Last year, there was another wedding invitation in my life. This one from Darragh, the cousin I never thought I’d know. As a child he had been a name, but now that you and I are repairing the breach, he is a friend, sometimes a confidant, and a man who will place bets for me. The ones that are not yet legal in America, only in Ireland. He and his household have done well in life, and out of that sense of abundance, he had my whole household come to share in “the big do.”
At that wedding, you and I were sharing black beers in the very hotel from which the British shot out the rebels in St. Stephen’s Green. My child, your granddaughter, was playing upstairs, perhaps in a room that was used by khaki soldiers as one of the poshest sniper’s nests in the history of the empire. A testament that the Irish can accept whatever others dish out. Darragh’s wife, I came to learn, was in the touring company for Riverdance. And so we also had testament that night that even Ireland’s kitsch can be remade as joy.
And that night you told me your side of one of our stories. You told me about the time you had saved and saved for the plane ticket, only for my mother to disallow you from seeing me after you landed in Newark. She was too upset, she said. And I would be too upset. You went home, having seen your son only for a few minutes.
You told me how, in the following years, your frustration at being unable to see me overcame you. So you researched the times of my recess and lunch at my primary school. And without telling my mother, you flew to America and just presented yourself to me at my school. You made your best friend a coconspirator. He told you he believed you’d both be arrested. You caught so much hell for this from my mother, and from the nuns, and from your own conscience. I had spent years giving you silence, thinking that I was the afterthought in your trip. And here, on this night, I find I was your only thought.
“I felt like a terrorist,” you said, recalling it and feeling guilty. The words fell me like a thunderclap. Our estrangement was real, but in that moment, I learned you had made real sacrifices, taken real risks to see me. You would endure any strife it might cause in your house, and any hatred it occasioned in mine. You could barely lift your eyes up to me as you said that now, having a child of my own, I would understand.
But I shared with you the other detail of the story, the one that haunted me through all my years of silence. When you had come to the door of my school’s cafeteria and my back was to you, that friend of mine said to me, as if it were nothing, “Michael, your dad is here.” He had never seen you before. He just looked at you and knew. The simple fact that everyone could see about us – even if, at times, I tried to deny it.
Please, never be ashamed of the things you did to know me and be known by me. No matter how stupid or awful you felt, no matter how strange or upsetting they were to others, even to me. My mother’s wish, expressed to you in a letter, was that I should know myself to be Irish. It was an absurd thing to hope for. But maybe a little “terrorism” on your part made it true.
You predicted that my own fatherhood would send me to the roots. Of course it did. Fatherhood makes sense of sacrifice. It is an education that has deepened my ability to be “generous in service, withal joyous.” And that is why you and I must, in those small moments we steal now and then in the years we have left, here or in Ireland, make up a little of the time lost between the first time you put the hurl in my hand, and the first time I walked onto a hurling pitch twenty-five years later. My daughter must tramp around in the stony gray soil in Monaghan, where you walked to Mass with your grandparents. She should hear you argue for Connolly and class war against me, and me argue for Pearse and the nation against you. We can laugh about our common ancestry with the High Kings of Ulster, and all that has gotten us in life. You should bring her a little hurl next time you are here. Get her a Dublin jumper. Better yet, Monaghan. What would your grandfather want for her? “There is only one way to appease a ghost. You must do the thing it asks you” (Patrick Pearse).
You said that our relationship now, as men, is more than you could have rightly hoped. Can’t you see that, among all the loves, fears, shames, and uncertainties that belong to us and only us, there is something else that proceeds outward from our relationship? That what we call Ireland is found in the things that pass between us, and reverberate out into the world?
Because, faced with a child, you do the things you never thought you would do. You dare to do what was unthinkable, or even impossible. You become intransigent and indomitable, proud and valiant, yet willing to be the fool, throwing his life away.
I never knew your father. And yet, on the night my daughter was born, I called you with the good news. You may still feel like you have no right to me. And that through your absence in my boyhood, you have forfeited any claim upon your granddaughter. I cannot speak to how you feel. But I can tell you that she has a claim on you.
This article is an excerpt from My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son's Search for Home (Sentinel, 2019).