What could be more Irish than a disappointing Da?
From Sean O'Casey to Eugene O'Neill to Brian Friel to Frank McCourt, Irish father's have been given short shrift onstage and on the written page for decades, and usually, the issue is one of inheritance - as in, where was mine?
You can argue that bad dads are a giant theme in all world literature of course, but the Irish seem to have cornered the market on the kind that really know how to sear your soul from childhood on.
The ones who miss your big days and forget all your little ones. The ones who seem to save all their largest reserves of compassion for themselves.
For a quite a few chapters of Michael Brendan Dougherty's new memoir My Father Left Me Ireland, we can be forgiven for wondering which kind of disappointing Da his own (the absent father of the title who left his mother and remained in Ireland) will turn out to be.
We can be forgiven because our literature has already primed the pump with unforgettable tales of drunkenness and recrimination and selfishness, to the point that we might hunker down in anticipation of another avalanche.
It never comes. Or rather, it does, but in such a quietly meditative way that the effect is far more devastating. Nothing is how it looks at first glance, it turns out. Carelessness turns out to be compassion.
Dougherty has the rug pulled from under him by life and in return, he pulls it from under us. Expectations are upended, easy assumptions are surpassed. It's what makes this book so memorable and affecting.
“It's the kind of book where I'm writing my story, and where my self-understanding is running parallel with my understanding of Ireland,” Dougherty tells IrishCentral.
“The genesis of the book came about around 2014 when former Taoiseach John Bruton famously suggested that Home Rule could have led peacefully to Irish independence. At the time I just felt like spitting when I heard it. I realized how diverged I was from him and that caused me to start looking back at history, Ireland's and my own.”
Dougherty realized he still harbored what he calls a romantic nationalism that he'd picked up in the 1980s, one that Ireland had filled, as had the politics of the north. He started to interrogate it.
“I noticed my eventual disillusion with all that had coincided with this idea of Ireland as a brand (or brand Ireland, as many of our senior political figures still call it) that was being sold in the 1990s. I saw an attempt to demythologize our history, our politics and sell it out to the real world, which is all about making money.”
What had once seemed august and noble and even otherworldly in its revolutionary ambitions was starting to look as threadbare and compromised as everywhere else.
“I do worry that Ireland is holding on to a consensus that is dying almost everywhere else,” says Daugherty. “Because in fact, I want them to recover the capacity to look at each other as the members of a society, members of a nation that has responsibilities to each other, the past and to posterity.”
In My Father Left Me Ireland Dougherty grapples with feelings of abandonment, shared or later amplified by his mother, for an absent father who chose a life without them in Ireland. That absence sent him on a quest to lasso the various parts of his inheritance and assemble them into a story.
It was Irish history, particularly the revolutionary period he says, that punctured his complacency, and it was his father's non-participation in most of his life that taught him that in fact we are connected and that it matters, and losing that connection is a profound loss, in fact.
“I feel like Ireland and my own life in the '90s and the 2000s was being lived in this idea that we could all just pursue private enterprise and that's where we will find our life – but I don't think that's tenable now. I felt grateful that I could look back during the centennial in 2016 and see these men willing to do things that people think are really crazy and stupid now, but that really transformed their nation.”
Dougherty says he finds private conversation in Ireland to be freer than anywhere else he's been, including the UK and America. “And that's partly why I chose to write this book as these letters to my father because I wanted this intimate space to say what I think and feel.”
Only connect. My Father Left Me Ireland is Dougherty's De Profundis, and he doesn't care if some critics find that too self-revelatory, too full of feeling. “It absolutely feels subversive, especially from an American, to say that those events matter to me and that they weigh on me and I think about them and I judge myself against them.
"I had to look at men like Pearse and Connolly and Ceannt and I found myself wanting to be next to them. I may never be placed in circumstances as momentous as they were but it feels subversive to say in 2019 that by reading their writings and letters and the historical accounts of their lives that they feel alive to me in a way that normal academic study almost forbids them to feel.”
And is Ireland meeting its own ideals? Has freedom seen it cherish its children equally, as the Proclamation promised it would?
“There is no country on earth that has translated its ideals perfectly into practice, let's stipulate that. However, the thing that offended me in the last decade was the acceptance of mediocrity, and this is especially true after the financial crash in Ireland, this idea that we just accept we are going to have emigration on a massive scale, we accept that when the money is flowing we are going to have robbery, we just accept that a children's hospital is going to be five times the initial cost in the tender, I think it's wicked to just accept it, to say will this is how the world works.”
The real world works because people treasure in their hearts that they're members of something and are engaged in keeping a common home Dougherty says, and when that's gone when you waste that trust or rationalize it entirely, the crime is much darker.
“So part of this book is a defense of idealism and romanticism and taking the initiative in politics and beyond politics for your nation. One of the things that's so subversive about the heroes of the Rising is that they take Ireland seriously. It's subversive of Pearse and Connelly and the others trying to make that sentiment real and covert that sentiment into action. Why shouldn't Ireland be mighty on its own terms? Why should it always be trapped in one narrative or in a cheap sentimentality about it itself?”
In his quest to understand his father and the country that he came from, Dougherty has come to understand America and himself in a way that he might have missed without that dual inheritance. In fact, we infer from the book, it saved him and his relationship with his father.
“I only have one father, I only have one life to live. Why should I go on an endless reckoning with him, in the sense of, “Hey you were only here for 60 days for the first 20 to 25 years of my life?” Why when I can just fall in love with him now and we can restore that relationship? I choose the latter. I choose that.”
My Father Left Me Ireland, Sentinel $24.00.