The Primordial Facts of Fathers and Sons

My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son's Search For Home | Michael Brendan Dougherty | Sentinel (2019)

Reviewed by Carla Galdo

In the midst of a culture that proclaims personal identity a product, rather than a gift, it can be easy to bury the fundamental human need to know—and be known by—one's origin. Who am I? Who, and where, am I from? What then, must I do? Taken seriously, such questions pierce the heart, and can often be held at bay, knocking at the mind's threshold for years, threatening to penetrate the clouds of technological diversions and day-to-day busyness, and break down our staunch walls of self-assurance. Yet the onslaught of meaning can break through at pivotal moments in life—birth, illness, death—when the questions slip past our defenses and, suddenly vulnerable, we're halted, wondering, in the midst of them all.

Michael Brendan Dougherty's book, My Father Left Me Ireland, is the record of one man's full-stop in the midst of his life, a raw and compelling memoir which answers a not-so-casual question placed to him by his father, in the days after the death of his mother: “Do you have anything you want to say to me, Michael?” Dougherty's response takes the form of seven chapter-length letters, narrative responses that record the blossoming of an adult relationship with a mostly absent father, and his growing certainty about the meaning of his blood-ties to Ireland.

Dougherty spent his childhood and early adulthood as the American son of a single mother, while his Irish father lived his own life on the other side of the Atlantic. His parents met and quickly fell for one another while his mother made an extended tour of Europe. The love affair was short-lived, but the consequences were not, as his mother informed his father via letter shortly after her return to the States. She spent the rest of her life single, nurturing a mix of unrequited love and anger towards his Irish father; his father married another woman in Ireland and built a life of his own. Nevertheless, Dougherty's mother was determined that her son would know his Irish roots. Though her own family had its own vanishing Irish-American roots, her inspiration in this regard was due more to her heart's attachment to an Irishman. The Irish identity she cultivated was not the kitsch of shamrocks and new-age Celtic fads; rather, she attempted to learn the dying Irish language, bought and read Dougherty children's books in Irish, and traveled with him to immersion weekend festivals where only Irish was spoken. She even stubbornly jumped on a States-side bandwagon of support for Irish nationalist causes. Surrounded by all this, as a young child at the Jersey shore, Dougherty would point, squinting, across the Atlantic, and cry out to his mother that he could see Ireland in the mist.

Dougherty's relationship with his father was tenuous throughout childhood. Each encounter—there were only a handful before his college years—left him reeling with grief, then silence. During his elementary years, his father visited the U.S. on a few occasions, each a more searing reminder of his absence than a moment of connection. As he entered his teen years, the push to self-definition and self-protection took over, and while his father wrote letters and sent gifts, Dougherty closed the doors of communication, sealing off any overtures towards a relationship, and ignoring the connection he had to Ireland. This silence lasted a decade until a spontaneous letter written in his college library—full of self-assurance and between-the-lines insinuations that his millennial identity, forged alone, was just fine without his father or his Irish roots—provided the clumsy but workable basis for a thaw in the iced-over relationship.

If you like this review, you will love the FORMA Review, a beautiful print journal that contemplates the intersection of classical thought and contemporary culture! Subscribe today for $4/month or $39/year!

With this thaw, the fissures in Dougherty's carefully-constructed life begin to spread, breaking open and revealing that this father who had only intermittently been in contact with him had been a compelling force in his life, even in his absence. His gestures are the same, as is his posture, his face—it all pointed to the fact that their “relationship wasn't a series of events, but an unalterable and primordial fact.” Dougherty lives through the death of his mother, feeling “marooned by history” as her departure dissolves the only in-the-flesh link he had to the bulk of his own childhood. Then, in the years shortly after this event, he and his wife welcome their first child. A new drive for connection to his father, the only living symbol of his origin, begins, and with phone calls, visits, and letters, they reconstruct the edifice of the relationship they both had missed. Along the way, Dougherty begins to realize that this identity, as his father's son, was a relationship with Ireland itself.

The unique offering of this book is Dougherty's exploration of what it meant to be an American child-in-absentia of Ireland. “Ireland is what you gave me when you wrote letters and sent them into the silence. Ireland is what my mother gave me when she put those CDs on constant rotation or hung the bodhran proudly in her room.” Within the details of his own story, and his own growing understanding of himself and his father, he explores Irish history, faith, nationhood, and language, and offers an incisive critique of how the American millennial tendency to “define life on our own terms” hobbled his (and everyone else's) ability to value the transcendent over the useful, and ultimately to realize their need for the “other”—be it supernatural or incarnate. He compares his own attempt to negotiate a relationship with his father to Ireland's centuries-old attempt to self-define—to break out of the twin shackles of self-denigration and the modern grasping at salvation via material affluence. He experiences a reversion to the Catholic faith when he departs from his childhood understanding of the Church as a “friendly ghost” that existed only as a rubber stamp upon whatever he wanted his life to be. His father's father, descending into illness and old age, clung to the prayers of the Rosary like a rock amid the obliviating storms of dementia.

This “adamantine stubbornness” is for Dougherty a beacon, shedding light on a thicker sense of truth as a gift from outside us, something unchanging, serious, and solid. He shares anecdotes of his own attempt to re-learn the Irish language and pass it on to his daughter via song and story, and he sketches out reasons to admire the self-sacrifice of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, martyrs to the cause of Irish nationalism. The tone of witty irony and detachment prevalent in our own culture stands in stark contrast with their sense of honor, their vision that “that events and ideals have real meaning, that something outside ourselves deserves our loyalty.”

My Father Left Me Ireland is deeply human and unguarded; the letters are often awkward with their mixture of historical narrative, personal memoir, and direct-address to Dougherty's father. A conversational tone most at home in the blogosphere takes over at certain points, then retreats behind pages filled with poetic, epigrammatic flourishes. One gets the sense that a more assertive editor may have pushed Dougherty a bit harder to refine the text. Yet the book remains a compelling and relevant hymn to the universal desire to embrace one's origins more deeply—whether they be familial, national, or even, as Dougherty hints, supernatural. As he closes the book, in a final crescendo, he addresses his father-become-grandfather:

Romantic Ireland is dead and gone; it yet rises from the grave. And underneath a canopy of blush and violet sky, my daughter will see this transfigured Ireland through songs her daddy sang to her.

These gestures are small rebellions measured against an Empire built on forgetting, in a world that, having given up a sense of duty to posterity, also finds itself a stranger to the past. But the Rising has taught me that when we act, or when we are forced to act on behalf of the future, the past can be given back to us as a gift.

Carla Galdo is a graduate of the Washington, D.C. session of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family. She is a contributor to Humanum, an online quarterly review of books of the JPII Institute's Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research, and the publications of Well-Read Mom, a nationwide movement of women endeavoring to cultivate the moral imagination through the attentive reading of literature in the Western and Christian tradition. She lives in rural Virginia with her husband and five children.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal.