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On Reclaiming a Lost Patrimony: “My Father Left Me Ireland”

July 1, 2019


Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. . . . Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

—G.K. Chesterton


Soon I noticed that the classmates who moved into our development did so after their parents divorced. And then it became clearer to me. These houses were built to lean on each other because the homes inside were broken. The manicured green spaces between them gave kids places to play, but no way to walk to another neighborhood. The men who mowed our common green space, and the men who shoveled our stoops and the walkways, were all hired hands. These men themselves were thousands of miles from their children. This was an architecture of fatherlessness.

—Michael Brendan Dougherty


Yes. It is hard, but it is life-giving.

—Father Andrie


It begins charming enough.

A warm, petite book of just over two hundred pages, it calls you over. Its dust jacket is adorned with variegated houses resting atop a stone foundation on the misty, green coast of Ireland. The subtitle, An American Son’s Search For Home, taps at you wistfully. Perhaps you should have a look.

You crack open the cover and encounter an introductory quote from Thomas MacDonagh: “A man who is a mere author is nothing. If there is anything good in anything I have written, it is the potentiality of adventure in me.”

And then it begins: “Dear Father,”

Now you are hooked.

To read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s memoir, My Father Left Me Ireland, is to rediscover heartache without self-absorbed angst, to encounter earnest nostalgia without a cheapening sentimentality. His telling helps us to step away from an angry absolutism and to recognize that the good, while not perfect, is still good nonetheless. It is, to be frank, unlike anything I have read in years.

Crafted as a series of letters to an absent Irish father, Dougherty engages in a difficult, but perennially surprising, conversation you might expect from a young man in search of his patrimony. The titles of each chapter and letter hunger and ache. Only Child, Single Mother, Putting Childish Things Away, Who Made Me, Marooned by History, Rebel Songs As Lullabies, Father Tongue, Reconciliation. Though his letters explore the tribulations visited upon a single American mother and her only son, this is far from the purpose of this narrative. Contrary to being one more modern tragic exercise in hand-wringing and claim to victimization, Dougherty’s work is deeply restorative. It is as hopeful in his look forward as it is forgiving in his look behind.

Culture matters. Morals, mores, and conventions guide, sustain, and enliven. Notwithstanding being wracked, if not destroyed, by the pain of her lost Irish love and new lonely reality, Dougherty’s mother still warms his childhood with Irish tales, whispers “Oiche mhaith” at bedtime, and raises him in the Catholic Church. As he grows and yearns to better apprehend who he is, Dougherty brilliantly discerns how his identity with respect to his distant father closely mirrors Ireland’s identity with respect to its historically fading culture. It is especially in the Easter Rising of 1916, Ireland’s “Thermopylae,” that Dougherty grapples with the personal and cultural paradoxes of tragedy and heroism, lost causes and new hope.

But what seems to have truly brought about the genesis of My Father Left Me Ireland is not some embittered need to settle scores or the black, self-consuming exercise of posing raw, answerless questions. Rather, it is a baby girl. It is a look forward. It is a willingness to exchange anger and pride and self-righteousness for love and mercy and reconciliation. In his introduction, Dougherty writes,

I suddenly realized that I was a vital link between my unborn daughter and her heritage. And I realized that my own father was that link for me, whether I liked it or not. . . . We live in an age of disinheritance, with longings that we’re discouraged from acknowledging. This book of letters is my attempt at rekindling a relationship between father and son, at recovering something in danger of being lost. I wrote these to help my children have a proper home, and to know the refuge and comfort of a homeland beyond it.

Tonight, I attended a wake for Greg Kindle, a dear friend of my father’s and a second father figure for me. Greg, with his mischievous grin, his inexhaustible wit, and his unquenchable love for faith and family passed too soon from an unexpected brain cancer. But the stories of a smile from the football stand for the solitary first-down pass caught by his small son relegated to junior varsity, his overtime dollars (on a detective’s limited income) donated quietly to a local charity, his willingness to ask me how I was doing as my parents’ marriage crumbled all represent a culture, a character, and an inheritance for me and all who knew him.

Fathers matter. Culture matters. Flannery O’Connor once noted, “If you live today, you breath in nihilism. . . . it’s the gas you breathe.” The children of nihilism are cynicism and irony. But as Mr. Dougherty would astutely recognize, “If we want noble things in life, we will pull those noble things out of our history and experience. If we are cynics, we will see plenty of justification for our cynicism.”

So true.

Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland is a refreshing, life-giving antidote to cynicism. It finds the nobility amidst our ever-present human wretchedness. Humbly, gently, it rekindles hope.

This, my friends, is a book we have been waiting for.