Arts & Books Books

An island of saints and scholars seized by technocrats and wonks

A searing memoir offers an astonishing vision of national renewal, says Michael Duggan

My Father Left Me Ireland
By Michael Brendan Dougherty
Sentinel, 240pp, £20/$24

“You leave. I cry.” With these four words, Michael Brendan Dougherty sums up for his father their relationship as he perceived it while growing up. Dougherty was raised by his Irish-American mother in New Jersey. His father was far away in Dublin, a very occasional visitor to American shores. His parents met in London, but had already broken up by the time Michael was born.

Dougherty finds himself inhabiting an “architecture of fatherlessness” in the American suburbs. There was no stigma – at least officially. In fact, he grew up in an atmosphere where there was nothing that he and his peers were obliged to believe. He was raised in a way that “seemed calibrated to make [him] an ex-Catholic”.

His mother, even more so, was living “on the other side of the culture’s liberation”. The upshot of this, Dougherty perceives, was that her struggles and unhappiness in life were held to be her fault, a judgment slipped to her “in secret”, which she in turn accepted and internalised. Her early death is the saddest moment in the book.

But, while moving and thought-provoking, this is not an unhappy book. It is suffused in the glow of a rebuilt bond between father and son. Indeed, his mother’s fervent attachment to Ireland, transmitted to Dougherty throughout his childhood and reawakened in him by the prospect of becoming a parent himself, plays a vital role in the rapprochement.

The book comes in the form of seven letters from son to father. Sacrifice is the dominant theme: the sacrifices once automatically demanded by parenthood, by nationhood, by religion. Inevitably, therefore, Dougherty has a querulous relationship with modern Ireland, where liberation not sacrifice is the watchword.

This “Plastic Paddy” (awful phrase) has stayed loyal to the men of the 1916 Rising, whose motives, actions and states of mind have been remorselessly called into question. Dougherty could, it is true, do more to acknowledge that the blood sacrifice led by Patrick Pearse and his comrades made unwilling victims of innocent Dubliners, including children, who died in the crossfire. But he understands full well how history works in the human psyche: “If we want noble things in life, we will pull those noble things out of our history and experience. If we are cynics, we will see plenty of justification for our cynicism.”

Dougherty has also retained the faith, though he is under no illusions about the failings of “Holy Catholic Ireland”. His father fills him in on a “dark” country with nothing going on, nothing open, poor food, and the Church lording it over everyone. But he is highly sceptical about the new dispensation and “the idea that there is nothing for Ireland to do with fifteen centuries of Christianity but celebrate its destruction”. His observation, made to his father, that “people you knew would be genuinely afraid of receiving Holy Communion unworthily” condenses into 12 words the Ireland that has melted away.

The modern Church does not find much more favour than modern Ireland. Dougherty found it “useless” in the face of his mother’s death. He felt that “in penance, we should be made to pray for my mother, to ask forgiveness for the wrongs we inflicted or allowed”. But, if it had not been for his own frantic efforts to arrange a proper Requiem, the modern Church would have provided a service “anaesthetising us with a feeling of unearned peace”.

Towards the end of My Father Left Me Ireland, there is an extraordinary vision of an Irish resurrection in which the country’s deepest longings – romantic, religious, rebellious – reassert themselves against the works of the schemers now in charge who “erect their glass cages and other monstrosities across the landscape”, for whom a nation is but an administrative unit in which technocrats and wonks can do their work.

Here Dougherty fuses two pieces of writing he had called upon earlier in the book: a letter written by Roger Casement as he awaited execution, and a poem by Patrick Kavanagh. Ireland’s divine knight, Christ, he writes, “will come again, ‘walking from the summer headlands / To his scarecrow cross in the turnip ground’”.

This is the Ireland Dougherty wishes to give to his own children. In doing so, he will teach them the faith and the language and some of the songs, and perhaps invoke the likes of Pearse, Kavanagh and Casement. And he might also introduce them to the historian and nationalist Eoin MacNeill, who carried out heroic labours in uncovering the story of a Gaelic civilisation that waxed as continental Europe waned into its Dark Age.

For many children growing up in Ireland now, though, MacNeill and others like him may be no more than ghosts. But even a ghost can still pose questions and make requests. And, as Dougherty suggests, there is only one way to appease a ghost: “You must do the thing it asks you.”