As a Paraguayan immigrant growing up in the pristine suburbs of Kansas, I sometimes found my own cultural assumptions at odds with those of my high-school classmates. One of these assumptions was about the value of patriotism. Although committed to liberal values like democracy, freedom of expression, and resisting Yankee imperialism, I was nevertheless surprised by the coldness with which some of my friends spoke about love for one’s country. “In order to be a good patriot,” one of them told me, “you first have to visit or at least study every country in the world, and then make an objective decision.” There was something off about that rational-seeming statement, but at the time I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Which team did my friend root for in the World Cup?
My classmates who were skeptical of patriotism thought of themselves as being on the Left. I could have easily found other, more conservative, people in Kansas who considered themselves American patriots. But the assumption that leftist politics is incompatible with patriotism is wrong. It does not hold, for example, in Latin America. In the 1970s, Paraguayan leftist activists committed themselves to “revolutionary nationalism” in tandem with “proletarian internationalism.” Under Castro’s reign, “Cuba Libre!” was often shouted together with “Viva Cuba!” For better or worse, political leaders of every stripe have draped themselves in the flag. Even in my youth, I believed there was something of value in this.
My Father Left Me Ireland is a book that goes into the depths of that “something.” It is a memoir-cum-polemic written in the form of a son’s letters to his once-absent father. Michael Brendan Dougherty was born in the United States to an Irishman and an Irish-American mother, but his parents never married. While his father returned to Dublin, Michael’s mother raised her son alone in New Jersey. “Who were you, anyway?” Dougherty asks his father. “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.”
Dougherty’s mother had a rougher go of it than his father. Her choice to keep and raise the young Michael garnered the type of superficial respect that is doled out by members of the bien pensant upper-middle class to suffering mothers. But that respect, Dougherty argues, comes with little in the way of material solidarity from either neighbors or employers. Illness eventually forced Dougherty’s mother to leave a good job at IBM, and she lived the rest of her life in dependent precarity. Dougherty got a good education in Catholic schools, but it came at a human cost that was paid by his mother. In a dark moment after his mother’s early death, he thinks: “I still had this guilty feeling that somehow my existence ruined her life.”
How to grow up under such conditions? How to find one’s self and one’s calling? This book covers a lot of subjects: fatherhood and its absence; motherhood, unnoticed and undervalued; consumerism; the Catholic faith; poetry and politics; authenticity; revolution; the meaning of sacrifice. But there is a thread running through these beads, and it is the author’s spiritual development, which culminates in the discovery of his own vocation as a father. This development can only happen, Dougherty argues, within the context of a nation.