My Father Left Me Ireland

9780525538653For the past few years, our Center has hosted the Tradition Project, a research project on the continuing importance of received wisdom in law, politics, and culture. Our participants have heard more than once how Marc and I disagreed on what to name the project. I thought we should call it the Traditions Project, because of the many different cultural and political traditions that exist and give meaning to people’s lives. But Marc thought it should be the Tradition Project, to highlight the existence of the Western tradition, and eventually persuaded me to go along. Still, it seems to me that, especially in America, the plurality of sometimes consonant and sometimes dissonant traditions makes it more appropriate to conceive of the subject in the plural.

A forthcoming book by Michael Brendan Dougherty, My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home (Sentinel) explores how cultural traditions from other countries continue to influence Americans today–in the author’s case, the Irish tradition. The book has received great advance reviews and looks like it will interest people who think, as I do, that in America, anyway, traditions are best understood in the plural. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

National Review senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty delivers a meditation on belonging, fatherhood, and nationalism, through a series of letters to his estranged Irish father.

The child of an Irish man and an Irish-American woman who split up soon after 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.

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