“Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.” It’s a common phrase and sentiment heard annually as the calendar approaches March 17, and it generally holds implications of potatoes and intoxication — the definition of Irishness for the average “plastic Paddy,” as they are called on the Emerald Isle.
For Michael Brendan Dougherty, senior writer at National Review, being Irish is more than green and Guinness — it is a family story that involves his single American mother and his estranged Irish father.
It is stepsiblings he grew up not knowing. It is music, legend, and religion. It is a personal history of struggle mixed up with a national history of perpetual struggle. Most importantly, being Irish is something that has been inherited, and something worthy of being passed on. And yes, it is also Guinness.
Dougherty explores these implications of being Irish, and many more, in his poignant memoir, “My Father Left Me Ireland,” all under the context of letters to his estranged father.
Throughout the book, Dougherty works through reconciliation with his father, to whom each chapter is addressed, and explores his love and indebtedness to his mother — all while addressing his own thoughts, growth, and concerns as he embarks on his own journey of fatherhood.
When taken as a memoir, “My Father Left Me Ireland” is nothing short of phenomenal — its style and emotion make for an enjoyable, albeit tear-jerking, read that will make more than one reader immediately want to share the book upon finishing.
However, for those who hope that Dougherty’s work will deliver on a conservative sense of reclaiming a national or Western cultural heritage, the book will fall short. The main questions of Irish culture and heritage — What does it mean to be Irish? How does one pass on his Irishness? — are not answered in any satisfactory sense, weakening any larger arguments about what culture is, why it is important, and how we should communicate it.
That doesn’t impede the book’s mission. It is, after all, a memoir and not a National Review op-ed, and by placing aside any hopes that this one book might answer all of modernity’s questions of culture, the real strength of Dougherty’s work and its implications as a memoir are able to shine in a profound way.
Though titled “My Father Left Me Ireland,” the book focuses more on the author’s mother than it does his father. And though it is true that each chapter is addressed to the elder Dougherty, and that the book as a whole follows the story of reconciliation between father and son, one cannot escape the overwhelming feeling that Doughtery’s mother is the principal character of the text.
This comes exceptionally clear in consideration of the Ireland left to Dougherty. As he contemplates what to read his newborn daughter, he turns to Irish-language books: “I bought those Irish language books for my daughter because my mother bought the same books for me.”
In fact, they were books that only his mother could buy for him — as his father, like most native born Irish men, have lost the Irish art and tongue.
That Dougherty’s Irishness was passed to him maternally is solidified in his response to the only two symbols of Irish culture shared with him by his father:
First, there is the blue-striped Dublin hurley, an unknown piece of equipment from an unknown game. “Sport—” Doughterty writes, “the very thing that made it easy for almost any other two men to find ease and commonality with each other — reminded me instantly that in your presence I am family, but still unfamiliar.”
Second, there is the Dublin World Cup jersey — a gift delivered in an unexpected and largely unwelcome visit of father to son, and which is immediately stored away, never to be worn.
What those two scenes make clear is that Dougherty’s Irish culture is not his father’s. His father’s culture, rather, is an Irishness that is left misunderstood or rejected. It is for this reason that so much of the book sees Dougherty attempting to explain Irish culture and history to his father.
A member of an old Irish generation who is willing to overlook ancient Irish history and the more modern Easter Uprising, Dougherty’s father has much to learn from the Irish culture with which Dougherty identifies.
Long sections of this text set out to complete the task of educating his father. There are tangents and asides celebrating the 1916 loss of a small Irish militia that would one day lead to the free Irish Republic, and others that criticize a desire to write off revolutionaries because of modern thinking that “sacrifice breeds intransigence.”
Such passages allow the author to educate readers unfamiliar with Irish history (albeit from Dougherty’s pro-Uprising point of view), but rhetorically they also have the effect of a son giving Ireland back to his father.
Still, the title of the book is “My Father Left Me Ireland” — and after reading the book, the title might seem to make little sense. As noted, the culture left Dougherty is maternal, and his father requires a new induction into his own cultural patrimony. Why then, is the book so titled? Because it is a promise, not a summary.
The whole thrust of Dougherty’s memoir is laid bare in the final paragraph of the text: “We are expecting another child. Another American-born man who will be taught, against all reason, that he is also Irish.”
The words “My Father Left Me Ireland,” are therefore best understood from the voice of this yet-unborn baby, or the voice of Dougherty’s first born daughter.
Dougherty’s memoir, for all its musings on heartbreak, emotions, and politics, is more than anything a promise to his children to leave them that gift which he has been given — and, at the same time it is a beautiful reconciliation between a son and estranged father, and an invitation to the reader to “leave their own children Ireland,” whatever cultural heritage that might happen to be.
Evan Holguin is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Originally from Santa Clarita, he now lives in New Haven, Connecticut. His work has been featured on the website Aleteia.com and on Ultramontane: A Catholic News Podcast.
Angelus contributor Nick Ripatrazone also reviewed “My Father Left Me Ireland” for Angelus. You can find his review here.
SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!