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Seeking the Heart of the Nation

Most contemporary discussions about identity rarely resolve anything of significance since they are devoted to the advancement of identitarian politics. The focus on identity tends to reduce people to ideological constructs and nothing more. Their interior lives go unrecognized precisely because the aim of identitarian politics is to enlarge an ideology and not a proper, human encounter. In a new book, My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search For Home, Michael Brendan Dougherty takes a different route to the exploration of identity, and seeks to resolve a conflict between two identities that have been part of him all his life—Irish and American.

Written and presented as a series of letters to his estranged father, Dougherty wonders what can be done about the conflicted loyalties he feels for both America and Ireland. This uneasiness stems from the separation of his Irish father and American mother. At the beginning of the book, Dougherty reveals that the urge to confront his roots is even more intensely felt because of the arrival of his own child, a daughter: “All my life, save for a few weeks, has been spent an ocean away from you. Now, for this child’s sake, I hope to bridge that gap. It means finding a way back to each other, doesn’t it? And for me it also means asserting the Irish thing, the way my mother did.”

Like any child who grew up without a father, Dougherty feels the separation acutely. As he’s trying to make a sense of it all, he writes: “Because I was raised apart from you, my Irishness has to be self-consciously asserted or it ceases to exist in me.” He sees in himself “what many Irish people would call a plastic Paddy. A Yank. A tourist who stumbles on a ruined castle and thinks it’s the old family homestead, then babbles about how good the Guinness is…”

Driven by her love of Ireland and sadness over the separation, Dougherty’s mother sings Irish songs to the young Michael and teaches him the Irish language. Reflecting upon this, Dougherty observes:

Many language learners say that they find a new personality in their second language. Already I can see the Irish language gives me access to another part of myself, one that doesn’t feel so needful of admiration, that doesn’t couch itself in layers of irony and hide behind hand-waving verbal acts of self-creation.

This is certainly a statement that rings true, but he doesn’t delve deeply into philosophical or existential implications of what kind of impact language has on personal identity or vice versa. Perhaps such an approach is not of interest to Dougherty and certainly nobody could blame him for that. However, I cannot help but think this was a lost opportunity for him to get into the core of metaphysics of language. In many ways, each language is a doorway—be it an entrance or an exit—from one identity to the next. The question that would have been rather intriguing to explore is which identity in Dougherty’s case is more authentic, and if so, why? Or perhaps this wouldn’t have been the case at all, and instead of linguistic and metaphysical resolution, he would be faced, yet again, with a fragmentation, a disruption, and constant lack of resolution.

Although most of the introduction to the Irish culture was authentic for Dougherty, the 1990s (when Dougherty was coming of age) were filled with Irish kitsch. Being Irish was ‘cool’ and popular. People were raving about Michael Flatley, “The Lord of the Dance,” and Riverdance, listening to the New Age Gaelic sounds of Enya and political songs of The Cranberries, and adorning their bodies, homes, and cars with Celtic knots. Irish identity suddenly became an American commodity, one paraded in front of others, and that inevitably diminished its meaning and power. The kitschiness was not necessarily devoid of truth but it was a superficial level of understanding a culture, similar to saying that being Italian boils down to pasta, pizza, and espresso.

This societal expression of Ireland made Dougherty even more alienated from his roots. He rebelled by rejecting his father and growing ambivalence about his mother. As time went by, his relationship with his mother became more complicated as well. She became more inward and distant, eliminating herself from society-at-large. It’s not clear from the book whether his mother was unhappy because of the tensions that arose from the relationship with his father, or whether this was an inherent problem within her own being. We only get short glimpses of her life, but still, one can certainly imagine that this was a difficult reality for Dougherty to bear.

Without a doubt, this had a profound effect on Dougherty and how he saw the world around him. Since most children define themselves by the identity of one or both parents, this must have been another exercise in disorientation that he even criticizes himself: “Was I worth knowing? I doubt it. Not only was I painfully insecure, I was shallow. Someone who approaches life like a curator will exchange his faith for merely believing in belief… I was content to slide down to the surface of things.” In this moment, Dougherty recognizes that some deeper reflection was or is missing and that he has, perhaps, missed an opportunity to dig deeper into his being to uncover who he is. However, we cannot forget that always parallel to Dougherty’s uneasy relationship with his parents is the emotional journey through Ireland and America. The burden of two identities looms over the young Michael until the only thing that is certain is the uncertainty itself, and quite possibly, a difficulty to get out of the endless loop of identity seeking.

The problem, for the reader, is that most of the interior struggle Dougherty is presumably experiencing is not entirely clear in the book. There are many moments in the book when it is apparent that Dougherty is questioning his place in the world in relation to his father’s absence. He asks him, “Who were you anyway? You were the man who showed up every few years. The man who wrote me letters about the latest developments in his household, the home in which I played no role.”

Any reflection on one’s interior life does not have to come from our close or distant relationships with other people but also from our encounters with great literary works. This is especially true in Dougherty’s case because throughout his youth, he has been trying to connect to Ireland through any ways necessary. When people fail us or when they disappear, we go into books for answers, and because of this, I was pleased when I saw Dougherty’s reflection on James Joyce and his work, Dubliners. Whether one is Irish or not, it’s not hard to see that Joyce cuts through the surface and opens up wounds we never thought were even there. Joyce has that very rare quality in a writer, who navigates through national identity and more universal, human identity with success. For him, being Irish and being in exile are two sides of himself that are in tension. Loyalties to Ireland that he exhibits are filled with pride, regret, and rejection but they are inevitably connected to his artistic creation. Joyce constantly asks, directly and indirectly, what he should be—a writer or an Irishman, or are two voices completely inseparable and paradoxically, in tension? Dougherty knows this intellectually, and was affected by the famous story, “Araby,” however, as he is describing the story, the reader is left wondering what is the interior shape of that imprint Joyce left on him. Joyce himself had a love/hate relationship to Ireland, and the parallel would have proven to be quite creative and productive, but once again, Dougherty leaves the audience wanting to read a more detailed account.

Of course, this criticism could be looked at from another perspective, namely considering the possibility that Dougherty himself is wrestling with his identity, and that he is unwilling or unable to reveal the depth of his longing for his father, and by association, unable to reveal it to the reader as well. As a result, he finds himself in an in-between and hollow space that only gives back echoes of uneasy past. Longing to be made whole out of all the broken parts is one of the aspects of the human condition as well as one of the literary themes. But just as Dougherty opens the door to the gardens of longing, he quickly closes them.

Personal identity, and certainly one that is tied to two countries, brings out reflections on nationalism and sovereignty, and this is also especially true for Dougherty. Not only is this a timely endeavor because of today’s discussions of politics but it is also a perennial question about what it means to be a citizen. Where do our political loyalties lie? For Dougherty, this is a difficult question to answer because the pull to be both American and Irish is continuously there. For Dougherty, “nationalism usually does not spring from the meatheaded conviction that one’s nation is best in every way, but from something like a panicked realization that nobody in authority or around you is taking the nation seriously, that everyone is engaged in some private enterprise, while the common inheritance is being threatened or robbed. It might put on a mask of invincibility, but it does so in full fearful knowledge of the nation’s vulnerability.”

In many ways, what Dougherty is saying is that nationalism is a cry for help but at the same time an assertion of one common identity. Speaking about the Easter Rising in Ireland, Dougherty alludes that the emotion and action behind nationalism can often time be contradictory because “nations have souls.” Not only that but “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 history of plunder does not oblige those plundered to despair; it obliges them to hope, and to act on that hope.”

This is a very poetic way of expressing the purpose and the spirit of nationalism, and Dougherty rejects the notion that nationalism is just “an ideological technology for gaining sovereignty.” But this is only in the case of Ireland. When it comes to other nationalisms, specifically American, Dougherty is ambiguous. He never mentions, at least not directly, any ongoing debates about nationalism in America, and whether such concepts should be viewed positively or negatively. There is, however, one passage where he might be alluding to his true feelings about American nationalism, in which he writes that “nationalism usually does not spring from the meatheaded conviction that one’s nation is best in every way, but from something like a panicked realization that nobody in authority or around you is taking the nation seriously…” Does this mean that Dougherty is against American exceptionalism and greatness? One can only extrapolate and assume because he seems to say that it is impossible for America to have a national identity, whereas it is Ireland’s duty to have one. Does this mean that Dougherty yearns to be Irish more than he yearns to be American?

Perhaps the ending of his book serves as an entry point to the many contradictions that double identity brings. He writes to his father, “we are expecting another child. Another American-born man who will be taught, against all reason, that he is also Irish.” The question of whether one can be both Irish and American in the sense that Dougherty presents it in his book still remains open-ended. It is a difficult question to answer and perhaps that is the path that Dougherty will continue to travel, a continuous and unfolding journey into the mind and heart of America and Ireland.

Reader Discussion

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on December 16, 2019 at 11:41:45 am

No doubt, now that Ireland has lost its Catholic heritage by denying the Sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, and the Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament Of Holy Matrimony, thus protesting the fact that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Life, Of Love, And Of Marriage, what does it mean to be Irish? And doesn’t this meaning have a new meaning?

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