My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son's Search For Home

My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son's Search For Home

by Michael Brendan Dougherty


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The perfect gift for parents this Father’s Day: a beautiful, gut-wrenching memoir of Irish identity, fatherhood, and what we owe to the past.
“A heartbreaking and redemptive book, written with courage and grace.”
–J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy

“…a lovely little book.”
–Ross Douthat, The New York Times

The child of an Irish man and an Irish-American woman who split up before he was born, Michael Brendan Dougherty grew up with an acute sense of absence. He was raised in New Jersey by his hard-working single mother, who gave him a passion for Ireland, the land of her roots and the home of Michael's father. She put him to bed using little phrases in the Irish language, sang traditional songs, and filled their home with a romantic vision of a homeland over the horizon.

Every few years, his father returned from Dublin for a visit, but those encounters were never long enough. Devastated by his father's departures, Michael eventually consoled himself by believing that fatherhood was best understood as a check in the mail. Wearied by the Irish kitsch of the 1990s, he began to reject his mother's Irish nationalism as a romantic myth.

Years later, when Michael found out that he would soon be a father himself, he could no longer afford to be jaded; he would need to tell his daughter who she is and where she comes from. He immediately re-immersed himself in the biographies of firebrands like Patrick Pearse and studied the Irish language. And he decided to reconnect with the man who had left him behind, and the nation just over the horizon. He began writing letters to his father about what he remembered, missed, and longed for. Those letters would become this book.

Along the way, Michael realized that his longings were shared by many Americans of every ethnicity and background. So many of us these days lack a clear sense of our cultural origins or even a vocabulary for expressing this lack—so we avoid talking about our roots altogether. As a result, the traditional sense of pride has started to feel foreign and dangerous; we've become great consumers of cultural kitsch, but useless conservators of our true history.

In these deeply felt and fascinating letters, Dougherty goes beyond his family's story to share a fascinating meditation on the meaning of identity in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525538653
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/30/2019
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 33,801
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review. He lives with his wife and three children in Mount Kisco, New York, just 3,146 miles from "granddad's house" in North County Dublin. This is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

Only Child, Single Mother
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild with a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
—“The Stolen Child,” W. B. Yeats


Dear Father,
Do you remember when you put the hurl into my hand? I was six, I think. It was a gray day in Clare, a kind of gray I never saw at home in America. I remember the shabby carpet of the shop’s floor and a mumbled instruction to put my hands at my side. A number of these hurls—these wooden axes used in a sport I did not know— were held up to my body for sizing. I couldn’t understand much of what the men in the shop were saying. Their thick Irish accents, so different from yours, meant that even surrounded by others, I only understood you and my mother. On a day like this, it meant that the world beyond the three of us faded into the background, a little lilt on the air, a charming mumble.

All my boyhood memories of you are like this. A brief, suggestive interruption of a life I lived without you. We would meet. You would delight in your son. I would feel spoiled rotten, trying to soak up each moment together in all its detail. Then we would part. In the moments after, I would wail for want of you, before becoming quiet for days. My mother would worry for me as she navigated her own seas of love and hatred of you. Then the whole topic of “my father” would begin to fade from consciousness, sometimes for years. Most days, I lived as if you did not exist. It is only recently that I tried to think about what you were thinking then. Or what you felt that day.

I remember other little flashes of things about that trip to Ireland. I remember my mother, her mother, and I taking a ferry to one of the Aran Islands. We walked a five-mile stretch, and I tried to take seriously the charge a local man gave me to uncover the faeries there. He probably laughed at the predictable gullibility of Americans. But as my grandmother gingerly made her way over and through this green-and-gray labyrinth, the one that my mother assured her was the true repository of our nationality, I saw the faeries squelching in the mud near every low rock wall. I inhaled the briny Atlantic air, proud that unlike my classmates who called themselves Italian, I had put my Velcroed foot onto something solid on the opposite side of the Jersey shore. I remember later when a cab driver made the sign of the cross as we passed by the parish church. And my grandmother imitated him, having only just discovered this new-to-her sign of devotion.

I remember being waist high to you and my mother in a crowded, dark pub somewhere, and the slightly renegade thrill of being in a place made for adults. I remember the way you ended your sentences with a suggestive “you know.” To this boy’s ears, it  was an invitation to be with  you in every story. “I was working in the black market, you know. When you were born, I went straight, you know. Not very much money, you know.” My impertinent counting of the drinks each of you had was appraised as the work of America’s antidrinking propaganda on the young. I remember the sound of Irish music enveloping us, that propulsive and occasionally annoying clatter of banjos, fiddles, and tin whistles. Beneath the harsh stage lights, and amidst the smell of cigarette smoke, watery stout, and mold somewhere in the building, there were men singing. And in my memory, the men singing and playing are transformed into the Irish folk singers my mother inflicted on me with her cassettes: Every baritone is Christy Moore. Every tenor, Paul Brady.

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 Irish wool 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.
But my prayers were not answered. And my memory turns back to America.

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