Magazine | May 6, 2019, Issue

A Letter to My Irish Father

Dublin (David Soanes Photography)
‘Who made me?’

For men improve with the years;
And yet, and yet, Is this my dream, or the truth?
O would that we had met
When I had my burning youth!
— “Men Improve with the Years,” W. B. Yeats

Dear Father,

We feel like we are getting to know this child already, the way she turns over or dances for us as the doctor shakes her awake to observe her on the ultrasound. We’re in for it, they tell us, about parenthood. We are getting tired of everyone warning us that the struggles of a new baby will leave us so tired. War metaphors abound. Other parents are “veterans” on their way back from the front lines. An adorable tiny rocking hammock is recast as “the essential weapon” to deploy. If it’s a battle to raise a child, we need reinforcements.

I suppose we get reinforcement. Not only extended family and friends, but the larger culture raises and forms our children, whether you’d want it or not. A home is a refuge, but it still sits within something larger, a homeland or a culture. In your absence, my mother had given me familiarity with Ireland’s story and the high ideals of its national history. And then this larger culture around us began to deconstruct that story, and it nudged me along in efforts to deconstruct that national mythology as well. Deconstruction of this sort was just the thing to do.

A culture is a funny thing. Somehow it is this collective personality that is constantly feeding you information about itself. It ranks and re-ranks everything in life — people, objects, and ideas. It turns articles of clothing into symbols of high or low status. It suggests certain ideas and dismisses others. Its judgments become so familiar that it exists like a voice in your head. And yet it is impossible to explain exactly how this happens.

A culture feeds you even the terms on which you would resist it. The culture that encouraged me to deconstruct the ideals and taboos of Ireland’s past because they have “an unhealthy hold upon the living” was the same culture that told me that by doing so, by doing what everyone else was doing, I was defining life on my own terms, and for myself.

So what were our background cultures? Our boyhoods could not have been more different. You had five siblings and two parents at home. You grew up in a tight two-up, two-down in Donnycarney and the streets had hundreds of children in them. The schools that were built to handle this were called “industrial.” One of the most infamous of these, Artane, cast its shadow into your neighborhood. In summers you were sent to your grandparents in Monaghan, to avoid the training in criminality available just out your door. Fathers were deputized by God to rule their homes. The Catholic Church of your youth was a spiritual empire, sending Irish emissaries across the sea. It spoke Latin, threw incense generously, and ran the world as you knew it, because the unquenchable fire of hell burbled beneath everything. People you knew would be genuinely afraid of receiving Holy Communion unworthily.

The heroes of Ireland’s Easter Rising were still venerated as saints. When you were a child, Ireland’s president, a hero of that rebellion, laid a wreath at the jail where his comrades were condemned to death and killed. The life of the nation was serious business. The adult world throbbed with authority and frequently abused it. Maybe Ireland would be poor, but it would be sanctified and creative. This was what one of Ireland’s leading writers calls the myth of Holy Catholic Ireland, a myth that shaped your childhood. A myth that Ireland has spent the last three decades dismantling. The last artifacts of it are eagerly chucked away.

That world was as distant from mine as medieval France is. I grew up an only child with a single mother. I lived in a series of American suburbs, each seemingly more prosperous than the next. There were dozens of kids in the neighborhoods, not hundreds, and nothing as exciting as criminality. The Church was a friendly ghost. Nobody feared approaching for Communion. God would be merciful, surely. If you were unusually curious and asked about the apparent change of attitude, you would be assured that many theologians thought hell was empty.

When I was a child the nation’s president disclosed to us his preference in underwear for a laugh. The adult world that I encountered was plainly terrified of having authority over children and tried to exercise as little of it as practicable. At every turn my mother, my teachers, and the Church just sort of gave up and gave in to whatever I wanted. They seemed grateful when a child wasn’t difficult. The constant message of authority figures was that I should be true to myself. I should do what I loved, and I could love whatever I liked. I was the authority. In the benighted past somewhere, there was pain and misery, but Baby Boomers had largely corrected this for us in their titanic generational battles. This I would call the myth of liberation. I was raised on this mythology, and it ordered the world around me. The future ought to be bright. This was the end of history, and wasn’t it good?

At the spiritual level, this myth of liberation — a liberation already accomplished — made my generation into powerless narcissists. We worshiped authenticity — being your true self — even as most of us accused ourselves, in our own hearts, of being frauds. Some of us fell into despair and chemical dependency. Others coped through dual membership in the cults of productivity and therapeutic self-care. A few turned to Internet father figures who told them that life is struggle, that it is defined by self-assertion and dominance. And some, tired of trying to find a motive for existence from within, turned to political radicalism. But all this wreckage was a decade or more away from me and my friends then. We had no idea what was coming. Depression? Economically, we were assured it was unlikely to ever come again. Personally? Well, there were new drugs for it.

And my mother was increasingly on those drugs. When my grandmother died, my mother lost her role as the dutiful daughter. And she could see that in a few years I would also fly from home. Where would it leave her? I experienced the 1990s as a coming into my own, as the world opening up for me. My mother experienced something else. Her life shrank. She didn’t travel as much. She tried to make arrangements to move us to London, where she had been so happy once. But she shelved them.

There was a great deal of talk at that time about the heroism of single mothers, but not all the taboos were pulled down. She had stuck it out with the baby, assured that the world would increasingly accept, and admire, her decision. In truth, it did so only provisionally. IBM would not and then could not fire her for being a single mother. But her form of life as mother, often overworked due to her circumstances, had none of the honor and understanding that is extended to widows, whom everyone feels obliged to help generously. This state of life was what she chose, after all. Or people would retain the suspicion that she must be at fault somehow, that she had failed to keep the man for a reason. Her form of being single was impaired by motherhood, having none of the real freedom and allure of those who were truly unattached. I would later discover that she had admirers and even lovers, but she could — or would — never make them into committed boyfriends or suitors.

As depression set in, she gained weight and became more frequently ill. I heard people worry for her, saying that she was “letting herself go.” She was. She lived on the other side of the culture’s liberation, and her unhappiness in life was held to be her fault. The cliché about lying in the bed you have made for yourself became her reality. She had finally thrown away the old couch and pullout for a real, proper queen-sized bed. But now she slept in it constantly. It was as if the culture had slipped her its real judgment in secret, the cruel truth that was unspeakable in public. And she accepted that judgment and internalized it.

Late in high school I grew close to an English teacher, Mr. Scanlon. He was the most important in a long succession of substitute father figures. In the long run, I suppose, he was giving me a livelihood. He was also a man with Irish roots. Knowing my background, he began feeding my imagination with W. B. Yeats, the Pogues, and James Joyce. “Who goes with Fergus?” he asked as he bounded into a room. He played “Bottle of Smoke” while we edited the school’s literary magazine, and he filled my world with sad, colorful Dubliners.

In a way, the clatter of Irish music, the strangeness of the Irish sky, and a repository of Ireland’s national genius were all returned to me, not as an inheritance to be treasured and passed on, but as ornaments of a life defined by enjoyment, consumption. And this curator’s approach seemed to let me enjoy them safely. That little bit of ironic distance prevented these things from really touching the parts of my soul and mind that were vulnerable to developing a deep conviction.

You say your father prayed five decades of the rosary with the family each day. At night, your four sisters would file into one bedroom. You and your brother would come in to sleep in the same room with your parents. Your father would climb into bed and pray five decades of the rosary again with your mother. Years later, in the old-folks’ home, when nurses and orderlies offended his sense of modesty, he would rage and struggle in his dementia. But these angels attending him learned to just shout the beginning of a prayer. Instantly, the rage subsided, as he started his stiff, ceremonious sign of the cross and joined them in prayer. For you and the usual audiences for the story, the image is funny. For me, it has become something else. In a world where everything is plastic, everything is unserious, this adamantine stubbornness feels like a shelter.

Yet you remain heathen. Even with all the aid of cruel, holy Ireland and a father willing to drill you in The Penny Catechism, which discloses the purpose of life and the mysteries of religion in precisely 740 English sentences: “Who made you?” “God made me.”

In college, the 1916 Easter Rising came back to me as well, in history classes where I was advantaged by childhood familiarity with the rebels’ names, their views, and their deeds. The hardline historical revisionists had the courage to take those rebels seriously, alternately detesting and pitying their subjects. But as time went on, with a little distance from the Troubles, with the Celtic Tiger in full swing, the rebels’ views became somehow muted and less threatening, and before long no one even offered them the dignity of hating them. Instead of being celebrated or reviled, the rebels were given back to me as trivia and kitsch. James Connolly had died convinced that the causes of Ireland and labor were intertwined, but modern and free Ireland was lately hailed as a capitalist miracle. Patrick Pearse had believed that Ireland could win a place among sovereign and free nations by reclaiming the creative energy still existing in its Irish-speaking culture, but the great power in Irish culture today is English and American media, and the nation’s lifeblood is found in the creative way America’s tech giants wring continental profits through Irish tax loopholes. Aspiration after aspiration had proven idealistic and naïve, so we hung the idealists’ faces on the walls of the local pub as decoration and made them watch Irish America’s version of Erin Go Puke every Paddy’s Day. Having them around was like an inside joke about how irrelevant they were.

Your generation makes a different kind of joke about the Rising. I’ve seen it when you’re in St. Sylvester’s Gaelic Athletic Association club. Maybe a man with a Kerry accent toasts a local singer for his rebel song and his Sinn Féin politics. You put on your thickest Dublin accent, asking, “And where were youse when we was doing all the fighting?” As if you yourself, as a Dub, inherit the reputation of having fought in the Rising and all these culchies inherit the guilt of having sat out Ireland’s great hour. When you joke like this, the humor is a backward way of paying tribute to the real thing. The self-deprecation inherent in it is like an act of humility, even gratitude.

What I mean by the Rising becoming kitsch for me is that in my generation, our joke would be to say anything is serious at all. The idea that events and ideals have real meaning, that something outside of ourselves deserves our loyalty, is what’s ridiculed. We think this aloofness makes us look unflappable, that it even grants us a certain austere dignity. But it really just makes us satisfied with remaining shallow. We call the higher ideals a form of narrowness, and shrink away from them. Keep an open mind, play the options in front of you. Be smart. Aloof is the safe bet.

But aloofness misleads us. This ironic distance is insufficient when we are really tested. I notice that Sir Roger Casement is now one of the few leaders of the Rising whom Ireland can praise without equivocation. Born in Ireland, he went into British-imperial service. He became something like the first modern human-rights activist, after documenting the abuses of Belgium in the Congo. Gradually he embraced the Irish national cause. Caught off the coast of Kerry trying to deliver weapons from Germany ahead of the Rising, he was tried for treason. Britain exposed his “black diaries,” which detailed his sexual preoccupation with young men. And now, I read many articles about how he foreshadowed this more inclusive Ireland. In a recent biography, the author tried to cast him as fully modern in his sensibilities. And at some times in his life, he did take the modern view of things, including religion. He wrote to a friend, “There can be no heaven if we don’t find it and make it here and I won’t barter this sphere of duty for a hundred spheres and praying wheels elsewhere.” And yet that sense of duty eventually carried him beyond what was safe and modern.

In his prison cell, awaiting certain death, he decided he would convert to Catholicism. The archbishop demanded that he recant his Irish nationalism. He refused. But the priests attending him said that he died “with all the faith and piety of an Irish peasant woman.”

He wrote a letter explaining himself.

Ireland alone went forth to assail evil, as David Goliath, unarmed, save with a pebble, and she has slain, I pray to God, the power and boast and pride of Empire. That is the achievement of the boys of 1916, and on it the living shall build a sterner purpose, and bring it to a greater end. If I die tomorrow bury me in Ireland, and I shall die in the Catholic Faith, for I accept it fully now. It tells me what my heart sought long in vain — in Protestant coldness I could not find it — but I saw it in the faces of the Irish. Now I know what it was I loved in them — the chivalry of Christ speaking through human eyes — it is from that source the lovable things come, for Christ was the first Knight. And now my beloved ones goodbye — this is my last letter from the condemned cell. I write it always with hope — hope that God will be with me to the end and that all my faults and failures and errors will be blotted out of the Divine Knight — the Divine Nationalist. 

These Irish men and women of the Rising and the struggle against England in the years afterward were modern people, which is to say that they were people who could be easily labeled and analyzed by professional historians and our intellectual caste. Their social position could be vivisected: They were a typical revolutionary generation, a rising class of educated people who would be excluded from normal positions of power absent a major shake-up. Their writings and thoughts can be easily tagged — Victorian Gaels, 19th-century nationalists, progressive educationists — and then filed away. And yet they had done something that modern people should no longer be able to do in a world of trench warfare, gas attacks, and mass-mechanized death. They became legends. They lived on this edge of life, where aloofness was burned away until some greater conviction emerged.

In quieter moments you have said that you wished you could believe, you just don’t. And I know nothing I write or say can change that. Just as the archbishop could not make Roger Casement repent of Ireland’s cause. You insist that before the Tiger, Ireland was a dark place. Who, looking at it honestly, can fail to see its faults? Some of its peculiar defects did leave a residue here in America. It could be coldly intellectual. It could become the vindictive enforcer of a Victorian morality that made no sense in Ireland. Even now I find the speed at which Irish rosary sodalities move through their prayers totally alien and alienating. Worst of all, the Church in Ireland abetted child abuse and hid this crime through moral cronyism, elaborately disguised as a fear of scandal.

But the idea that there is nothing for Ireland to do with 15 centuries of Christianity but celebrate its destruction seems uncreative somehow. If a man like Casement could see something in it, surely there is something you might. The idea that there is nothing “useful” in the Rising for modern Ireland also seems like blindness. There is a Patrick Kavanagh poem about Irish religion that haunts me. Often titled “Pilgrims,” it found no publisher in his life. It recounts the way Irish people went to a holy well, seeking life, knowledge, and vision, but all related to the immediate necessities of life. “Life that for a farmer is land enough to keep two horses,” or “knowledge that is in knowing what fair to sell the cattle in.” But these very practical petitions are answered with something greater.

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. 

When I was a young man, I was not pushed anywhere near the edge. Unlike Casement I had nothing like the pride and boast of Empire to confront in life. I had no needs so earthy as those in Kavanagh’s poem. But I did choose to confront you. I needed to send you my petitions.

On a Saturday afternoon, I went to the library of my college and ended a decade of silent treatment, of having ignored your letters. I wrote you a long one, trying to condense my teenage years into a dozen or so pages. I was proud to give my report: I was at a good school. I had learned to fend for myself as my grandmother aged. I could cook. I still watched after my mother. I had had one serious girlfriend when I was in high school, and I had another serious girlfriend now that I was in college. After some journeying, I had come back to Catholicism. At the same time, I tried to demonstrate to you that I was arch, witty, and smart. I was no sucker or raving lunatic. I wasn’t sentimental or self-deluded. All in all, I was a young man to be reckoned with.

I would cringe to reread it now. All the above amounted to a series of not-so-subtle digs about how different I was from you. This is who I am, I seemed to say — and the heavy implication was that you had nothing to do with it. And you ought to get to know me; maybe I’m worth knowing.

But was I worth knowing? I doubt it. Not only was I painfully insecure, I was shallow. Someone who approaches life like a curator will exchange his faith for merely believing in belief. He’ll substitute taste where conviction belongs. I was merely gliding on the surface of life.

Still, you treated this little gesture as if it could be the basis for going forward. It wasn’t long afterward that you and I arranged to meet up in New York. You would bring your wife and your other children, my half siblings whom I’d met only in pictures you sent me. I’d bring that girlfriend, the woman who is now my very pregnant wife. And soon enough I would find out just how deluded and full of myself I really was.

Your son,

Michael

–This piece is adapted from Michael Brendan Dougherty’s book, My Father Left Me Ireland, due April 29 from Sentinel.

This article appears as “Who Made Me?” in the May 6, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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