Nationalism 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 the nation seriously, that everyone is engaged in some private enterprise, while the common inheritance is being threatened or robbed.Michael Brendan Dougherty
To truly understand a fellow countryman is tricky enough; never mind a country full of them. Nations, nationals, nationalities: the lines we draw are easily and often smudged. To wax too lyrically of any particular nationalism—or any particular nationalist—is a twenty-first-century faux pas. In the public square, border rhymes with wall; patriotism autocorrects to xenophobia. We have cast flag-wavers amongst the other pernicious ists of society, the racists and sexists, the colonialists and chauvinists.
Every ist carries an ism, after all. And with ashes of the twentieth-century still hot on our backs, our anti-ism reflex is quite understandable. It has been to the beat of nationalistic drums, from time immemorial, that millions have met and meted untimely ends. Over muddy trenches and lines in the sand, pints of pointless blood have been spilled. Yet, beneath the battlefield stains, there remains a greyish green. Nations, and loves thereof, are never black and white affairs. For all the sharpness of their edges, nations can have soft centres; points of communion, of community, where the sparks of culture and conversation fly. The contours of our coasts, our mountains, our cartoon maps, betroth exclusion and inclusion, bestow otherness and unity. Nationalism is relative, relational.
Which brings us to family.
Told as a series of letters, My Father Left Me Ireland traces the twists and turns of paternity—a path of inquiry which sends Michael Brendan Dougherty deep into the conceptual woods of inheritance, weaving together notions of nationhood and parenthood, of history and home, as he goes. And from the off, Dougherty ploughs forward at quite a clip. No words are minced, no sentiments softened. And so, with the chapters short and the words simple, the book is freed to give difficult thoughts the time to be beheld, the space to breathe.
On the opening page, Dougherty recounts an epiphany—the moment he recognised the thing responsible for yoking his newborn to her culture, the thing responsible for bridging her and history. It was him. He was the thing. The safe passage of her common inheritance, the conservation of her corner of culture, rested upon his newly-fathered shoulders. It was a revelation that awakened Dougherty to the less popular cousin of the birth-right—that is, the birth-responsibility.
The urge to freewheel is a fact of life, yet responsibility is always uphill. Its appendages—duties, burdens, promises—are awkward to pick up and easy to put down. The tendency toward abdication is natural, as true of nations as people. It is a momentum that we must consciously and constantly defend. Ireland, at least according to Dougherty, has become a confederacy of tenders—a nation in freewheel. Not only have we Irish come to rely on the doers and deeds of yesteryear to carry our cultural load, Dougherty writes, we have done so with a certain thoughtlessness, a thanklessness. The blame falls at the feet of Irishfolk everywhere. Geography, as Dougherty himself stands testament, excuses no one—and none are spared the sharpness of his pen.
Irishness, as an identity, an idea, has become easier to claim than explain. Grab an American tourist, see for yourself. How, though, are we Irish? What makes us so? Though I may regard myself as more Irish than Michael Brendan Dougherty, who grew up on the other side of the Atlantic, have I written a book on the nature of Irishness? Have you read through the canons of Pádraig Pearse, of Eoin MacNeill? In his later life, Dougherty learned the Irish from scratch so as to keep our native tongue alive for his daughter. An bhfuil tú ag cleachtadh?
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Today, the words of John Donne ring more trite than true. Pieces and parts are liable to drift, after all; and our culture is certainly adrift today. Yet, for many, there has never been a better time to be Irish. Our pantries are well-stocked, our pyjamas are warm. As persons, we have never been so healthy, so wealthy, so free. But what about we as a people?
Today, certainly, Irish culture feels more bitty—more crumble than cake. Has our individual gain come at some collective cost? Perhaps the fetters, which so often weighed us down, also brought us together. The line, between being left alone and left lonely, is a fine one. Though not lost, conversation is for sure a dying art. With earphones on, we drift by the spontaneous interactions of everyday life. Self-checkouts are desolate. Contactless payments are exactly that. In his youth, Dougherty made peace with becoming a fatherless child. Have we, as a culture, made a peace of our own?
We cannot, as Dougherty fears we are, treat our nation as a machine for passing on our debts. The onus is on us to leave—to be leaving—a surplus of our own. Early in the book, Dougherty writes of how his grandparents let the Irish- of their Irish-Americanism to slowly fade. Living thousands of miles across the Atlantic, however, the Doughertys had a pretty good excuse for the loosening their Irish ties. We have no such excuse.
The feet-on-the ground Irish, least of all, can afford to take our island for granted. At some point, freewheeling inevitably meets a slope. The Irish, contends Dougherty, have come to the foot of a hill — and neither heritage centres nor tourism boards can pedal for us. Irishness must be a bottom-up affair. It always has been. In the realm of culture, artifice is decay. We must regard plastic Irishness as my mother, a staunch Christmasist, regards plastic trees — that is, a crime. An astroturfed Ireland is no Ireland at all.
As the entire ocean that stood between Dougherty and his father stands testament, family is not rooted in soil. So, in our evermore navigable world, full of expats and frequent flyers, need nationalism be?
In the pages of My Father Left Me Ireland, nationality becomes less of a right to be given than a responsibility to be taken. We are more than consumers. With every passing hello, each smile across the counter or nod across the road, we become carriers, custodians, curators. The culture is ours to tend to. The responsibility is ours to shoulder.
Amongst the Irish of today, however, Dougherty sees a distinct lack of shoulders. It is neither threats nor robbery that is putting our common inheritance at risk, but neglect. We are the culprit and the cure. In this respect, My Father Left Me Ireland serves as a gentle and prescient poke. It is a book, both short and sweet, to which we should all give an evening — from which we could all take a leaf. So, if the words of Dougherty ring true to you, read and heed his story.
Practice your Irishness. Earn your adjective. Shoulder your share.