There is something oddly cold and clinical about how we usually talk about what ails the modern West. Some analysts weave the strands of our dysfunction into tales of economic woe or privilege run amok. Others try to understand our problems in terms of principles violated or freedoms curtailed. Others still resort to social science, hoping studies might explain what’s wrong in terms that let them keep some distance from it. All this often leaves us personifying problems while dehumanizing persons, and that is no way to understand ourselves.
But while this impulse for abstraction can blind us, it also leaves us craving the human touch, so it creates an opening for explorations of this moment pursued by lived experience. Our times demand to be explained through biography and maybe especially through autobiography.
A few years ago, J. D. Vance cut through a thicket of jargon and contempt about the troubles facing working-class Americans by a poignant, forthright telling of his own story and his family’s in Hillbilly Elegy. Now, Michael Brendan Dougherty has helped expose the deepest roots of our confusing debates about family, identity, and nation through a powerful memoir of his own. The young man’s memoir is surely a peculiar genre. But the modern travails of young men are actually near the heart of our society’s larger malaise, exactly in the ways that analytical abstractions are most prone to miss. And Dougherty (like Vance) is a young writer with an old soul and an extraordinary capacity to draw wisdom from his own experience.
My Father Left Me Ireland is first and foremost a bracingly candid and deeply personal chronicle of growing up, beautifully told as a series of letters from Dougherty to his mostly absent father. Short, crisp, soulful, and eminently readable, it offers a timeless tale of familial longing and love. It is occasionally sour or sarcastic, but always in ways the reader has been well prepared to comprehend. And its dominant flavor is a kind of dawning gratitude — the sort that new parents (like Dougherty) cannot help but feel when suddenly contemplating their own parents in a new light.
At the heart of the story is the void of a fatherless childhood. Dougherty’s Irish-American mother and his Irish father had broken up before he was born. He grew up in America, but under the powerful sway of Irish culture. The persistent if fragmentary exposure he received to Irish history, song, and symbol through his mother’s influence only heightened the romantic allure of it all. And occasional visits from his father left him hungry for a deeper attachment. As a teenager in the New York City suburbs, Dougherty grew cold to these longings, or pretended that he did. But later, as he suffered through the sorrow of his mother’s death and then prepared to welcome his own first child, he found himself reflecting on his birthright, pulled in again by the appeal of Irish nationalism, and moved to write to his father as a way of ordering his thinking about it all.
The story, as it emerges in the course of seven letters, is enormously compelling and rich with meaning in itself. But Dougherty proves adept at also drawing from it larger lessons about the social, cultural, and political pressures that increasingly torment the West in our time.
Some of these are lessons about the dangers of easing the anguish of fatherlessness by diminishing the necessity of fatherhood. Dougherty’s childhood was by no means destitute or dark. His mother loved him dearly; even his absent father cared for him. He lived, as he tells it, in the lower reaches of the middle class. He did well in school, had friends, went to college. His upbringing launched him toward success. But he thrived in part by becoming persuaded that he didn’t need a father for any of that, so that he wasn’t missing out on much. On the precipice of becoming a father himself, this left the adult Dougherty asking just what fathers do, and so coming to terms with what he was in fact deprived of and how that deprivation shaped him.
His answer emphasizes history and identity. Beyond care and feeding, parents owe their children a place, a connection, a way to belong, and so also a link to a past that can help shape their future. This is why having children often drives parents back to their own traditions, and why the rise of a rootless cosmopolitanism in the West has accompanied and accelerated declines in birth rates. And it is also why family, community, religion, and nation are inexorably linked.
Parenthood, and the orientation toward the future that comes with it, often drives the most intense commitments to all these, and is especially important in forging national attachments. Investing yourself in the life, story, and institutions of your nation is a way of investing in the whole of which you, your children, and your own parents are all parts. A parent can be a conduit to such a whole for a child, extending to the rising generation an offer of membership in something worth belonging to, being shaped by, and coming to love. To be such a conduit is not to be a perfect representative, or a living embodiment. Every parent is terribly imperfect. But it is to open a path, to show a way, and by so doing to leave as an inheritance far more than you possess yourself.
This is the way in which Dougherty’s father left him Ireland. It is not by being an Irish nationalist himself, or even by being suffused with the traditions or language or religion of the Irish — which the father who emerges in these pages really isn’t. It is by serving as a link to that tradition and enabling his son to call it his own and so to immerse himself in it in a way that fills a void.
Such a link between father and nation might be obvious, but we live in a culture that labors to obscure it. The result is precisely the void Dougherty found himself compelled to fill, and not just because his father was absent. The Baby Boomers, the generation of Dougherty’s parents who have shaped our cultural self-understanding, sought a liberation from this kind of generational view of both families and nations. “At the spiritual level, this myth of liberation, a liberation already accomplished,” Dougherty argues, “made my generation into powerless narcissists. We who worshipped authenticity — being your true self — even as most of us accused ourselves, in our own hearts, of being frauds.”
Dougherty’s story illustrates how the resulting crisis of confidence has yielded an explosion of nationalism throughout the West. The post-war liberal idea that “a nation is at best a problematic, if still useful, administrative unit,” Dougherty writes, was doomed to be unsatisfying. Contemplating the words and acts of the martyrs of Irish independence showed him why. The nation is a depository of our loves and obligations. “A nation cannot live its life as a mere administrative district or as a shopping mall; nations have souls.” And periods of intense nationalism arise not so much when this conviction is widely shared as when it is acutely threatened:
Nationalism usually does not spring up from the meatheaded conviction that one’s nation is best in every way, but from something like a panicked realization that nobody in authority or around you is taking the nation seriously. . . . It might put on a mask of invincibility, but it does so in full fearful knowledge of the nation’s vulnerability.
This helps explain why nationalism is so often tied up with populism — that is, with the conviction that the elites are failing. And in the contemporary West, it is tied up in particular with a sense of failing the future, precisely through a kind of fatherlessness of which declining birth rates and the breakdown of marriage are both symptoms and causes. As Dougherty puts it: “An individual without a posterity may be a tragedy, or may be a saint. But a nation that is characterized by this fatherlessness, that ignores the real future that is incarnate before us, changes its society in a frightening way.”
This is a nationalism steeped in familism, then. And it ties together what otherwise seem like some loose and scattered strands of our modern predicament. It also explains some peculiarities of Dougherty’s book.
Dougherty writes as a nationalist of a nation in which he was not born and has not lived. His book could be taken as encouraging a sort of hyphenated identity that has generally been anathema to American nationalism, and his experience will speak most powerfully to readers drawn to American national identity but whose own ethnic origins might once have put them on its margins — not only Irish Americans but Italians and Greeks and Poles and Jews and increasingly some Asian and Latin Americans too. It resonated deeply with this reviewer, who is about as Irish as a matzah ball.
But to see that nationalism is an extension of familism is to see why it stands to be a powerful and altogether indigenous force in American life in this moment. Nationalism is not so much an ideology, Dougherty suggests, as a reaction against a break with the inheritance we owe the future. Such a break does now threaten us, and some reaction is called for. That doesn’t mean that the forms of nationalism that inhabit our politics, or those of other Western nations, are always right or just. But it means that a dangerous breakdown at the nexus of family, religion, and nation demands our attention, and that we should attend to it by calling upon the best of our traditions.
This is ultimately why the form of Dougherty’s book seems just right. The break we confront is in important respects the fault of our fathers, the retiring generation. But we are called to address it by the rising generation. “Fatherhood teaches me that if we let it, a new life comes to restore us,” Dougherty writes. “A new life reconciles us as fathers and sons, nations with their history, however turbulent.”
There is a powerful tendency among some of our traditionalists now to take up their cause as a crusade against the prior generation, and to defend our traditions primarily by rejecting the ways our parents have deformed them. My Father Left Me Ireland shows us why this is not quite the right response. Our complaints should take the form of letters to our fathers — to keep us focused on what matters, and to help us register even our grievances with love and gratitude.
In the words of another wise Irishman, we should strive to address ourselves to the faults in our inheritance “as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude,” not to curb our boldness in the work of revival but to inspire some humility before our grave responsibilities to those who will follow us. Striking that balance is no easy feat, but Michael Brendan Dougherty’s profound and beautiful book is a model of what it might involve.
This article appears as “Land of Our Fathers” in the May 20, 2019, print edition of National Review.