Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review and a former columnist at The Week, is the author of a new book, My Father Left Me Ireland. Organized as a series of letters to his Irish father, whom he grew up seeing only on occasional visits, it is a memoir that speaks to the anxiety and confusion of millions of Americans.
I spoke with Dougherty recently about subverting tropes about miserable Irish childhoods in his book, Netflix, Hungarian folk dancing, and the best male R&B group of the '90s.
This is a book about culture and inheritance and what we pass on to our children. You had a somewhat fractured and ambiguous relationship with Ireland growing up, but you came to see Irish culture as something important you had received. What about generic whitebread Americans like me — do we even have a culture to share with the next generation? Is our culture Netflix?
I had a slightly unique upbringing where my father was not someone I saw every weekend and every other Wednesday like a lot of broken families arrange. He was overseas in Ireland, is Irish, and my mother kind of filled the home with this substitute diaspora Irish nationalist stuff. I still think America has all that in spades, whether it's American folk music tradition or great regional literatures in America. There are probably more great Southern writers than there are great New York State writers. How much James Fenimore Cooper can you read? I still think America has that, but it's not going to be the first thing the television or social media throws at you. No one's gonna remember Netflix in 25 years. It'll be a joke on whatever the future Buzzfeed is: "Only 2010 Kids Will Remember Making Netflix Their Babysitter."
You know, while I was reading the book I was trying to think whether I had ever come across anything quite like it before and then it occurred to me that there was one thing, much beloved in conservative media circles: Have you ever read Dreams From My Father?
[Laughs] It's a story of identity and inheritance! Honestly, from what I can remember it's actually well written for a politician's book. But I only really skimmed through it in a bookstore.
I saw a piece from an Irish newspaper where the reviewer was sort of anxiously flipping through the pages waiting for your family to starve or your father to start physically abusing you or something and was sort of pleasantly surprised when that didn't happen. Did you think while you were writing this about how it sort of subverts the conventions we associate with books like Angela's Ashes?
I didn't like Angela's Ashes when I read it. One paper, I think The Cork Examiner, went through its archives and found pictures of the supposedly disease-ridden McCourt boys looking quite fine in their sports uniforms belonging to one of the better clubs in Limerick. This archetype of the Irish misery memoir is out there, and on some level I had been primed to believe my father was essentially someone that just slogged off all his responsibilities to me, and it was a good surprise in adulthood to find that wasn't true.
But why do you think there is such a huge built-in audience for that sort of thing?
I forget who coined the term "MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever)." I think it's a way of bonding across generations because Ireland was so materially different in the 1990s than it was in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. I'd be surprised if you don't see that genre pop up in a place like Poland which is experiencing a similar rise to the level of its region right now. So I think that probably has a lot to do with it. People almost tell their kids "you wouldn't believe what it was like here before, before you kids came around." My book was an attempt to subvert expectations by saying, Look I grew up in this time of great prosperity and felt like I never lacked for anything materially, but I still felt a lack on a different level.
Not by bread alone!
Exactly. There was a kind of spiritual poverty that was somehow connected to the material prosperity that existed. Not that I wish for material deprivations. I'm not that much of a saint.
You talk a lot about various kinds of Irish kitsch here. What is your ultimate verdict on Riverdance and that sort of thing?
I resented it most at a time when I had a lot of teenage cynicism. It was also at a time when Ireland attempted to remake itself as a brand they were going to sell to the diaspora. But at the end of the book I talk about this wedding where my cousin is getting married to someone in a traveling company for Riverdance and on some level even the kitsch can be sanctified by this heartful participation of the people in it. Her father at the wedding told great stories about traveling to a dance competition with an Irish dancing dress that was worth three times as much as the car he was driving.
You talk here about throwing away CDs from your parents and listening to Boyz II Men instead. Would you say that rejecting the culture our parents introduce us to only to return to it later in life is more or less a universal experience?
Yes. There is a constant struggle to remember, to bring back into focus what you've allowed to go out of focus. While I was writing and thinking about things of the book, I did a brief reporting trip to Hungary and there was someone there locally I was able to meet with who took me to what's called a "dance hall" in Budapest. It really took me back to my youth at these Irish cultural festivals, because you go there and people are drinking and having a good time, coming in from the countryside to do the traditional dancing in the traditional dress. It's obviously led and organized by someone trying to document this culture, kind of out of fear it's just going to disappear. I just remember how beautiful and lightly the traditions were taken into hand. Someone introducing one group of dancers from a particular town at the edge of Hungary where it borders Romania just confessed frankly that with this style of dancing there is no way to tell if it's Hungarian or Romanian, but please enjoy it! The lines will always be blurry and there doesn't have to be this urgency about policing the culture — but there is an urgency to enjoy it and take it in hand and to witness it because late on in life you'll want to come back to it and find in it some source of strength or consolation.
Finally, what is your favorite Boyz II Men song?
That's a great question. "Motownphilly" is the best song to play at a party. The best song to sing in a car is "I'll Make Love to You." And then "End of the Road." The best song as far as a pure recording goes is "Water Runs Dry." I also have a special place in my heart for "A Song for Mama." I love that an unrepentant pop group would lay down a track that's so sentimental that way. Yeah, I have a lot of opinions on this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.