance, reconciling his childhood and familial past with his mother’s America and his father’s Ireland. This multilayered history required Dougherty’s emotional investment, and readers reap the dividends.

Dougherty’s memoir, a series of letters to his father, describes how family heartbreak and cultural yearning can lead to self-discovery. An only child, Dougherty was raised in New York City’s suburbs by his Irish-American mother. His absent father stayed in his native Ireland, where he married and raised his own family. A fatherless boy, Dougherty grew up in 1990s America, but curiosity about Ireland shadowed his formative years.

A senior editor at National Review, Dougherty has distinguished himself as a keen observer of our political age, and his book shows some of that facility. In post-Cold War America, baby boomers embraced what Dougherty calls the “myth of liberation.” “When I was a child the nation’s president disclosed to us his preference in underwear for a laugh,” he writes. “The adult world that I encountered was plainly terrified of having authority over children and tried to exercise as little of it as possible.” A generational shift, fueled by peace and prosperity, seemed to anesthetize the past. “This was the end of history, and wasn’t it good?”

In Dougherty’s youth, the end of history meant an “architecture of fatherlessness.” His mother, who worked at IBM, purchased a townhouse in New York’s Putnam County. The house seemed to reflect broader residential preferences—a suburban development growing in a field. Looking closer, Dougherty discovered that such houses “were built to lean on each other because the homes inside were broken.” The children of divorce turned to mass media for instruction. Disbanded families, spiritless communities, and cultural decay would eventually override a deeper shared contentment.

Ireland was experiencing its own form of fatherlessness—a fading sense of nation. In 1994, after a quarter-century of fighting the British in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army declared a ceasefire. When the shooting stopped, Ireland embraced a revisionist identity, demolishing its past and commodifying its culture. Dougherty’s father adopted the prevailing Irish attitude, praising the end of the “dark” country. Economics would point the way forward: the Celtic Tiger would deliver jobs and supplant the Church, but “the idea that there is nothing for Ireland to do with fifteen centuries of Christianity seems uncreative,” Dougherty notes.

In America, the “whole social constellation that revolved around Irish America’s version of Irish nationalism was falling apart.” Dougherty’s mother, once a regular at Irish-language retreats and Irish bars in Queens, now sang along to the Cranberries’ lyrics against the IRA. Mother and son skipped the festivals, dropped the rebel songs—and stopped going to mass. “Irishness now came out of public television, the enormous new bookstores and movie theaters popping up along Interstate 84,” Dougherty recounts. “It wasn’t people, but stuff, this cultural flotsam coming across the ocean and being sold to us.”

The decade’s cultural liberalism created a spiritual vacuum, and Dougherty witnessed its consequences. His father remained an infrequent, and heartbreaking, visitor, always leaving Dougherty the “man of the house.” His mother was “diagnosed one by one with all the mysterious ailments that strike the lonely and the disconnected.” His generation turned into “powerless narcissists,” seeking drugs, radicalism, and Internet father figures. 

Dougherty describes how a sterile, borderless technocracy wreaks social havoc. After becoming a father, he nurtured a deeper appreciation for nationhood after studying Ireland’s Easter Rising, the Irish republican insurrection against British rule in 1916. He presents a lucid overview of the rebellion, showing how Ireland’s past nationalism forced a reappraisal of his own roots. “I see in the Rising that a nation cannot live its life as a mere administrative district or a shopping mall; nations have souls,” he writes. 

Through lyrical prose, Dougherty reconstructs nationhood’s true definition. He draws a poignant conclusion: “the ghosts of a nation reproach the living on behalf of posterity.” He adds: “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.”

My Father Left Me Ireland inspires a reacquaintance with ancestry. In America, the Irish-Catholic experience slowly fades, but descendants should conserve its fragments—family stories, parish festivals, and the pride engendered by rebel songs. Regrettably, Ireland’s purge of nationhood squanders its own cultural bequest; the country battles against its heritage. 

Dougherty’s reflections are rooted in Irish Catholicism, but one need not share this background to appreciate his argument for national pride and ancestral tradition. My Father Left Me Ireland is brief but evocative. Dougherty shows the symbiosis that exists between fatherhood and the nation, and how it can nourish the soul.

Photo: MNStudio/iStock

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