“Irish legends move among known woods and seas,” wrote the poet W.B. Yeats in his 1898 essay, “The Celtic Element in Literature.” These Irish stories “have so much of a new beauty that they may well give the opening century its most memorable symbols.” Yeats had done his own part; he gave new literary life to Irish folklore in his collection of poems, “The Wind Among the Reeds,” published the next year.
One-hundred twenty years later, another Irish son’s sense of literary revival is published, suggesting that the desire to resurrect the past is endemic to Irish identity.
“My Father Left Me Ireland,” by Michael Brendan Dougherty, arrives in a series of letters from a son to his estranged father, and appropriately includes several epigraphs from Yeats. It might be better to call these letters a series of public epistles, meditations directed to an audience, but full of asides, flashbacks, and clarifications. Dougherty is a talented writer, and the form is a perfect fit for his style. He is conversational, clear, and honest.
Early in the book we learn that his father learned of his birth “by letter.” Unwed and in America, his mother lost her job at Toshiba. The absence of his father had a profound effect on Dougherty. His young life “was injected with a peculiar kind of Irish nationalism.” His father’s visits to America were short, but searing: “Living without you was normal. But when you were around, things seemed open ended.”
When his father’s visits ended, Dougherty was left to imagine what might have been. His father wasn’t there when he got concussions, when he was teased in class; “You might have taught me to be brave or stoic.” As the title implies, his father left him — but he also left him Ireland.
As a young man, Dougherty studied Irish history, and became enamored with the Irish rejection of British imperial influence. “It was as if rebellion itself made you Irish,” he reflects. Then the September 1994 ceasefire in Northern Ireland “seemed to change everything,” as the “whole social constellation that revolved around Irish America’s version of Irish nationalism was falling apart.”
In America, Irish culture became kitschy — a New Age spiritualism, “one being sold out of the tiny incense shops you’d find in vacation towns in New England.”
“A culture feeds you even the terms on which you would resist it,” Dougherty writes, a concise and evocative statement. Being Irish was both a blessing and a burden; a bountiful history but a reminder of familial separation.
In a prescient admission to his father (and the reader of his book), he writes that, “As I try to plumb our history in these letters, I don’t want to give in to despair on the one side, or an undemanding sentimentality on the other. We cannot help but bring our desires and our ambitions to our understandings, and so I think the only solution is to make sure we desire what is right and good.”
“My Father Left Me Ireland” never feels unduly sentimental. One Saturday afternoon during college, Dougherty wrote a dozen-page letter to his father — a response to a decade of ignoring his father’s own letters. In it, he tried to affirm his independence and success. But it ultimately felt empty. Their relationship, broken as it was, could not only be about the son’s victory in the father’s absence.
This sense extends to his inherited Catholicism, spoken in wise words: “The version of religious faith I had adopted suddenly seemed like a fake. I wanted the sweet consolations and mercies it offered. I had wanted meaning for myself, and I wanted salvation for myself. I had disguised the culture’s idea of freedom from judgement under the vestments of Christian forgiveness to make it more convincing.”
When his father comes to visit years later, Dougherty still wants to impress him: “This was my answer to all your charmed visits: At the end of it, I intended you to feel like you had missed out.” Afterward, his girlfriend would say how father and son had the same smirks and shrugs, “even though I could not have learned them by imitation.”
When he goes to visit his father in Ireland, he is happy to see his own photo on the bedroom walls of his half-siblings. The more time he spends in the presence of his father, the more Dougherty learns his past is his present. That revelation doesn’t lead to simple peace, but it does offer some transcendence.
Cautious, he fears that happiness is always ephemeral: “I think there is something about human nature, or everyday life, that makes us suspect that whatever is real lacks meaning.” These letters, then, might be seen as a stab of permanence.
The final quarter of the book documents another desire for permanence: Dougherty’s attempt to learn the Irish language. His mother had become a competent speaker of the language, but had lost her proficiency. At first, he wonders if his quest is a waste of time and money. Irish, after all, was a dying language — at a paltry 35,000 native speakers.
Yet he recalls that the “decline of Irish happened for many reasons. It was the aim of the English government to destroy it. … Even in the sixteenth century, the Irish would use their native language to resist English rule.” As time went on, “Irish-language poetry teemed with Jacobite fury and dark prophecies about the English being brought low into disgrace as scholars of the Irish language retake their place at the top of society.”
To learn Irish was to resurrect, and affirm, the past.
“I’m determined to learn Irish,” Dougherty writes, “because it forces me to be a child and to grow up again. It allows me to become the kind of person who can utter simple convictions and mean them.”
“We are great consumers. We are useless as conservators,” Dougherty says of contemporary America. “My Father Left Me Ireland” is a poetic, moving attempt at such conservation — both personal and public.
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is a Contributing Editor for The Millions. He is writing a book on Catholic culture and literature in America for Fortress Press.
Angelus contributor Evan Holguin also reviewed “My Father Left Me Ireland” for Angelus. You can find his review here.
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