Comment Opinion & Features

A masterpiece that shows why fatherhood matters

Michael Brendan Dougherty

It has been weeks since I read it, but I can’t get Michael Brendan Dougherty’s debut book, My Father Left Me Ireland, out of my head.

Ostensibly, Dougherty has written an epistolary memoir, composed of letters from an American son to the Irish father who abandoned him. But like all great books of the kind – and I believe this one is a masterpiece – it rises far above its raw material to speak to universal concerns: about the human longing for community and a common life, about the link between family and nationhood and meaning, about the simple fact that human beings need fathers, biological and spiritual ones.

Lesser hands would suffuse such material and themes with cheap bathos. Dougherty, however, takes the high road of writerly discipline, so that we end up, for example, with this heartrending early account of a trip to an Irish pub with his Irish-American mother and his father:

I had this dim sense of the two of you enjoying each other, and enjoying me. I moved about this world in which every object was charged with meaning. I remember Mom’s blue eye shadow and the gold-plated bangles and your thick wool Irish jumper. I remember that my mother’s Virginia Slims suddenly had this new Irish name, “fags”, which I was not allowed to repeat. I remember the smoke drifting up from her glass held at the height of my head, and seeming to curl around your arm like a lasso. And I was praying it would pull you two closer to each other.

Alas, the smoke-lasso would fail to tie Dougherty’s father to his mother; he would leave the family not long after and start a new one in his native land (that is, Ireland). Dougherty was thus dispossessed of his national and religious inheritance as an Irishman; of the language and traditions of this remarkable people, on whom as patriotic an Englishman as GK Chesterton lavished endless praise; but most grievously of his right to a natural family – father, mother, child. A visible image of invisible Trinitarian love.

We live in an age that justifies a multitude of transgressions against these rights of the child, beginning with his right to a natural family. Arrayed against boys and girls like Dougherty is a culture of easy divorce that tears asunder roughly half of marriages in the United States; various legalised family-engineering experiments carried out at the expense of children; and an army of statisticians and woke sociologists offering “data-based” scientistic rationalisations to soothe the guilty conscience.

But then comes Dougherty the romantic. That doesn’t mean he is simple or irrational or besotted with a Hallmark Channel sensibility. It just means that he is wise enough to recognise that there are dimensions of life, hidden to scientistic bombast and GDP statistics, but nevertheless true and discoverable by those who know their way around poetry and the novel. Those who have felt a boy’s raw need for his father to put his arm around his mother and keep it there and not let it stray.
And serious enough to understand that attachment and responsibility are the soul of true freedom.

That includes attachment to one’s immediate family but also to the extended families of the community and nation. On the link between these two things – family and nation – Dougherty has much to say, which I don’t have room to explore in a short column. So permit me to merely urge you to buy this little gem of a book and to close with another sampling of Dougherty’s astonishingly limpid, honest prose, an account of his mother’s suffering:

She lost a job over being an unmarried mother. As the unmarried daughter in an Irish-American family, the primary responsibility of watching over and then taking care of her aged parents was left to her. Men paid her less attention than she deserved. After all, she was carrying baggage. Now I see, she was carrying a cross.

Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald. He is at work on a book exploring 12 questions our culture doesn’t ask.