'My Father Left Me Ireland' -- moving, but out of touch with modern Ireland

My Father Left Me Ireland       by Michael Brendan Dougherty  
Sentinel, 2019, 240pp

My Father Left Me Ireland is the hotly-anticipated memoir of one of the most talented young writers in American conservatism: Michael Brendan Dougherty. 

As the title suggests, the senior writer at National Review has an unusually strong connection to Ireland.

Dougherty’s mother was an Irish-American whose ancestors departed these shores after the Famine, and his father is a native Dubliner. His parents met in Europe and after their brief relationship ended, Dougherty’s mother returned to New Jersey and raised him on her own, while his father went back to Dublin, married and had a family of his own.

In spite of his Irish parent playing only a minor role in his early life, the Dougherty household was an intensely Gaelicised environment, thanks to his mother’s single-minded determination that her son should know and love the country his family came from.

The childhood that Dougherty tenderly describes went far beyond the usual practices of the typical Irish-American. His mother brought him to Irish cultural festivals, taught him Irish history and tried hard to learn the Irish language. Like so many other Irish-Americans, she did not hesitate to donate money to the IRA when a collection plate was being passed around an Irish bar Stateside.

As Dougherty grew up, he and his mother gradually turned away from this path, as did many other Irish-Americans.

The links between the two countries weakened. Fewer Irish émigrés arrived, and the Peace Process brought an end to much of the political activism among Irish-Americans.

War and poverty were replaced by peace and prosperity. Irishness had become fashionable and commercially attractive, and this new Irish identity was not appealing to a young man who had grown out of his Irish identity and become a man, while remaining detached from the father he had never properly known.

Then something changed.

Dougherty, who was carving out a career as a successful writer on sports and politics, found out that his wife was pregnant. The knowledge that he now had to be a father awakened a desire to reconnect, not just with his father in Ireland, but with the idea of Ireland as well.

“This child, my child, is coming presently, and I am determined not to withhold any part of my heart from her,” he writes early on. “And I need to be fully present to her. I feel this invigorating need to be stronger and better than I have been. That my manhood is at stake. And if there is an inheritance to be had in being Irish, I will recover it for her.”

The fruits of his efforts to reconnect with home are demonstrated in this book, which takes the form of a series of long letters to his father, Brendan.

As a literary work, My Father Left Me Ireland is both deeply personal and political. It taps into a widely-held feeling which is of increasing relevance across the world. While cultural elites the world over often dismiss the virtues of traditional nationalism, Dougherty is concerned about the sundering of the ties between generations, including the dead and those yet to be born.

The prospect of becoming a father heightened these concerns about what he calls an “age of disinheritance” where the past is forgotten along with those who lived in it.

The proximate cause of the author’s disinheritance is clear enough. Due to the circumstances of his birth and the distance between Ireland and America, Dougherty grew up without a father. The lengthy reconciliation process between the two men gives rise to the book’s most heartwarming, and heartbreaking, moments.

Given the title, it is no surprise that the book is predominantly focused on the author’s absent father, but his mother – to whom it is dedicated – also forms a massive part of the story.

JD Vance, who took the political and cultural worlds by storm with Hillbilly Elegy in 2016, has called Dougherty’s book “heartbreaking and redemptive.”

While Dougherty’s childhood and adolescence lacked the violent melodrama of Vance’s, the same focus on identity and belonging is present here, and the prose is arguably superior.

The parallels between the two works are clear, and My Father Left Me Ireland deserves its place among an emerging category of literature dealing with the connections between people and place, and how individuals navigate the complexities of modern family life.

Moments of typical Irish-American kitsch are present but mercifully rare (“As a child, when we took vacations to the Jersey shore, I would point out over the water, squint, and tell my mother I could see it.”)

The personal component of Dougherty’s account is compelling, moving, almost faultless. The political aspect of the book, on the other hand, is far more problematic.

From the beginning, Dougherty assails the revisionist trend in Irish history and how he believes it has caused Irish people to break with previous traditions and generations. He links this tendency to dismiss the sacrifices of the past to the broader problem of living in “an age of disinheritance.”

His main fixation is on the Easter Rising, and a considerable - and excessive - portion of his argument centres around the merits of the Rising, the actions of those who fought and the motivations of its leaders.

Curiously, he takes aim early on at the words of a “prominent Irish leader” who falls into the revisionist camp when it comes to the Rising.

“Sacrifice breeds intransigence,” this leader said, “The dead exert an unhealthy power over the living to hold out for the impossible, so that the sacrifice of the dead is not perceived to have been in vain.”

Dougherty emphasises his disagreement with this point, and in a convoluted and unconvincing manner, attempts to link his quest to provide his children with the comfort of a homeland with efforts to overcome such revisionist sentiments about Ireland’s past.

John Bruton, Taoiseach between 1994-1997, wrote the offending words in 2014 in a thoughtful essay about that period in Irish history.

The essay, like Bruton’s other writings and speeches on the subject, focused on the process which led to the successful passage of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912, and the reasons why he believes that the Easter Rising was a needless mistake.

One can accept or reject that argument: the question is beyond the scope of a book review, or Dougherty’s short memoir.

Yet for Dougherty to imply that John Bruton is an exemplar of a dismissive attitude towards the country’s past is deeply unfair.

Of all our recent heads of government, none was more historically aware than Bruton, and more hostile to modernist dogmas.

More importantly though, Bruton’s argument is not just a critique of the Rising, but of the tendency to ignore or negate the tradition of constitutional nationalism which existed up until the Irish Parliamentary Party’s collapse in the 1918 General Election.  

The purveyors of that nationalism are barely even mentioned by Dougherty. O’Connell is virtually a ghost in this book, Parnell too.

The author has a great deal to say about an armed uprising which lasted five days, and nothing at all to say about the extraordinary achievements of the Irish nation in the century leading up to it: Catholic Emancipation; the reversal of the Cromwellian and other land thefts; the forging of a parliamentary tradition which saw Irish concerns taking centre stage in Westminster, and which paved the way for the creation of a viable parliamentary democracy after independence.

All of this mattered enormously and yet barely any of it is acknowledged here. It is as if Irish history began when Connolly ordered his troops to charge into the GPO.

My Father Left Me Ireland is not a historical volume, so the narrow focus is not a fatal flaw. But it does represent a tendency among Irish-Americans to associate Irish patriotism with armed rebellion, in a way which does a tremendous disservice to the countless patriots who chose to live and work for Ireland, rather than killing or dying for it.

While focusing attention on the historical revisionism of the latter end of the 20th century, Dougherty writes remarkably little about its main cause.

He acknowledges the fact that many Irish-Americans – including his mother – supported the Provisional IRA’s armed campaign.

It was an easy thing for them to support. The consequences of their actions were rarely revealed on the evening news or in the morning papers. No bombs ever ripped through Irish bars in Boston or the Bronx.

And when the ceasefires came and peace was made, the departure of Dougherty’s mother from physical force Irish nationalism was remarkably sudden. Interestingly, Dougherty writes that she sang along to the Cranberries’ song Zombies while unloading boxes in the new family home “without ever feeling a need to explain the apparent change in her politics.”

As a work of historical revisionism, Zombies was a classic. In it, the band protests the IRA’s bombing of Warrington in 1993, which killed a 12-year-old boy and a three-year-old toddler who had been shopping for a Mother’s Day card.

The connection between the violence of the past and the present could not have been clearer in Dolores O’Riordan’s words.

It's the same old theme 
Since nineteen-sixteen  
In your head, in your head, they're still fighting
Either Dougherty was not listening, or he did not understand.

The nature of violent Republicanism in the latter half of the 20th Century is not reflected upon in this book at all, and the author makes little or no effort to understand why the killing of thousands of people in the name of Irish Republicanism would cause people to reassess whether men of violence should be afforded such reverence, whether they had fought in Dublin in 1916 or in Belfast and South Armagh more recently.

Irish-Americans never had to consider these questions. Glorifying violence never carried a cost, and when the ‘war’ ended, people like the author’s mother found it easy to detach themselves from a situation which they had probably not understood.

There is however a bigger problem here, though.

Dougherty criticises the historical revisionists - including John Bruton - who have sought to re-examine important parts of Ireland’s past, and praises counter-revisionist historians for challenging them.

But there is a broader and far more consequential historical battle taking place in Ireland now, and that is the intensive effort to erase Christianity from Irish public life and public memory.

In the space of a generation, the history of 1,600 years of Irish Christianity has been subjected to a systematic onslaught which goes far beyond any revisionist critique of the period immediately prior to independence.

Every historical documentary, every cultural work and every political speech about the past now carries the traces of this. ‘Catholic Ireland’ has become a dark slur. Everything that is wrong with Ireland starts with religion, and progress must always be synonymous with ensuring there is a firm rupture with the past.

Any real-life story or tragedy which supports this revisionist narrative is magnified and amplified. Other tales are distorted or invented entirely. And the countless acts of heroism, charity and kindness in the name of Christianity are ignored entirely.

Aside from quickly reshaping Ireland, this trend is also impacting the relationship between modern Ireland and modern Irish-America, which is still for the most part Catholic, often devoutly so.

More and more Irish-Americans are coming to realise that the religion which their ancestors brought with them to America is becoming more marginalised and despised in Ireland by the day. The making of Vice-President Mike Pence into a hateful caricature is a useful example of how people here now perceive any American of Irish extract who display any sign of religiosity.

Dougherty, a practising Catholic who has written perceptively about the Church, has remarkably little to say about the chasm which has grown up between the Ireland his father was born into and the Ireland which exists now. The subject appears to be of minor importance to him.

The unhealthy obsession with 1916, and the disproportionate focus on political and cultural changes at the expense of spiritual ones mars this book.

It leaves the reader with the sense that the author understands his father’s homeland - and his, to be fair - deeply, but only narrowly.

But it does not greatly detract from a moving and profound work by a wonderfully gifted writer. In an era where fatherlessness and rootlessness is becoming ever-more common, the importance of My Father Left Me Ireland cannot be overstated.

Dougherty has succeeded in his quest to find home, and those looking to commence their own journeys would do well to start here.

James Bradshaw is a public policy masters graduate who works in an international consulting firm in Dublin.   


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