Mount Eagle on the Dingle Peninsula, western Ireland (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / Wikimedia Commons)

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.


The things that give life meaning—love, friendship, family, poetry, sports—become real only within a shared identity rooted in history and culture.

Dougherty, a senior writer for the National Review, takes great pains to define nationhood. He believes it consists of something more concrete than a Lockean social contract. A nation, he claims, is “a spiritual ecology that exists between” the living, the unborn, and the dead. Life is meaningful only within such a spiritual environment; the things that give life meaning—love, friendship, family, poetry, sports—become real only within a shared identity rooted in history and culture. Such an environment can be received only as a patrimony. “A nation exists in the things that a father gives his children.”

But Dougherty’s own personal history is somewhat at odds with this conception of nationhood: he did not initially learn much about Ireland from his own father. He had to seek this national homeland from afar, learning about his roots first through teachers, books, and family history.

At first, in his teens and twenties, Dougherty claimed his Irish heritage in the mode of the “curator”: someone who sees culture as another consumer product for life enhancement, like camping gear or surround-sound. The curatorial mode is the only way our “end of history” society can conceive of appropriating a culture, because it sees nations only as “technical and bureaucratic” entities. Such shallowness was hard to avoid during the 1990s. Dougherty argues that, after the Good Friday Agreement and the rise of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland itself caved into the temptation of commodifying “Irishness.” (He is not a big fan of Riverdance, Angela’s Ashes, or the cult of Guinness.)

Later on, though, Dougherty would learn more authentic modes of appropriating his heritage. He admires and then imitates his mother’s efforts to learn Gaelic through cassette tapes and language camps. He is in debt to a high-school teacher who revealed the treasures of Yeats and other Irish writers. Most importantly, he writes glowingly of Patrick Pearse, the Irish poet, teacher, and leader of the ill-fated 1916 revolt against the British.


Given the violence that nationalism often generates, why not also distinguish between national culture and the nation-state?

Crucial as it was to his becoming more truly Irish, Dougherty’s appreciation of Pearse is also the most morally questionable part of the book. It was Pearse who, on the eve of the Rising, declared: “We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing.” While this book discusses the conflict in Northern Ireland only briefly—too briefly for its own good—Dougherty has written about the Troubles before with moral clarity. He considers its instigators less noble than the tragic revolutionaries of the Rising. In one piece, he wrote that Irish nationalists during the Troubles depended on “the myth that the political and religious divisions that forestalled unity and political development in Ireland were entirely products of foreign government. Under the spell of these ideas, men waited outside doorways to put 9mm bullets in the heads of other men. For these doctrines, men addressed mail bombs to the wives of H-block prison guards.” What makes Pearse different?

Dougherty acknowledges that there is something “truly mad” about Pearse, but the deep truth he embodies is that “the formation of character” requires sacrifice, and that “the only liberation worth having is one accomplished in sacrifice.” Freedom is not to be found in liberal proceduralism, or in the idea of a nation as nothing more than a big shopping district. Freedom is won by the sacrifice of the few, and sustained in the kind of culture such sacrifices inspire.

There is of course a distinction to be made between sacrifice and political violence. That distinction brings others to the fore. Given the violence that nationalism often generates, why not also distinguish between national culture and the nation-state? Couldn’t we have the former without the latter? Granted, such a view may seem impracticable, as empire now seems to be the only alternative to nation, and empires (like Rome) swallow up nations before eventually breaking apart. In any case, a book about the virtues of nationalism is bound to raise thorny geopolitical questions. What would Dougherty make of the tough cases: Quebec, Catalonia, Scotland, Palestine, the Basque region, Puerto Rico, and Black nationalism in America? And what exactly would a healthy and reasonable American nationalism look like, given that the United States is now in many ways more like an empire than a nation? How do we avoid all the sins that usually attend nationalism—resentment, xenophobia, and enervating nostalgia?

We can also draw a distinction between national identity and a deeper personal sense of self. I was struck by how similar Dougherty’s experience is to that of a Latin American living in the United States—not only my own experience, but also that of friends from other places south of the border. Every nation seems to have its own poets, tragedies, and flavor of wisdom: in Paraguay we have Manuel Ortiz Guerrero, the suicide note that Pedro Juan Caballero scrawled on his cell wall, and unique expressions of kindness. As grateful as I am for the abundance and generosity of the United States, and as much as I have enjoyed the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the open highway, and warm Fourth of July evenings, part of me will always be rooted in a place I can now only visit. The same can be said for Dougherty, who does not live in Ireland. Here’s a twist: Dougherty’s book about nationalism points to an experience that is shared by many immigrants.

But it’s also a universal truth that human beings—from Abraham to today’s refugees and “economic migrants”—often must leave their country to be free and develop their personalities. Or, they often define themselves according to a higher ideal—a transcendent and perhaps international one. You are always more than where you come from. As a Catholic, Dougherty is himself part of a multicultural, cosmopolitan society, one that sees itself as somehow not fully of this world. As T. S. Eliot put it, our earthly home is “England”—or wherever—“and nowhere.” And the “nowhere” is also a place of spiritual growth.

My Father Left Me Ireland
An American Son’s Search for Home

Michael Brendan Dougherty
Sentinel, $24, 240 pp

Santiago Ramos is a contributing writer for Commonweal.

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