In the recently released memoir, My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home, Michael Brenden Dougherty, senior editor at National Review, traces his personal history as the son of an absent Irish father. His journey to make sense of his roots began in earnest when his wife was pregnant with their first child.
Facing fatherhood himself, he began to ask questions about the legacy he would pass down: “What songs should I sing to my daughter?” he wonders. “I would have to tell her who she is… I am suddenly alive to the idea that I could pass on this immense inheritance of imagination and passion if only I could work up the courage to claim it for myself.”
The reason Dougherty had to claim his inheritance in the first place was because he grew up over three thousand miles from his father. (His mother, an Irish-American, became pregnant while overseas, and when the relationship fell apart, returned to the United States to raise her son near her family.) It wasn’t as if Dougherty’s mother didn’t try to give him an Irish identity. She took him to Irish festivals, taught him Irish songs, studied the Irish language, supported Irish nationalism, and surrounded him with Irish ex-pats. But for Dougherty, it was all poor substitute for a father whose visits were brief and irregular.
“Because I was raised apart from you,” Dougherty writes in a series of letters to his father that frame the book’s larger narrative, “my Irishness has to be self-consciously asserted or it ceases to exist in me. My siblings, who grew up in your home, could be or do anything and some residue of Irishness would stick to them and to all they do.”
With this observation, Doughterty draws a poignant and essential connection between family, home, and identity. Without the traditions and shaping influences that family life naturally passes on, Dougherty faced the relentless task of actively reasserting his identity in order to keep it. In this sense, his struggle to know himself is one many readers can relate to, especially those who have come of age in a culture of marital decline and vast distances between extended family.
Many will recognize these essential questions: To whom do I belong? To whom am I responsible? No longer begotten, brought to life and nurtured through a web of communal relationships, we have little choice but to self-create. Like Dougherty, we must continually define and assert our identities in order to exist with a larger sense of meaning or purpose.
Kitsch as Culture
But the process of establishing identity is an arduous one, which is why shortcuts are so tempting—why tribalism replaces true community; sentimentality, commitment; and kitsch, culture. Whether it’s hipster vintage, drag queen camp, or red-white-and-blue Americana, kitsch offers us ready-made access to something larger than ourselves. All you must do is adopt the right mannerisms, collect the appropriate artifacts, and curate certain experiences. And voila! Instant culture.
But Dougherty describes his experience of Irish kitsch as a “tidal wave of consumable stuff crashing through our home.” This was, after all, the 1990s when Irish identity was mass produced and exported internationally via Riverdance, claddagh rings, fisherman sweaters, the Corrs, and the ubiquitous Irish angle in Hollywood films. He came to disdain it as pablum, a “product for consumption by the diaspora.”
Reading Dougherty’s description I couldn’t help but think of current attempts to revitalize and repackage American identity, to make it great again. And just as Irish spirituality became uncoupled from the Catholic Church, reducing it to a kind of mysticism mediated through Celtic knots and the “wisdom” of the ancient Druids, Americanism has developed its own brand of spirituality that is quickly becoming uncoupled from organized church.
Reflecting on kitsch Irish religion, Dougherty notes: “We never took it seriously, though we did stop going to church. Irishness alone allowed us to claim spirituality on the cheap” (p41.) So too, Americanism allows us to claim faith “on the cheap” simply by advocating for Bible studies in public schools and posting the appropriate memes to our social media accounts.
But what Dougherty understood, even as a teenager, is that kitsch cannot replace deep community and true belonging. Ironically, his being the son of a distant Irish father meant he was simultaneously close enough to know the real thing, yet too far removed to experience it for himself.
As Dougherty discovered, to truly belong, one must go beyond mere consumption to commitment—the kind that can only come through time and self-sacrifice. But such deep attachment of the sort that might lead someone to surrender life and comfort for larger ideals is unsettling to the modern mind. We’re particularly wary of it when it’s attached to national identity having been told that such fervor must necessarily end in fascism or Nazism. Our only option is to embrace globalism as citizens of the world.
But Doughtery contends that this is not our only option, suggesting that healthy nationalism does not emerge from arrogance or authoritarianism so much as the desire to take responsibility. “Nationalism,” he writes,
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 that nation seriously, that everyone is engaged in some private enterprise, while the common inheritance is being threatened or robbed.
What Dougherty calls the “common inheritance,” others might simply call the common good. Others still might deem it a sense of shared responsibility to a specific place and a willingness to take ownership for its well-being. But what Dougherty’s unique perspective provides is much-needed clarity on why nationalism appeals to the young and disenchanted as well as why kitsch nationalism is so dangerous.
Consider again the central theme of My Father Left Me Ireland: the connection between home, family, and nation. While the absence of an Irish father gives Dougherty particular insight to how national identity is handed down, his experience of fractured family life is not unique and hints to a larger truth. Insofar as children do not grow up in stable homes with parents who sacrifice for them, they will struggle to know who they are.
And so it’s really no wonder that the generation who inherited the fallout of the Sexual Revolution and decades of Baby Boomer consumption would also struggle to know themselves and long to be part of something greater. As they come of age, they look around and panic, realizing that those who should have been responsible for the common good are looking out for themselves and their own interests.
Dougherty recalls the abandonment he felt when his mother died and he was left to grieve alone:
I was furious… this myth of liberation is like a solvent that had slowly and inexorably dissolved any sense of obligation in life. It dissolved the bond of that held together past, present, and future. It dissolved the social bonds that hold together a community, and that make up a home. And here at the end of the process, I was alone. An atom that becomes separated from a larger chemical structure is called a free radical. And that is how I felt, supercharged with this urgent longing to reconnect to something larger.
Perhaps some of the appeal of nationalism, then, is simply that many of us are longing for home and family. For something and someone worth living and dying for. For something larger than ourselves.
For Dougherty, that something larger was to find himself as a son of Ireland and the Catholic Church. But for many others, the unfortunate reality is that they are settling for cheap substitutes, for nationalism and spirituality that is detached from family and neighbors and a commitment to the common good. And nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the rise of so-called “white” nationalism.
If Dougherty is right about the link between our homes and nations, the problem of white nationalism is not its nationalistic impulse, but its “whiteness” that denies the true history of America and the families who have built her. The problem of white nationalism is that it is nothing more than kitsch culture, a cheap addiction that numbs the deeper pain of our common story.
Because here is the true story of our collective history as Americans: Ours is a nation that routinely and consistently destroyed families in the name of capital and individualist pursuits.
Ours is a nation that stole fathers and mothers and sons and daughters from their homelands, stripped them of their roots, and separated the families they eventually formed—and continues to separate families even today. Ours is a nation in which white fathers abandoned and denied the children they created with black and indigenous mothers. Ours is a nation whose civil statutes made the natural formation of family an illegal act if a man and woman happened to be of different races.
But people of color were not the only ones to lose their families to these false narratives. Whites lost theirs, too. In order to integrate into American society—one bifurcated by race—European immigrants had to exchange their family histories for the ethnically ambiguous category of “white.”
No longer are we Swedes and Germans and Scots and Irish. Nor did we all become simply “Americans.” We are now “white” Americans, a category whose primary function was to distinguish us from those inhabitants to whom equal justice under the law did not extend, from those whose families would not be protected, and from those who could not reasonably expect to participate in the common grace that is America.
This is our family story. And it is a story that kitsch nationalism cannot tell. But it might just be a story that deeply-rooted patriotism and a commitment to the common good can.
Dougherty’s search for his Irish roots began when he learned he would become a father. Suspended between the generations, he discovered the power of new life to reclaim the old. “New life comes to restore us,” he writes. “A new life reconciles us as fathers and sons, nations with their history, however turbulent.”
There is a common trope that our present actions will be judged by history. The implication, of course, is that our children and grandchildren will judge us, having progressed on into the ever open future, and so we’d do well to lean into the future with them. But how would our actions change if we considered them in light of the past? To wrestle, not only with what we will pass on, but with what we have received—both the good and bad?
Such a commitment to exploring the past may make little sense to those who have inherited dysfunction as Doughterty himself did. Better to ignore, downplay, or relegate it to “history.” But as Dougherty learned, his father gave him something that even the gravest mistakes and sins could not erase. He gave him Ireland. He gave him a story to be part of. In a word, he gave him life.
As complicated and as messy as the lives we receive are, we have them. We are among those who live and move and have our being. Such grace must not be overlooked, nor can it be uncoupled and disembodied from the people and places that delivered it to us as though we emerged into this world ex nihilo.
If we are to know ourselves, we must honor our pasts by telling the truth about them. We must trace our roots, both personally and as a nation. We must learn how to grieve the bad as well as celebrate the good. And as we do, we will find—as Dougherty did—the grace to forgive and be forgiven; the courage to reconcile and be reconciled to each other.
“As I try to plumb these our history in these letters,” Dougherty writes to his father, “I don’t want to give in to despair on the one side, or an undemanding sentimentality on the other… and so I think the only solution is to make sure we desire what is right and good.”
Yes, the only solution is to make sure we desire what is right and good. We must settle for nothing less. In our search for identity and belonging, we must reject kitsch and race-based nationalism. We must tell a deeper, truer story. For only as we know and honor the past can we fulfill our responsibilities to the future. And perhaps here, suspended between them both, seeking what is right and good, we will find our very lives.