The following is adapted from remarks I gave at The Player’s Club on May 15 for the New York launch of my book, My Father Left Me Ireland.
Tráthnóna maith. Is mise Mícheál.
I’ve sometimes had trouble explaining to people in a sentence or two what this book is about. Ezra Klein came up with a good one. He said My Father Left Me Ireland is “a moving, lyrical memoir about fatherhood and identity.” He said, “It’s also a stirring defense of nationalism, an attack on wonks, and a critique of some of the core assumptions of liberal modernity.” That sounds pretty great, actually.
But I think the book is also, fundamentally, a romance of fatherhood. I did not know it would turn out this way as I was writing it, but in the end I noticed that in trying to describe my fatherless childhood from the inside, in uncovering the documentary evidence of the letters my mother wrote to my father, and that my father wrote to me, I was telling a classical romance story. Two characters separated by their choices or their tragic circumstances, who long to be with one another, and who miscommunicate their feelings to one another.
It is also fundamentally a story about how the romance of fatherhood transfigures us, how it can reveal to us a transformed and redeemed world in a flash of insight or a glorious vision, an insight that comes to you only when you yourself are transformed by a child, or by an act done for posterity itself. I come around at the end of the book to say that my fatherhood taught me that when we act on behalf of the future, the past, even a past marked by failure and brokenness, can be given back to us as a gift.
In the first half of the book, I describe the world that my mother built for me, one with stories of Irish history, with concern for the Irish nation, and its exiled children in the fourth green field. It describes the bits of Irish language she grafted into our daily routines. It’s a story of how she was, intentionally or not, binding my heart and imagination to a country that I could only call my own, through my link to it in an absent father. This attempt to recover an ancient language — even a dying one — she did on behalf of her newborn son. And that’s not all.
I then move on to describe the culture and education I was raised in, the homeland around the home: this period of the 1990s when Ireland had, for its own reasons, some of them understandable, grown tired of the ideas that lay at the heart of its history, when it dismantled this story of how their nation was saved at a great price, through the sacrifices of its heroes; and of an American culture that sought to liberate me from a past it deemed wholly oppressive. Insofar as I was allowed to remain Irish, I had to do so as a Plastic Paddy, as a consumer of the cultural kitsch that was being belched out of the Celtic Tiger.
But gradually I saw the results of this culture in my life. Freed from obligation from without, freed from standards from above, we became pitiless judges of our own lives. Free to define for ourselves our obligations to our families, and to our communities, we end up as latchkey kids, as lonely single moms, as a bereaved young man, who must conjure for himself the just and proper thing from an endless buffet menu of meanings and services, all provided at exorbitant cost.
But as life prepared me for my own child to come into the world, I began to be transformed, the way my mother was once transformed by me. I started throwing myself into Irish history, language, and literature. And tonight I want to pick out two men and examples from it.
At the heart of this book is Patrick Pearse. A language activist, who becomes a political nationalist, a schoolteacher, and eventually the leader of the 1916 Easter Rising. What was so radical about him and his comrades was their willingness to take Ireland — yes, Ireland — seriously. Sure, Irish people had for decades before the Rising been filling themselves with sentimental ballads about their country. They often did so self-consciously, as a form of emotional compensation for what they also viewed as a failed country, a broken home for the Irish people, marked by failed rebellions, famine, and emigration into the more successful parts of a British Empire, an Empire that was fundamentally not run in their interests.
Pearse himself goes through a transformation of converting this sentiment into action. The view of Ireland as a failure — as fundamentally broken — was the wise man’s view. And Pearse wanted to be a “fool.”
In one poem, he wrote:
O wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?
What if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell
In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?
Pearse detested the moral failures of the previous generation. In the last year he worked himself into the highest lather:
Is mairg do ghní go holc agus bhíos bocht ina dhiaidh,’ says the Irish proverb: ‘Woe to him that doeth evil and is poor after it’. The men who have led Ireland for twenty-five years have done evil, and they are bankrupt. They are bankrupt in policy, bankrupt in credit, bankrupt now even in words. They have nothing to propose to Ireland, no way of wisdom, no counsel of courage. When they speak they speak only untruth and blasphemy. Their utterances are no longer the utterances of men. They are the mumblings and the gibberings of lost souls. …
They have built upon an untruth. They have conceived of nationality as a material thing, whereas it is a spiritual thing. They have made the same mistake that a man would make if he were to forget that he has an immortal soul. They have not recognised in their people the image and likeness of God. Hence, the nation to them is not all holy, a thing inviolate and inviolable, a thing that a man dare not sell or dishonour on pain of eternal perdition. They have thought of nationality as a thing to be negotiated about as men negotiate about a tariff or about a trade route, rather than as an immediate jewel to be preserved at all peril, a thing so sacred that it may not be brought into the market places at all or spoken of where men traffic.
Pearse hated the education system of his day, for robbing Irish people of their history, their heroes, and thereby robbing them of their manhood. He said the British would no more educate the Irish than they would arm them. He said that the education system in Ireland trained men not to be hard, proud, valiant, but to be sleek, and obsequious — that is, to be good slaves, not free men. He denounced this education as a Murder Machine, that destroyed the Irish nation.
And Pearse had a vision for his own students, students whom he saw himself as “fostering” under the name of Saint Enda at his school. He wrote about it in the school’s magazine:
I dreamt I saw a pupil of mine, one of our boys at St. Enda’s, standing alone upon a platform above a mighty sea of people, and I understood that he was about to die there for some august cause, Ireland’s or another. He looked extraordinarily proud and joyous, lifting his head with a smile almost of amusement. I remember noticing his bare white throat and the hair on his forehead stirred by the wind, just as I had often noticed them on the hurling field. I felt an inexplicable exhilaration as I looked on him, and this exhilaration was heightened rather than diminished by my consciousness that the great silent crowed regarded the boy with pity and wonder rather than with approval – as a fool who was throwing away his life rather than a martyr who was doing his duty. It would have been so easy to die before a hostile crowd: but to die before that silent, unsympathetic crowd. … I remember telling it to my boys at a school meeting a few days later, and their speculating as to which of them I had seen in my dream: a secret which I do not think I gave away. But what recurs to me now is that when I said that I could not wish for any of them a happier destiny than to die thus in the defence of some true thing, they did not seem in any way surprised, for it fitted in with all we had been teaching them at St. Enda’s. I do not mean that we have ever carried on anything like a political or revolutionary propaganda among the boys, but simply that we have always allowed them to feel that no one can finely live who hoards life too jealously: that one must be generous in service, and withal joyous, accounting even supreme sacrifices slight.
Ultimately it was Pearse who would be the fool he prized. He led an obviously doomed rebellion in Easter week, 1916, but one that would provide a flash of transfiguration, that would instantly transform Dublin, the seat of eight centuries of foreign rule, into the central theatre of Irish liberation. He handed his sword in defeat to his enemies. He and his comrades blessed their executors. And they trusted they would be vindicated. He said that he and his comrades would be blessed by unborn generations.
I also reflect on the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who hails from the county my father’s family comes from. Kavanagh wrote a poem that was unpublished, describing devout Irish men and women seeking out the material things and prosperity by going to a holy well and performing their devotions. It was called Pilgrims:
I saw them kneeling by the holy well –
It was for life, life, life they prayed:
Life that for a farmer is land enough to keep two horses,
Life that is healthy husband to a maid.
I saw them climbing the holy mountain –
It was the knowledge, knowledge, knowledge of life they pursuid:
Knowledge that is in knowing what fair to sell the cattle in,
Knowledge that is in being able to cart an acre from a field.
I saw them lying on the burning stones –
It was vision, vision, vision they desired:
Vision that is forecasting a mare’s hour of foaling,
Vision that is catching the idler, newly hired.
I saw them kneeling, climbing and prostrate –
It was love, love, love they found:
Love that is Christ green walking from the summer headlands
To His scarecrow cross in the turnip-ground.
What did I find in the words of Pearse and Kavanagh as I rocked my infant daughter to sleep? What I found is that, looking at them, with this little girl looking at me, these men had rebuilt my broken home, they had transfigured my parents.
I found myself adopting Pearse’s generational curse. He wrote his malediction over the Home Rulers who could not recognize the image and likeness of God in their own people. I made his curse my own, and leveled it at the Baby Boomers, who also have made the denial of the image and likeness of God in their people their fundamental claim of liberation, first in America, and now in Ireland. But I have spared some members of this my curse.
People have asked, rightly: Couldn’t you have titled it My Mother Left Me Ireland? Yes, I could have. Because she did. The whole idea of this book began after she died, and I found her letters, and next to her letters, this pamphlet of Nordie propaganda, Britain’s War Machine in Ireland. I suddenly saw in her letters that it was my mother who, in the face of my impending birth, was transformed from the sleek and obsequious person the culture wanted her to be, into a proud and valiant woman, fighting for her child.
In her letters, she contemplated the wise course, the obvious choice. But she was transformed by love. And dismissed the whole thing in an instant, she dismissed what she could not do to “her child.” She was fired from her job. She was overlooked by men in her life, all on my account. And so she learned the Irish language. She became an Irish nationalist. She did something the world barely could contemplate. She suffered disease and loneliness and misunderstanding. She was my Patrick Pearse, who in her love, was willing to take on a doomed battle on my behalf. In the eyes of the world she was the fool threw her life away, to know the joy of motherhood. And that is why this book on fatherhood is dedicated to my mother, an American fool, and my Irish liberator. By recovering the artifacts of Irish nationalism, even as Ireland throws them away, I am giving my children their grandmother, my mother, who longed to see and to know them.
And then there is this man, my father. I won’t say all he did was right. But my book turns on a moment at the start of my adolescence, when my father appears as a surprise at my Catholic school just as the summer is beginning. That school had done its job in making me an atheist. The culture had done its job in making me suspicious of all my received understandings. And I did my own work too. I recruited myself into the idea that my father was visiting me as an afterthought, that he really just wanted to see a football match. After years of not seeing him, he shows up, unannounced. And he offers me gifts. And I rewarded him by despising this gesture for years afterwards. I rewarded him with my silence, with unreturned letters. And those letters I got from him. I ripped open, looking for a check. What was fatherhood, but the provision of a little dough?
And yet, years later, I found myself beside him at a wedding in Dublin — in a place that the British soldiers shot out at the rebels of 1916. And my father told me that this visit to me was driven by a madness to see me, and the fear at being disallowed to see me. He said he felt like a terrorist when he looked back on it, researching the time when he could see me without interruption or interference. He told me about his fear even of being arrested. And he said that being a father now I would understand. I told him, “I do.”
At that wedding, without realizing it, I said to him those two words that I think my mother once dreamed of saying to him: I do. And that moment in my boyhood was transfigured too, transfigured by a knowledge I only had through my own fatherhood. I had reduced fatherhood to the means of provision, for knowing where to sell the cow. But my father had come there to see me, to submit himself to danger, to submit himself to humiliation, and to my rejection. Why? To disclose the love of a father to his children. My father, in his lowest moment, was transfigured into an icon of Christ walking in from the summer headlands. The moment I had rejected him was the moment in which it was Love Love Love, I found.
My Father Left Me Ireland is the story of how my infant daughter mended a broken home. It is written in the hope that our sons and daughters will mend the homelands beyond them, and make America and Ireland nations once again. Go raibh maith agaibh.