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My Father Left Me Ireland:
An American Son’s Search For Home

by michael brendan dougherty
sentinel, 223 pages, $24

Irish artists face a problem unknown to artists in, let us say, uninterrupted nations. It is possible for things, places, people to be “too Irish”—the gist of a note I was offered on a rejected movie script some years ago. (The story was set in Tipperary in the 1940s. What to do!)

Everything that seems “Irish” becomes for the native overly authentic, which is to say not authentic at all: a thatched cottage, a peaked cap, a bodhrán, a brogue, the word “brogue,” and associated epithets. It is not that these things are not really Irish, but that they have been reborn as kitsch. This is the fate of an Irish culture that has been interrupted by centuries of British rule. It is the reason Irish traditional musicians are better received abroad than at home. It is the reason many modern Irish writers do not seem Irish. (They are trying hard not to.) It is the reason Irish people pretend not to notice the landscape of their own country (too much like a John Laing postcard).

A thatched cottage might sit on a hillside and seem to its occupants to be no more nor less than reality, but to an observer, the same cottage might be a flash of the “ideal Ireland,” a relic of a kitschified countryside, an ironic statement of postmodern knowingness, a wink at a passing Yank. Yet, above all, the cottage is simply there, and very often ­inhabited, not by crones, comely maidens, or desiccated bachelors from the pages of misery lit, but by flesh-and-blood Irish people who have forgotten what the roof is made of. The problem for the writer is how to write about this cottage without opting for either sentimentality or revisionism. For today, the fear of sentimentality has spawned what might be called a revisionist literature, stripped of thatched cottages as a deliberate, indeed a political, elision. Irish fiction has thus become unreal. No surprise, then, that we have produced no Roths, Pynchons, or DeLillos to paint our modern national psyche.

Michael Brendan ­Dougherty dug his way to Ireland through American sentimentalism and wishful thinking, which is perhaps the best mode of approach. After all, Irish kitsch is the product of the Irish-American imagination, the remembered symbols of a life that grows greener with distance and lachrymose with time. Raised in New Jersey and New York by his American mother, Dougherty hardly knew his Irish father or Ireland. His attempt to rediscover them both culminated in this book, a series of open letters to his father.

It begins with a description of the moment when Dougherty’s father gave him a “hurl,” the implement of Ireland’s national game, a furious test of manhood:

I was six, I think. It was a gray day in Clare, a kind of gray I never saw at home in America. I remember the shabby carpet of the shop’s floor and a mumbled instruction to put my hands at my side. A number of these hurls—these wooden axes used in a sport I did not know—were held up to my body for sizing.

This instrument—in Irish, the camán—is prehistoric, utilitarian, but also a piece of kitsch. The hurl has two lives: one on the field of play, one stacked in racks outside shops flogging icons of Irishry, in Killarney, in Doolin, or along the cobbled lanes of Dublin’s Temple Bar. It is a good place to start: a boy caught between kitsch and reality, mother and father, America and Ireland.

The love Dougherty’s mother had for his father was unrequited. She was in America, he in Ireland. There was not only no happy nuclear family; there was no informal fractured family in the modern sense, with double holidays and weekends at father’s. Dougherty’s mother loved her son intensely, moment to moment. His father was three thousand miles away. It took many years for Dougherty to realize that his father was as heartbroken to be separated from his son as the son was to be separated from his father.

Never quite reconciled to the loss of Michael’s father, who had moved on and started a new family in Dublin, his mother learned to speak Irish and went to Irish music performances. The young Michael followed suit, and in doing so created a way of relating to his father. He imagined Ireland, and the space that his father might have inhabited began to fill up with gray and green things and arguments that cannot be proven.

Along the way, Dougherty became more Irish than the Irish. One is not allowed to say such things, now that right-thinking people have decided that there is “no Ireland” or “no fixed Ireland.” Dougherty’s attitude would be frowned upon by the many Irishmen who believe that Ireland is not something to be discovered but something to be rebranded on a whim. Their “new” Ireland is abortion and gay marriage, multiculturalism, a pint of Guinness, a box of Friendly matches, and whatever you’re having.

But there is another Ireland, a stern and true place, and Dougherty sets out for it, following the faintest and most tentative of clues. To get there, he does things almost none of my resident countrymen would dream of doing: singing litanies of Irish songs to his children, learning the Irish language from scratch, reading his way through the literature and history. Deprived of the glow of his father’s company, Dougherty was drawn to the light behind him, a light his father could not see. He pursued the real Ireland out of a desire to know and love the man whose silhouette was framed by the glow of a heroic story he seemed to take for granted.

At the heart of this story is the 1916 Rising. Dougherty quotes Yeats’s great poem “Easter, 1916.” It is in part an apology to the heroes who did the things the poet lacked the courage to do. It is directed in particular toward one man, Major John MacBride. MacBride, a veteran of the Second Boer War, walking the streets of the capital that Easter Monday, stumbled upon the rebellion, volunteered, and so signed his death warrant. The telling of MacBride’s story has been one of the great travesties of Irish history. He was banished from the life of his young son by his ex-wife, the boy’s mother, Maud Gonne, confidante and unrequiting adored of Yeats. The poet helped her in besmirching the name of one of Ireland’s greatest heroes. Even when Yeats included MacBride in his encomium to courage, he could not forbear to besmirch him with the three most disgraceful words in Irish literature: “drunken, vainglorious lout.” MacBride’s son must have felt some of the same things as Dougherty.

Dougherty is not ungrateful to his mother. He describes how she cared and provided for him, pampered him maybe. The child of baby boomers, he wanted for nothing but authority. “The demolition job on old Ireland and its nationalist myths” rhymed with his own life, “which at that time was thick with skepticism for everything received.” He felt “this sense of boundlessness and abundance; this giddy feeling that there were almost no limits to what I could do.” This might have been written around the mid-1990s as a rough summary of the emerging attitude to their country of Ireland’s youth contingent.

After his mother’s death, Dougherty found in the letters she had written to his father the clues to his own misunderstandings. What had appeared to be his father’s deliberate ­inattention revealed itself as something else. His mother had scolded his father for lack of attention to his son while also ensuring that the distance remained. It was a confused mix of news, anger, moral blackmail, and affection. “Over the years, I notice she shifted to warning you to keep a distance. It was too hard for me, she said, to have a father drop in once every few years. . . . And, noticing her feelings, I recruited myself into the project, giving you years of stony silence.” Even a trip his father made to see him, risking arrest by going directly to his school, was misinterpreted as an afterthought to a football outing.

Dougherty was left with his father’s letters, brimful of details of their parallel Dublin family, “thoughts on the passing seasons,” a wealth of data that Michael learned to decode. “And I’m afraid that I had it all wrong, that these letters, which I once passed over so casually, brim with longing—longing for me—just as my mother’s did for you. That is our history.”

Later on, there would be the first great family gathering in New York on the occasion of the 2003 World Series, with his father and his father’s wife, his half-siblings whom he was meeting for the first time, some friends, and the woman who would become his own wife, who watched the two men as they vied for the hearts and minds of the company. “They began tallying all these things I had inherited from you—the smirks, and shrugs, a boyish gleam—even though I could not have learned them from imitation,” he writes. “Everyone could see it, she said. Everyone except me. 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.”

Twenty-three years ago, my daughter was born in London in circumstances similar to those of Dougherty’s birth. Appalled by the prospect of her growing up in an alien culture, I went to night school in the months before her arrival, brushing up my school Irish. For the first three years of her life, when I visited her in London, no word of English passed between us. Only on her occasional trips home did I revert to the Béarla, for reasons I cannot explain. Today, she is a fluent Irish speaker, whereas my Gaeilge has returned to the rustiness from which I briefly rescued it.

I remember my daughter’s first Easter Sunday, four weeks after her birth in 1996. I took her out in her pram and along the way bought a copy of the Observer, in which I was confronted with a long diatribe by a quisling from home, excoriating the leaders of the Easter Rising on the eightieth anniversary of their, and our, most glorious hour. I felt not anger, but shame—to be walking these streets with my baby daughter and to be unable to defend them. Dougherty’s determination to love Ireland is a function of the dreaded loss of his father, just as I wanted my daughter to know and love not only her father but also her country.

Yet family and country will always be incomplete unless they are ordered to a higher loyalty. Dougherty’s book reflects this fact. At the same time that he began to reclaim his Irish heritage, Dougherty returned to the faith of his childhood. Inspired by his evangelical Protestant girlfriend and her impressive father, he “wound up back in the Catholic Church.” He discovered something that, one hopes, the whole world is on the verge of rediscovering. Family, nation, and God are not items on an à la carte menu. They form a set of coterminous super-loyalties, each working to take man out of himself.

John Waters is an Irish writer.