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    Irish countryside with rolling hills and farms

    A Better Country

    A review of My Father Left Me Ireland by Michael Brendan Dougherty

    By Brad East

    August 7, 2019
    • Jeanne Duffy

      “Manhood is found in sacrifices, offered joyfully,” Dougherty writes. I find it telling how these elegies on manhood always identify it with things that women do as often, if not more so, but as if - with Dougherty's mother - it's seen as negligible, perfunctory, devoid of poetry or meaning, merely because it comes from the female. Women have always modeled themselves on male heroes, when that was what they had. But men seem repelled by the notion of modeling themselves on great women.

    Father, nation, God. Few things are more contested today than these: not only their necessity or goodness but even their substantial existence. Many, anyway, live in their absence. Godless, fatherless, emancipated from patria earthly and heavenly, citizens of the globe and subjects of capital, they are an unbounded generation. Set loose from authority and obligation, they are accordingly set free from belonging. For to belong is to be limited by unchosen others – country, parish, parents, children – and liberation heralds the end of such limitations. Liberty entails choice, especially the choice to set one’s own course.

    In My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home, Michael Brendan Dougherty surveys the landscape wrought by this vision and registers his dissent. Having grown up the only son of a single mother, his father an ocean away, Dougherty sets out to defend the triad of fatherhood, nationhood, and faith. He writes of all that he missed as a boy and wonders, now as a husband and father, how to pass on what he never properly received. In a world starved for tradition, is the past beyond recovery? Can it be reclaimed and transmitted anew?

    Written in passionate prose, the book takes shape as letters addressed to Dougherty’s Irish father. His mother, an American descendant of Irish immigrants, got pregnant during a romp through Europe; the father-to-be returned to his homeland, and she to hers. Dougherty grew up in New Jersey, seeing his father every few years, resenting and longing for him in equal measure. When he discovered that his father had married and had children of his own, young Dougherty was shaken: “in that moment [of revelation] you gave me a good-bye hug and a reassurance that you were still my father. And that nothing would change between us. All I ever wanted was for things to change.”

    While nothing changed, Ireland loomed over Dougherty’s childhood. His mother enveloped him in Irish culture, teaching him Irish songs and surrounding him with people and stories from the old country. Later in life, prompted by the impending birth of his first child, he gave himself over to Ireland’s history and people, above all their long suffering and sacrificial fight for independence. Their sacrifice becomes the key that unlocks Dougherty’s family story, for what makes sacrifice possible is love: love of God, love of country, love for family. To look into the face of your own child, Dougherty realizes, is to see what you would be willing to die for, and to kill for. And to see it in yourself gives you eyes to see it in others, even a father you rarely saw – to realize the same love was at work in him, all those years. Dougherty sees, knows, loves, and forgives. On the final page, in his final letter, he writes, “I am happy you are my father.”

    One historical sacrifice suffuses the book’s pages: the Easter Rising of 1916, when Ireland’s simmering resentments against British rule boiled over in a short-lived rebellion following Easter Sunday. The Rising is a Rorschach test of sorts. Was it a failure, resulting in unnecessary violence and meaningless deaths? Or was it a noble sacrifice on the altar of the nation? “Manhood is found in sacrifices, offered joyfully,” Dougherty writes. “The only liberation worth having is one accomplished in sacrifice.” In the words of Patrick Pearse, “the nation” is “all holy, a thing inviolate and inviolable, a thing that a man dare not sell or dishonor on pain of eternal perdition.” Dougherty confesses that when he reads Pearse’s words he “feel[s] an honest conviction flooding my heart and stealing my breath.”

    It is no accident, then, that Dougherty’s language turns spiritual, even theological:

    Policy wonks are the acknowledged legislators of our world. But there is nothing technical about the Rising. I see in the Rising that a nation cannot live its life as a mere administrative district or as a shopping mall; nations have souls. It’s a virtue when poetry colonizes our politics, even if today the situation is reversed. The life of a nation is never reducible to mere technocracy, just as the home cannot be, no matter how much we try to make it so. I see that nationality is something you do, even with your body, even with your death. I see that a history of plunder does not oblige those plundered to despair; it obliges them to hope, and to act on that hope.

    By the end of the Rising, it looked as if Ireland had lost. But the leaders marched heads high to their deaths, confident of what they’d accomplished and what would come of their sacrifice. “A wonk would never recognize that a losing fight can be a victory in itself. Perhaps only an Irishman can see it.” For “when a man joins the glorious madness of a doomed battle to preserve the pride of his nationality, when men march happily into the hands of their captors, and commend the executors, a dying nation rises to life.”

    Dougherty is Roman Catholic, a faith recovered, like so much else in his life, in adulthood. Where he foregrounds father and fatherland, though, God remains mostly in the background. The resulting imbalance leaves certain questions unanswered. For example, Dougherty is right to insist on the heart’s reasons beyond wonk positivism. But sometimes the heart’s reasons are not enough. The Rising should not be protected by a moat of romance and high speech. Christians do indeed celebrate at the altar the ultimate sacrifice, an unbloody remembering of a bloodied and disfigured man lynched, unjustly, by occupying authorities. But that man didn’t resist, didn’t take up arms. He disarmed his disciples, in fact, and they died – have died ever since – as he did: without resistance. Martyrdom is the lived meaning of the sacrifice of Christ.

    That is not to rule out in principle the resort to violence, but here again there are criteria beyond the heart’s claims to knowledge. We need not rehearse just war theory or its application in this case. The point is that Dougherty appears to circumvent, or obviate altogether, such considerations. And the rationale for doing so seems to be an indubitable appeal to ultimate love for country, a love whose power to justify sacrifice knows no apparent limit.

    Though good, such love is subordinate to other loves and qualified by them. Scripture, at least, swings back and forth in its directives. “Honor your father and your mother” – but also, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother ... he cannot be my disciple.” Again, “Let every person be subject to the authorities. For there is no authority except from God” – but also, “We must obey God rather than men.” And again, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. ... [S]eek the welfare of the city” – but also, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

    In short, fidelity to God through discipleship to Christ encompasses and supersedes all natural obligations and affections. The church’s history includes moments in which and persons in whom these were rightly ordered. But more often, in most of us, they have competed with and trumped the command of God. Such a conquest of loves is often revealed precisely through the counter-command of earthly sacrifice: to die or kill for the city of man. But “here we have no lasting city,” as Hebrews says; just this is the faith of the martyrs, who together with the patriarchs and all the saints “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

    The city of God intermingles with the earthly city here below. To utterly disentangle them in this life is impossible. But Dougherty’s account, saturated as it is in love for the better countries he hopes to see in this life, lacks the Christian ambivalence required to distinguish and order them. It is worth recalling that the Eucharist, like the Passover, is a meal on the run, a feast in exile. The nations are a drop in the bucket, dust on the scales. There was a time when Ireland, like America, was not. When they are once again no longer, will we grieve as those who have no hope?

    Reading Dougherty on these themes calls to mind another writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates. He too has written a book consisting of letters to a family member, filled with reflections on fathers and sons, history and tradition, plunder and peoplehood, violence and social struggle. The book is Between the World and Me, though for the complete story his earlier memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, is a necessary companion volume.

    The comparison between Dougherty and Coates is not superficial. Coates’s work is in effect one long secularized gloss on the lament of Psalm 137. He writes about the meaning of living as a black man in white America. About the ever-present possibility that hangs over black boys like him: “membership in a garbage heap of lost men.” About “embracing the reclaimed culture” of African descent, names, identity. About the rites of black manhood forming “a great web tying me to all my people in all times.” About the stillborn revolution of the sixties and seventies that gave way to “the nonrevolution” of the decades since. About learning to speak “a mother tongue” “on liberated land.” About growing up in a household with a father’s catechism – “he left the Panthers with a basic belief system, a religion that he would pass on to his kids” – communicated tirelessly, until it cut to the marrow: “I could not escape who I was, but now didn’t want to.” And about realizing he’d “been birthed in the wrong year. All the great wars had been fought, and I was left to rummage through the myths of my fathers.” There is even an analogue to the Rising at the peak of the Reagan eighties: “now was the hour … Now was the time to reverse our debased years, to take over, grab our guns again, and be men.”

    Irish countryside with rolling hills and farms

    Photograph by Nils Nedel

    In sum, when Coates writes of “groping for manhood in the dark,” he speaks for Dougherty, too. But they do so from different contexts, toward different ends. Coates, having survived the fatherless streets of West Baltimore and raised by a militant father, now turns to his own son, heir to a people perpetually in exile, who must navigate a land populated by “those who believe they are white.” Coates is godless but not fatherless, and hands on a tradition – both earned (by resisting its expropriation) and learned (from the mouth, and sometimes the belt, of his father) – to the next generation. Dougherty, for his part, has to seek out, recoup, and in certain ways reconstitute his inheritance, all while living amid the fractured suburban archipelago (whose “houses were built to lean on each other because the homes inside were broken”). His dual identity is not indigenous, though, not written in the visible flesh or enforced by a hostile culture; it is mediated by ancestry and imagination, through the gradual recognition of the claims of the past on himself and on his children.

    Above all, Coates and Dougherty are united in their apprehension of the difference fatherhood makes. Each would die – and kill – for his firstborn child. And that willingness to give everything, to sacrifice all, is intimate with the larger concentric circles of family, city, race. As Dougherty eulogizes Pearse, Coates rejects the nonviolence of King and extolls Malcolm’s manly will to fight. In other words, these two men journey to the common source of manhood, fatherhood, and membership in ancestral community, and return with emotional, if not quite reasoned, support for political violence.

    That is a fact worth meditating on.

    Regarding faith, however, the men part ways. Coates, an atheist, distrusts talk of providence, divine grace, or hope. As he has written elsewhere, there are no happy endings; there is no moral arc to history; no one, “and certainly not anyone’s God …is coming to save us.” Instead of gods, he turns to “ancestry.” Though not an escape hatch, it nevertheless can serve as a “balm,” filling its progeny “with purpose and meaning.” That is enough for life in a world of violence, bound for death.

    Dougherty opts against such skepticism. Grace, at the end of the story, shines a light that transfigures what came before, enabling reconciliation. Giving grace comes from receiving it, only in this case that grace was made manifest in the birth of Dougherty’s daughter. As he writes in his final letter, “when we act, or when we are forced to act on behalf of the future, the past can be given back to us as a gift.” And if that is true, then “you can be my father from now on” – even more, an Irish grandfather to American grandchildren never dreamed of. Such is the power of forgiveness.

    Christian faith, then, makes the difference in Dougherty’s story: it is what keeps his nationalism from tipping over into idolatry; what underwrites the pardon he offers to his father; what gives him hope for the future his children will inherit. But it doesn’t account for everything. Race is the fundamental difference here; most black Americans, after all, are Christian: Coates is an outlier. But just for that reason, his plight reveals in a concrete way the inadequacies of Dougherty’s nationalism. For Coates lacks a homeland to be reconciled to. He is too far removed from his ancestors’ homeland to return. And he is far too alienated from his current country of sojourn to claim it as his own. His is a people in diaspora, without a promised land in sight.

    Though not a spokesman for all black Americans, Coates does speak for many. Dougherty, on the other hand, is a conservative whose book has been warmly embraced by fellow conservatives, precisely those least sympathetic to Coates’s racial pessimism and unsentimental jeremiads. Yet Dougherty’s veneration of an ancestral people and its stubborn insurgence and violent sacrifices overlaps considerably with Coates’s. (“They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” Coates about blacks in America, or Dougherty about Ireland under the British?) There are problems with both men’s books, but I mean the point to work in the other direction: If those of us who are not Irish can learn from Dougherty’s redemptive romance, surely those of us who are not black can do the same with Coates’s secular tragedy.

    The duality of Christian identity entails holding ethnic and national identities at arm’s length. But ambivalence need not mean renunciation. Christians more than anyone should be able to celebrate, with Dougherty, when natural loves flourish in a fallen world. But so too should Christians acknowledge and lament, with Coates, when the city of man fails its inhabitants, leading them to the edge of despair. “We seek the city that is to come.” When our neighbors abjure empty promises about reconciliation in this life, and when they reject as myth talk of a savior setting things right here and now, the church should not offer false comfort.

    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”: in the world to come, yes, but not always in this world. The psalmist speaks for all exiles and aliens when he asks how one can sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. Hearing that question voiced in a different key, we should be quick to listen and slow to speak in reply.

    Contributed By

    Brad East is Assistant Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas.

    Contributed By BradEast Brad East

    Brad East is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author or editor of four books, most recently The Church: A Guide to the People of God.

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