Political conversion stories are like religious conversion stories: intended to encourage more, yet not always what they...
Get Your Irish Up
This review appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
My Father Left Me Ireland
By Michael Brendan Dougherty
Michael Brendan Dougherty’s nationalism was once rather simple. “Conservatives are supposed to love the ‘near rather than the distant,’ ” he explained in 2010. “America is not some experiment,” not some idea primed for export, his essay concluded combatively. “It’s my home.”
Now, in his first book, Dougherty admits it’s more complicated. He was raised to feel that Ireland was nearby, too. During visits to the Jersey shore, he recounts, he would squint and swear to his mother that he could see the Irish coast. My Father Left Me Ireland raises the question: Why are American nationalists still squinting over the horizon?
The book comprises seven letters to Dougherty’s father, who long ago abandoned his mother to live a separate life three thousand miles away in Ireland. It’s a book of ideas as well as a beautiful memoir; insight punctuates Dougherty’s personal struggles and crowns his hard-won victories. “I am not a sensitive soul,” he claims, but he has a sensitive heart that transfigures his writing. What emerges is a politics of great loves, great passions, and more than a little blood.
Call it a politics of the heart or romantic nationalism, or just call it having a child. The experience of fatherhood causes Dougherty, one of the most compelling and original political writers at work today, to revisit his family, his heritage, and his nation. Not America, mind you, but Ireland. That’s to say, for a second time, his heritage.
“A conservative,” Leo Strauss suggested in a 1956 letter to National Review’s Willmoore Kendall, “is a man who believes that ‘everything good is heritage.’ ” Perhaps that’s why Dougherty’s conservatism and Irish nationalism, on one view an odd historical pairing, make so much sense. It’s in the U.S. that heritage dilutes or disturbs nationalism. And the more My Father Left Me Ireland ignores America, the larger it looms.
Dougherty, now a senior writer at National Review, has for years argued that conservatives should encourage “assimilation and Americanization.” I broadly agree. But I think Dougherty and I also share a contradiction: we want every group in America to assimilate—except our own. “A nation exists,” he writes, “in the things a father gives to his children, or else he is shamed before his father and grandfather.” Yet if Dougherty’s father left him Ireland, mine left me Israel, and yours left you Mexico, how much is left over for America?
In that roundabout way, Dougherty forces his fellow nationalists to confront the problem of pluralism. Without saying so, Dougherty clearly finds a purely American identity insufficient for himself and his family. He’s not alone. For many Americans, dropping their “hyphenated” identities and everything they represent would be shallow, leaving out too much history, too much that’s true.
Dougherty’s argument about heritage, which would summon the strong gods back to Ireland, implies conversely that America must have a thin nationalism, lest its people be shamed before their divergent forefathers. This is one reason why American nationalism has historically emphasized the American idea, individual liberty, and moral and civic equality, rather than more tangible common markers. But that very thinness can make American identity diffuse and unsatisfying. Since Americans’ parents, grandparents, and ancestors hail from across the world, the nation must exist in ten thousand different ways drawn from as many traditions.
Dougherty knows that dissatisfaction well. After the 1994 cease-fire in Northern Ireland quenched his mother’s Irish nationalism, he had some experience as a plain-old American teenager and found it wanting. A few Irish records played in the home, but this was kitsch. American culture encouraged what Dougherty calls a “curator’s approach to life.” One could choose to be Irish all the time, or only on Saint Paddy’s Day, or never. “The important thing was that it,” like all else, “be entirely a personal choice. And if you were talented, that you didn’t screw up your earning potential in the future.”
In this way, particularistic identities were domesticated. “That little bit of ironic distance”—I’m Irish, but mostly I’m joking; now pass the Guinness—“prevented these things from really touching the parts of my soul and mind that were vulnerable to developing a deep conviction.” The culture taught Dougherty’s cohort to disorder its loves: heritage became ornamentation; anything that could move the heart became a lark. “In my generation,” he explains so well, “we call the higher ideals a form of narrowness, and shrink away from them.”
Allan Bloom identified this hesitancy to dig deeper as a protective strategy of children of divorce. David Foster Wallace attributed it to messages promoted by popular TV shows. The son of an absentee father, Dougherty mixes the two explanations: “Mass media was my primary teacher growing up,” he writes. “It slipped under the table to me a lesson that sincerity is a kind of weakness.”
In his 1990 essay “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace hoped for writers who would wrest the culture back from postmodern exhaustion. These were “anti-rebels” who
dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles, . . . artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.
Nearly three decades later, that sounds like Dougherty. Many readers will roll their eyes at the “Dear Father” at the start of his book’s first five chapters. Many Irishmen will sigh: Patrick Pearse’s oration at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa, really?
Dougherty replies on every page: yes. He risks every smirk, every parody. He already learned the hard way that “aloofness misleads us” and that “ironic distance is insufficient when we are really tested.” He had to surmount those walls to admit that he missed his fathers—in the home, the church, the nation, and the sky above—and then retrieve them. Wallace’s “New Sincerity” always had to give way to an older kind.
Dougherty insists that the dead are never silent. It’s true that we can ignore them, pretending “the one lesson of history is that the past has nothing to teach us,” or despise the past, which “relieves ourselves of its censure.” But he uses Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916 to show that if we remove our fingers from our ears, we’ll hear instructions from the heroes and legends of old.
Pearse and the other Irish nationalist leaders of the Rising “let the words and deeds of the past weigh on them and refashion them,” compelling them to rebel. Of course they failed, but their martyrdom inspired the next generations of rebels and leaders who would win Ireland its freedom. “Could self-made men do this?” Dougherty asks. “Or men who are clever, but think nobility itself a delusion?” Of course not. The realism of presentists and cynics is totally inadequate.
Dougherty’s telling of Irish history and his picture of Irish identity is ennobling, a step in the right direction. He does not bother, however, to dissociate his vision from the familiar excesses of nationalism. Dougherty writes that the Easter Rising “redeemed” Dublin. The seat of colonial rule was suddenly “christened by the blood of Irish patriots.” He later returns to the point with a quote from Pearse: “Bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood.”
That last part sounds right, but one begins to worry when intellectuals wax poetic about the mystical powers of killing people. Sometimes bloodshed doesn’t cleanse at all. No matter how righteous the cause, violence often reproduces itself, unleashing evil and elevating psychopaths to power.
Dougherty learns from the Easter Rising that “a nation cannot live its life as a mere administrative district or as a shopping mall.” But liberalism isn’t the final horror, either. Surely, to keep violence occasional, it’s necessary at times to subordinate the noble to “mere technocracy” and mere prosperity.
Dougherty, however, contends that the man who strays from his duty to the past will not only be shamed but also haunted. Putting historical obligation on too high a pedestal, he again lets Pearse speak for him: “There is only one way to appease a ghost. You must do the thing it asks you. The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask very big things; and they must be appeased, whatever the cost.” This isn’t a social contract or a Burkean partnership; it’s a blood pact.
While Dougherty hopes to resurrect important virtues by choosing Pearse over Burke, he forgets moderation. He is right that the “ghosts of a nation reproach the living on behalf of posterity.” One need only think of French Resistance hero Robert de La Rochefoucauld, inspired to take action when he couldn’t evade the judgment of his ancestors, French and Catholic martyrs, staring down from their portraits in his family’s chateau. It’s not enough to fear the judgment of posterity. Nations need dead great men to keep them accountable.
At the same time, ghosts are not fit to rule us. They don’t speak with a single voice; people interpret their commands in wildly different ways, and ghosts can never compromise. It’s the duty of the living to recognize that heritage is one among many worthy but competing goods—to tell the ghost no, and refuse to be haunted any longer by the past.
“Ireland is a nation because men in uniforms marched and died for it,” Dougherty concludes. But as the Irish increasingly shun their nationalism and identity as rebels, preferring to be inclusive, prosperous, and European, it’s doubtful that Dougherty really finds in Ireland what he misses in America. He works hard, learning the Gaelic language to pass the Old Country on to his own children, but few native Irish make the same effort.
Dougherty only underscores his Americanness by taking refuge in the noble house of Pearse’s thought. To his modern Irish father, it must resemble a curatorial decision—and a curious one. Still, Dougherty is lucky to have a fatherland within reach. Other nationalist American intellectuals survey the world, picking out for the U.S. a rooted traditionalism from foreign countries they haven’t begun to understand.
“Fatherhood teaches me,” Dougherty writes, “that if we let it, new life comes to restore us. A new life reconciles us as fathers and sons, nations with their history, however turbulent.” Unfortunately, Dougherty’s redemptive nationalism, and perhaps even his beautiful reconciliation with his father, prevent him from acknowledging that living for our children sometimes requires turning our backs on our parents and ancestors. Some ghosts can’t be appeased, or shouldn’t. Nationalism with a happy ending—now that is American. ♦
Elliot Kaufman is an assistant editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal and was the Journal’s inaugural Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow for Excellence in Journalism.
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