Michael Brendan Dougherty
My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home
New York: Sentinel Books, 2019
When this was first published a couple of years ago, reviewers had two distinct takes about the book. One was that it was a wistful, sometimes bittersweet memoir about growing up without a father, because the father was off in Ireland, having never married Dougherty’s American mother; and also, the author had some romantic notions about Ireland, and wasn’t that special.
The other point of view was that it was more social critique than memoir, much as J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was. (See my discussion of the movie and the book here .) That is to say, the author indirectly denounced the collapse of traditional moral values by meditating upon his own upbringing.
I come down on the side of the second reading. My Father Left Me Ireland is a social document disguised as a memoir. It’s ultimately in the same genre as the Vance book, but succeeds better in its ultimate aim. This is partly because Dougherty has a compact subject at hand to criticize — Ireland — even though he’s really talking about degeneracy in Europe and the West in general. The book is likewise compact, cleverly structured as a series of long letters to his father.
J. D. Vance had trouble staying focused on the big picture because he kept returning to the “bad seed” theme of hillbilly ancestry, which was elusive and insubstantial to begin with, and distracted him from the obvious fact that his family’s history is not too different from that of most Americans. But Dougherty is very much in control. His digressive “letters” let him hop all over the map, going on about Irish history, and the misconceptions that the Irish in Ireland have about themselves. And his rare childhood visits to his father. But he always comes back to the central theme of modern anomie and loss of tradition.
He wants to find out where and how the rot set in, and he finds it in the Emerald Isle, where abortion and sex perversion are legal, even encouraged, and where only a minority baptize their children and attend weekly Mass. (Which arguably defeats the whole purpose of Ireland as a nation.) And he finds it in his own family: in his illegitimacy and his parents’ irresponsibility.
That’s another sensibility he shares with Vance. He sees that the degeneration did not magically appear in the 1990s or even 1960s. No, it goes back to a slovenliness in personal affairs that goes back at least as far as one’s grandparents.
The book has a wonderful David Copperfield sort of backstory about the doings of Dougherty’s parents before he came about. His mum, a “fiery” and headstrong young American woman, went solo backpacking through Europe in the 1970s. She ended up in London, where she met an Irishman. Quite un-accidentally, she got herself pregnant. She was very proud of being “Irish” herself, albeit at a remove of some four or five generations.
Dougherty implies that she got herself pregnant in order to ensure the purity of her bloodline, Irish people being instinctively endogamous. I have my own, more practical, interpretation of this episode. Mum wanted legal residency in London, and marriage to Dad would give her that, as well as an Irish passport and eventually freedom to roam and work throughout the EU.
But Dad wouldn’t marry her. Dougherty doesn’t explain why, but probably Mum was just too bloody-minded, bossy — you know, American. Furthermore, Dad didn’t wish to get tied down in what looked like a marriage of convenience, even if it was sealed and authenticated with a live infant. The immigration folks in South Croydon looked for things like that.
Anyway, pregnant Mum left London and went back home to Essex County, New Jersey, where baby Michael was born. Dougherty doesn’t actually name the location; he’s very skimpy with proper names. We are not told what his parents’ names were, or the names of any relatives, or what towns people lived in (apart from London), or what schools he went to. At one point he tells us his mother sent him to a “Catholic school” where he wore a uniform of grey trousers and maroon necktie, but he doesn’t let us know whether this was an independent, private school, or just a local parochial one. Since he implies his mother had to cough up a substantial fee, one suspects the former.
But we don’t know. Dougherty doesn’t want us to know. He writes at a John Le Carré level of caginess. I found this annoying. I understand he is protecting his and his family’s privacy from the likes of me and other investigative nosy parkers, but he could simply have done what most memoirists do: use aliases. Anyway, the result is a personal narrative that is often vague and unresolved. It also introduces the suspicion: is “Michael Brendan Dougherty” just an assumed name . . . like “J. D. Vance”?
The nebulousness of it all reminded me of a hilarious review Norman Mailer gave to a Morley Callaghan memoir about 1920s expatriates in Paris. (New York Review of Books, Feb. 1, 1963, for those who want to look it up.)
[Callaghan’s] short portraits are written at the level of a conversation with somebody who might tell you he met Truman Capote.
“Well,” you might respond, “what is he like?”
“Well,” says your friend, “he’s small, you know, and he’s kind of bright.”
One of the few hard facts about his parents he does tell us is that his mother worked for IBM. She had been working for Toshiba, but Toshiba terminated her for being an unmarried mother. Autre temps, autre moeurs! IBM was a little more progressive.
What did she do at IBM? We’re never told, but it appears she was some kind of high-level administrative assistant. She made enough money to wear smart clothes and wear a gold Cartier watch and, perhaps, send the boy to a private school (although that’s the kind of thing grandparents usually pay for). The question arises why someone as intelligent and presentable as she did not at least pretend to be a widow or find a real husband.
One answer is she exulted in being an unmarried mother. It seemed risqué and bohemian. But also, she hadn’t really given up on the Irishman, who by this point had left England to go back to Ireland. Mum and Dad met up at long intervals, most memorably when little Michael was five years old and they visited County Clare and the Aran Islands. But then Dad got married to a real Irish girl, and when he told Michael and Mum that the new wife was expecting a baby, that just tore it. When he announced this, believe it or not, he was actually visiting Mum and Michael in New Jersey. A most uncomfortable circumstance. Devastating and traumatic for Michael, more so for Mum.
And yet! She kept up her fascination with things Irish, going off with little Michael to Irish language camp, where they forced you to speak Erse. (Typically, Dougherty doesn’t tell us where this was, but it seems to have been upstate New York.) For years afterward, Mum was still making vague plans to move back to London with Michael. Presumably, IBM could transfer her, or they could somehow use Michael’s putative dual-citizenship. But it was all a pipe dream. Nothing ever happened. Mum eventually lost hope and her job, suffered from a variety of psychosomatic maladies, wasted away, and died.
Meantime, Michael discovered that his father was not really an absentee father at all. Not only had he been sending money for Michael’s upbringing in the early years, but he would also secretly fly over to America and spy on this firstborn son he loved so much. If this scenario does not bring tears to your eyes, you have no heart.
Obviously, Mum’s marital misfire is the biggest plot point in the Dougherty narrative. It’s a good one, but I wish it were fleshed out more. I know of only one equivalent story in nonfiction, and that’s in the memoir by Ernest Hemingway’s daughter-in-law and sometime secretary, Valerie Danby-Smith Hemingway (Running with the Bulls, 2004). Valerie was a convent-bred girl from Dublin, and this is very much another Irish story. In the early 1960s, Valerie had a one-night stand in San Francisco with playwright Brendan Behan, who was doing a wrap party for his play The Hostage. A child ensued. Behan already had a wife in Ireland, and soon died anyway, age 41. Valerie was a free spirit, like Michael’s mum, and decided she’d raise her bastard boy as an unmarried single mother. Very chic and intellectual, you know! Circumstances intervened, and instead, she became the wife of Ernest’s youngest son, Dr. Gregory Hemingway. Greg gave the lad a surname, as well as a string of younger siblings, and a stable family life to boot; at least until the good doctor’s manic-depression and extreme eccentricities drove him completely off the rails.
Dougherty’s family narrative may be somewhat vaporous, but it’s really just a framing device for the real meat of the book. He has very firm ideas about some things. He’s a believing, practicing Catholic (that should be redundant, but in the Biden era, it seems it’s not). He’s never managed to become fluent in Irish Gaelic, but he’s a firm believer in making the effort, even though almost no one in Ireland has been fluent for 200 years. Dougherty has a passionate argument about this. When a language dies, it dies! And its literature and subtle idioms become inaccessible, whether the tongue is Cornish or that of some Red Indian tribe. Clearly, Dougherty is no STEM faddist. He thinks the primary aim of education should be to drench young people in their history and heritage.
Irish people are ignoramuses about their own history, he tells us. There is a persistent notion that Ireland was an anarchic land of feuding clans, Gaels, and Vikings, till the English (or rather the Normans) stepped in, with the blessing of the Pope, around 1172. This fable has been exploded repeatedly, as Dougherty describes in some detail, yet the fake history lives on. The 1916 Easter Rising is generally portrayed as harebrained, inept, suicidal, but it wasn’t; it eventually yielded independent Ireland, making Ireland and the USA the only two countries ever to win independence from Great Britain by force of arms.
Of course, these misapprehensions of national history are not a specifically Irish phenomenon. You see it just as badly in the French — and don’t even start in about the Germans. The current hoohah in America about critical race theory is rather unique in that it’s coming so late in the game. Americans have remained remarkably immune to this poison of ahistoricity, perhaps because we’re so steeped in lore — factual, fictional, and filmic — particularly about the Old South and the settlement of the West, not to mention the horrors of Indian fighting.
Other lands have not been so lucky. Thirty or forty years ago, I would hear to my alarm how Australians had been taught to feel bad about having had a White Australia policy up to the 1970s. Aussies coming of age at that time were made to feel guilty, and told they had to atone by giving up their place to the nonwhites in the world. It was the same thing with Canadians. They started calling Indians “First Nations” and giving them massive subsidies. They even changed their country’s name, effectively, from the Dominion of Canada to just “Canada.” Rather as though the United States of America were to declare it would henceforth be known officially as the short, colloquial “America.”
Twenty-five years ago I used to spend a lot of time in Vancouver, BC. During one visit I was there on what was now known as “Canada Day.” I would kid the young folks at the front desk about Dominion Day, or (its original name) Confederation Day. My jokes fell flat because they had never heard of the Confederation, didn’t know Confederation Day. Nor did they even know the full style of the country was, and is, the Dominion of Canada.
But it’s always a surprise to come back to the fact that in Ireland the governing class, and media class, are mostly batshit Lefties. An acquaintance of mine turned down an appointment as ambassador to Ireland early in the Trump administration, because while he and his wife were measuring drapes at the Phoenix Park ambassador’s residence, they realized there was far too much anti-Trump flak and hatred coming from the press and RTE. A couple of months before that, a friend of mine, an American writer living in Ireland, wrote a fluffy humor piece for the Irish Times that included an “alt-right glossary.” It wasn’t edgy at all. It merely explained such terms as “dindu” and “normie.” Well, sir, this was too much for the Dublin apparatchiks, who denounced it as neo-Nazi propaganda. (For search engine reasons, I’m not linking the article.)
Ireland, a country not much larger than Connecticut, and once the most impregnably conservative Christian country on earth, has fallen to the same ideological infection that felled the rest of the West. But since it’s tiny, like the Bottle City of Kandor in Superman comics, it’s an ideal specimen to observe and study. Michael Brendan Dougherty provides an introduction.
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