Fatherhood and the search for culture

Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search For Home shows how noble and natural it is to have pride in one’s nation and a desire for that nation’s religion, language, and culture to be cherished and preserved.

Cobh, Ireland (Image: Kristel Hayes | Unsplash.com)

Something both theatrical and absurd happened in front of the General Post Office of Dublin on Easter Monday in 1916. An Irish schoolteacher named Patrick Pearse proclaimed to the passersby that Ireland was no longer a part of the British Empire but was from that moment forward a free and independent republic.

With that bold proclamation, the Easter Rising began.

Wanting to free their country from British oppression, this brave school teacher, along with a journalist, an Irish language activist, and a labor agitator, led the not even two thousand Irish volunteers in seizing a handful of positions throughout Dublin. They had no chance of success against the mighty British Empire. Late on Easter Sunday, the day before the rebellion began, one of the founding members of the Irish Volunteers, Michael O’Rahilly, begged its leaders to desist. But when the plot forged ahead this same man arrived the next morning to present himself for service. “It is madness” he said, “but it is glorious madness.”

Drawn up by men who were more poets than military officials, the Rising was crushed within a week. Its leaders were first cursed by the common people of Dublin for foolishly bringing ruin upon their city and the loss of hundreds of lives, all while so many Irish sons were off fighting for the Empire in the Great War. But when the Rising’s leaders were executed one by one, famously including the wounded James Connolly who had to be propped up by a chair to face the firing squad, they became heroes.

The Easter Rising came to be viewed as a heroic self-sacrifice for the nation, and the Irish would not let the blood of those patriots be spilt in vain. The struggle for their independence had only begun.

But there were many questions to be answered. What is a nation? What makes it worth dying for? What makes men willing to take part in the “glorious madness” of something like the Easter Rising? Surely it must be for more than a mere self-governing administrative unit. Would anyone really die for that? No. I don’t think so. For a nation is much more, for a nation has a soul. A nation is inextricably linked with religion, family, language and culture.

With the Easter Rising as a historical backdrop, and his own yearnings for identity in the face of an absent father as a catalyst, Michael Brendan Dougherty explores all these questions and more in his superb first book, titled My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home.

The book is comprised of letters written to Dougherty’s estranged father, who was an ocean away in Ireland while the young boy was raised by his hardworking single, Irish American mother here in the States. Though she split from the author’s father before Dougherty was born, his mother made a concerted effort to fill the void of a father by encouraging a passion for Ireland, the land of their roots.

As the author grew older and the hurt of his father’s absence deepened, it wasn’t easy for him to maintain this self-identification with the Irish that his mother sought to foster. It is here, I think, where Dougherty’s story can relate most widely with readers. It certainly did for me.

More and more American youths are frustrated with the lack of a common cultural identity our country fails to provide. Hopefully, all are loyal sons and daughters to this country. Obedience to the Fourth Commandment of “Honoring thy father and thy mother” applies to one’s nation as well. American citizens should love and honor this country. But what, exactly, is the American culture? The one thing that binds this diverse nation of immigrants is a common respect for the political philosophy of our Founding Fathers, especially as expressed in the Constitution. But that is not enough to give young men and women the identity they are looking for . At least it wasn’t for me and many I know. There must be something to the phenomenon of how my friends and I, while raised in this country, do not root for the Unites States in the World Cup as much as we do for the European or Latin American nation’s we trace our ancestry to. These countries instill within us a clearer sense of identity as they are synonymous with our religion and culture.

Is that a bad thing? For a time, I thought it was. Just like Dougherty, I once believed that claiming to be Irish because of my own father’s ancestry was ridiculous. I suppressed the self-conscious push of my younger years to assert my Irishness. I felt like a wanna-be Irishman, a poser, and was afraid to be called a “plastic Paddy”. Retreating from my heritage, I turned my interests to politics, history and culture more American.

Or at least I tried. There was something lacking when I solely identified with America. I needed more. Nationalism has become a dirty word today, but it shouldn’t be. Pride in one’s nation and a desire for that nation’s religion, language and culture to be cherished and preserved is noble. What inspired my return to a nationalist pride my father sought to encourage within my brother and me is brilliantly identified by Dougherty. It is not a nationalism rooted in some meat-headed notion that my Irish heritage is superior to any other, but a nationalism spurred on by a disappointment that no one is taking my heritage seriously, especially even those who share it. Put another way, it is a nationalism spurred on by fear of what is being lost.

Following the economic boom of the 1990s (called the “Celtic Tiger”), Ireland became like so many other European nations: less confident in itself and more globalist in outlook. Irish political history, especially the legacy of the Easter Rising and the IRA, were considered fanatical. Emphasis on religion, language, and culture was deemed divisive. It was better to be European than to be Irish. It was better to make the nation little more than a successful administrative unit designed to make individual lives more convenient and prosperous—even at the expense of the nation’s soul. It is this way of thinking that helps makes abortion, divorce, and “gay marriage” things to be celebrated in society.

Dougherty dispels the myth of liberation that is being fed to today’s youth. He illustrates how adults today are terrified of having authority over children. The only constant message given to the young is to “be true to yourself”. This has led to the creation of a generation of narcissists, a bunch of individuals out for personal gain with no thought to the fabric of the nation or wider society. Notions such as  honor or shame are considered ridiculous. It’s unimaginable to die for a political ideal today, or to give your whole life to a cause larger than yourself. Could something like the Easter Rising ever really happen again?

It’s better, we’re told, to be safe and smart. Idealism has become narrowness. Morality has become intolerance. Nationalism has become racist.

Dougherty sensed these troubling trends and did not align himself with them. He returned with great vigor to a pride and love for his ancestry. With the joyful expectation of his first child, he sought to reconcile with his father and reclaim the only real inheritance he received from him, his Irish identity, so he could pass it on in turn to his own children.

I thank Michael Brendan Dougherty for telling his story so honestly. It has helped me immensely in understanding better the goodness of what my own father has tried to instill in my brother and me, that is, a love for who we are and a desire to hold on to what our ancestors gave us.

My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home
By Michael Brendan Dougherty
Sentinel/Penguin, 2019
Hardcover, 240 pages


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About Father Seán Connolly 19 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He attended Saint Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, where he received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology as well as a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts. He currently serves as parochial vicar at the Parish of St. Joseph in Middletown, New York.

3 Comments

  1. How has the inner Celtic spiritual nature of the romantic and poet in the Irish bishops and clergy become so small and stayed before His vibrating heart of Truth and love?

    Was it stifled, while the best of them, the idealists were succumbed by the rational of the elite and sent to evangelize on far distant shores, who then contributed so much to the missionary spirit?

    To-day where are the courageous hearts that will come off the fence to confront the reality of this ongoing situation, that is one of abhorrent dishonesty before God and mankind, manifest by the elite colluding with blasphemy (The present Divine Mercy image) In God’s house, and on-going unaccountability for scandals emanating from the authority of Rome.

    Can the Irish leadership be a missionary leadership and recapture the dynamism of those idealists who left her shores, and now actual lead the church forward into a new dawn, and be the catalyst for change?

    Can the zing of the Christian hymn once again sing within Celtic hearts?

    Humility is the key but will we bend our knee. Will the phoenix rise again, will a new dawn break?

    In dank glen deep in wooded dell, sits
    The dinking, tinker ling, sweet blue bell
    Moist rock, sodden moss,
    Decaying leaf and soft acorn
    This is my bed in cool May morn
    The morning mist conceals not my form
    As my small head rings in the dawn
    The church bells ring, high above the Glen
    Echoing on mountain side, rolling as the morning tide
    Bringing all that’s fresh and new
    Again we have the spray and morning dew
    Hurriedly we make our way some to sing and some to pray
    The ground clad mist coat of the morn
    Recedes in flight the coming of the morning light
    The trees stand tall in the great wooded hall
    Holding back the dawning light
    The gentle breeze, flutters the leaves
    Showers of quivering light
    Flickering foliage of every sight
    We feel the touch of the morning bell
    And again we dwell in the wooded dell
    The high roof cannot hide the view
    As we sing and contemplate anew
    The birds, greet the morning in
    Can you feel the blue bell sing
    It is not a tinkling sound or shouting bell
    But can you hear me deep in the dell
    The choir sings in sweet accord
    As we feel the touch of the risen Lord

    Saint Faustina.
    “The time will come when this work, which God so commands (will be) as though in complete ruin, and suddenly the action of God will come upon the scene with great power which will bear witness to the ‘ Truth’ It will be as a new splendour for the church, though it has been dormant in it from long ago

    Venerate the true Devine Mercy Image, an image of Broken Man, as we reflect the Lords heart, the best we can.
    Please consider continuing via the link with posts below.

    http://www.catholicethos.net/catholic-teaching-assault-amoris-laetitia/#comment-226

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Ah, Fr. Connolly, hanging your hopes on Ireland is hanging them in mid air. The country that produced the greatest poet (in English, at any rate) of the 20th Century has sold out its culture to secular, agnostic Europe. It grieves me to say it, but kiss Irish Ireland goodbye. The country that absorbed every invader and made him Irish is changing from within and has been for decades. It won’t save Western Civilization a second time.

    But pray that I am wrong…

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