Review: ‘My Father Left Me Ireland’ by Michael Brendan Dougherty

“My Father Left Me Ireland” is ostensibly a memoir: a short, often lyrical compilation of letters from an American son to his absent Irish father. But Michael Brendan Dougherty’s first book is better described as something more than that: a subtle, bracing critique of modern life and modern thought, and a stirring, elegiac defense of national pride.

The book’s engine is a question, asked at the end of the first of seven letters: How did Dougherty come to his “desperate feeling” of wanting to recover Irish nationalism at the very moment the Irish seemed happy to toss it aside? It’s a question that perhaps takes an American to answer. As a country much closer to the end of history than the Irish, Americans have a keener sense of where they’re likely headed.

As Dougherty writes to his father, “You yourself share in the prevailing Irish attitude of our time. You tell me that Ireland was a ‘dark’ country until just recently. Nothing open. Nothing going on. The food was poor. How the Church lorded it over everyone.” Now by contrast Ireland has nightlife, more job opportunities, even divorce! At long last it has joined the ranks of modern nations, having finally dismantled the “myth of Holy Catholic Ireland,” the solace that if Ireland was poor it was at least sanctified and creative. But in the place of one myth has come another hollow and more familiar one.

What he calls the “myth of liberation” struck Dougherty’s home in the United States well before it reached Ireland. In essence it was the antithesis of the world ruled from Rome: Now all the unjust taboos and barriers had been overcome; one could make life whatever he or she or they wanted. Growing up this myth served him well, as it inevitably does talented budding members of the meritocracy. “By all measures that mattered, I was doing fine,” he writes. But, “At the spiritual level, this myth of liberation … made my generation into powerless narcissists.” It did worse to his mother, and through her story Dougherty reveals how suffocating liberation can be.

“There was a great deal of talk [in the 1990s] about the heroism of single mothers,” he writes, “but not all the taboos were pulled down.” More accurately, new taboos sprung up. In the dark times of the past, his mother would have been scorned for terminating her pregnancy, perhaps prosecuted. In enlightened times abortion risks no legal sanctions, but by keeping her son as a single mother she faced a different sort of judgement: Her overworked life “had none of the honor and understanding that is extended to widows, whom everyone feels obliged to help. This state of life was what she chose, after all.”

The modern shibboleth of non-judgement, in short, is a sham. Dougherty’s mother “was a child of her age. She believed that people would accept her decisions. And for the rest of her life, she paid dearly for it.” Eventually the ailments that strike the lonely and disconnected — depression, arthritis — drove her from her job at IBM. After her early death, her son discovered the terms of her recent home loan refinance, in line with the federal government’s bailout program: the Irish in history killed to escape contracts less onerous.

“My Father Left Me Ireland” is intensely personal, but not self-indulgent. The family history serves a purpose: In the face of society’s ambivalence if not active hostility toward his mother’s life and death, one begins to doubt that every taboo shed constitutes progress. “This myth of liberation,” Dougherty writes, “was like a solvent that had slowly and inexorably dissolved any sense of obligation in life.” The myth dissolves the bonds between past, present, and future; between community; even between family. Dougherty, now a father, fears preserving an intact home himself isn’t enough: He can’t repair “the brokenness that surrounds the home, this malady that afflicts us all.”

It’s here where Dougherty’s personal rumination expands to contemplate national identity as well. Nationalism as commonly portrayed today connotes something sinister, even conspiratorial. In Dougherty’s mind it’s close to the opposite. Nationalism doesn’t spring from meat-headed jingoism, but from a “panicked realization that nobody in authority or around you is taking the nation seriously.” We’re told this is a good thing: that national pride is “a font of violence, a spur to extremism and superstition,” and that “sacrifice breeds intransigence.” Dougherty can’t hide his bewilderment at those spouting this mantra: “Do they love nothing in life so much as to be intransigent in its defense?”

As a secular myth replaced the sacred, what replaces national pride and the intangible bonds keeping it together? Nationhood itself is reduced to a mere administrative unit, “the arena in which technocrats and wonks do their work of making improvements on society,” unable to “develop a political or moral thought without searching out a social science abstract from which to loot it.” Like Burke, Dougherty laments an age of chivalry has given way to an age of sophisters and economists, extinguishing not just glory but common sense forever.

Yet Dougherty goes beyond Burke and his conventional conservative view that society is a contract between those who are living, those who are dead, and those yet to be born. Invoking Patrick Pearse, leader of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, Dougherty says Pearse corrects Burke. A nation is not just a contract but a living thing, “a spiritual ecology” that “exists in the things that a father gives to his children.” Our problem today is we have polluted this ecology, satisfied to live as consumers at the end of history rather than fulfill our proper role as conservators for our descendants.

If at times Pearse’s code leads Dougherty to adopt an overwrought and quasi-theological view of nationalism — he writes, “The life of a nation proceeds from a father and a son,” to take one example — it can be forgiven as an understandable overcorrection to the modern aversion to any form of national pride. There may be no turning back all the “progress” that brought us here, but there’s something admirable in Dougherty’s resolute opposition to modernity’s myths, even something worth emulating for those similarly unenthusiastic about going along with the current: “In a world where everything is plastic, everything unserious,” he writes, “this adamantine stubbornness feels like a shelter.”