Consider the lot of post-everything man: unchurched, unrooted, schooled in irony, unshackled from the past, responsible for nothing except his own gratification. “In my generation, our joke would be to say anything is serious at all,” writes my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty. “We were conditioned to think of things like honor and shame as delusions. . . . We think this aloofness makes us look unflappable, that it grants us a certain austere dignity.” It’s really just an excuse to be smug, to be satisfied with being shallow. Such a man, Michael writes in a particularly piercing phrase, will “substitute taste where conviction belongs.” He will glide on “the surface of life.”
As a teen atheist and the sole child of a single mom who raised him in soulless suburbs around New York City, Michael was well on his way to becoming such a man. He began to look deeper, to confront the question of what provides us with true satisfaction, true joy. What really matters? It can’t be merely to do well in school so we can do well in a career in order to claim all of the goodies offered by a materialist cornucopia. Michael wanted fulfillment, devotion, a sense of rootedness. He rediscovered the Catholic Church, the country of his forebears, and the father from the other side of the ocean. In his memoir My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home, Michael turns the very specific circumstances of his formation into a universally appealing consideration of why we are here and what we should hope to accomplish.
Michael, you may or may not be aware, is a moderately amazing man: He’s learning the Irish language, which is a tall order for even young minds at their most absorbent stage. He ordinarily gets through several (long, challenging) books a week and reports back to us on what he’s learned. He contributes multiple columns a week to NR, he co-stars on The Editors, a weekly podcast about U.S. politics, and he studies European politics more closely than anyone I know. David Brooks lauded him as one of the “young, fresh writers” leading “a Renaissance on the Right.” Michael is going a bit gray around the temples and joked that he appreciated being called young more than anything. His major achievement, however, is being a fiercely devoted father to three children under the age of five. Somehow amidst all of this he found the time to write a book — a brief, beautiful, deeply felt one, saturated with meaning.
Michael rejects most of the assumptions of our modern consumerist condition and hence rejects its defining registers of hipness and irony. Instead he lays bare his emotions, the yearning he felt growing up with a single mom. His mother, an American of Irish descent traveling in Europe in the late 70s, met his Irish father through a London friend. She went back to America and later informed the man by mail that he was a father, just as he was reconnecting with an old girlfriend and forming his own family in Ireland. Over the years Michael’s father would turn up for visits in America, sometimes without warning and without approval. Michael’s welter of feelings about his ancestry and his father are the basis of this book.
His mother (whose ancestors came from Ireland in the 19th century) nurtured in him a proud Irish sensibility that manifested in everything from Riverdance performances to donations to the Republican cause in Northern Ireland. Yet he is suspicious of those who sentimentalize Ireland, who wear their Irishness like a tattoo. He sees in Ireland a lesson about a great culture vaporized by English imperialism, its very language nearly exterminated, its heroes reduced and mocked. Yet it reasserted itself as a nation because some men considered it worth sacrificing, even dying, for. For the Irish rebel Patrick Pearse, a nation is “something to be intransigent about, just as one would be intransigent in the defense of a home,” Michael writes. For the men who fought for Ireland, “aloofness was burned away until some greater conviction emerged.”
Other groups, notably America’s Indians and blacks, might follow Michael’s lead in asking similar questions about how their communities and traditions were subsumed into the majority’s cultural norms. Much damage is done under the banner of “liberation,” a concept that strives to make a virtue out of severance. His mother was liberated. She raised him to be liberated as well. Disconnected from everything except Michael, she sank into loneliness and despair and died young.
This myth of liberation was like a solvent that had slowly and inexorably dissolved any sense of obligation in life. It dissolved the bonds that held together past, present and future. It dissolved the social bonds that held 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.
The culture steers us to our gains as consumers, as if we’re all just a few strong days on the NASDAQ away from maximum happiness. Meanwhile, in massive numbers, we seek drugs with which to manage our sorrows. The culture gets bored when the talk turns to spiritual impoverishment, fraying familial bonds, anomie. Many of us don’t know our neighbors or even pride ourselves on being citizens of the world rather than members of a community.
Michael doesn’t so much argue as feel that some combination of materialism, technocracy, and individualism is carrying us away from our purpose. He finds his in his faith, his family, his Irishness, his determination to be conscious of past, present, and future. After some frosty and fraught years he has reestablished his relationship with his father, too. Roots can be cruelly sundered, but they can also, it turns out, be regrown.