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The Plastic Paddy’s Lament

American Catholic conservatives stake their claim on Ireland

On the cover of the June 1, 2018, issue of the Catholic Herald, an enormous cartoon grim reaper, scythe in hand, looms over the crude green silhouette of an island beneath the headline “Ireland has fallen.” After twenty-five years of agitation and struggle, the Irish people had voted by a two-to-one margin to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, a near-total ban on abortion. The decades of exporting our abortions to the UK were coming to an end. The vote triggered euphoria among Irish leftists and liberals and a spectacular meltdown of conservatives and the Catholic right. It was the latest in a series of defeats for them, beginning with the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993 and the legalization of divorce in 1995. As the influence of the Catholic church declined, Ireland underwent a gradual and belated liberal revolution, bringing the country into vague alignment with the rest of western Europe. If the marriage equality vote in 2015 was a serious knock, this one was a hammer blow.

For a long time, Ireland has represented a magical place for a particular type of American (or British) Catholic conservative: a model nation that successfully resisted the tide of liberalism, the breakdown of the hierarchical family structure, and the slow dissolution of traditional values through widespread access to abortion and divorce. Their writings on Ireland are full of nostalgia for an imagined past; as the country comes to resemble this myth less and less, their love letters have become elegies. Michael Brendan Dougherty’s recent memoir My Father Left Me Ireland is one such example, although when reading, you can almost forget what sort of book it is. The structure of this slim volume is gentle and wistful: a series of letters written to the author’s father, an Irishman who was only sporadically present through his son’s childhood but with whom, after the birth of his own daughter, Dougherty sought a reconnection. In some respects, it’s not unlike Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father as an attempt to come to terms with a complicated father-son relationship and the different cultures that made each man. But beneath the surface, Dougherty’s book is a much darker work. His personal journey is in service to a vision of deeply reactionary nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic.

For a long time, Ireland has represented a magical place for a particular type of American (or British) Catholic conservative.

Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review, the welfare program for right-wing writers founded by the late reformed segregationist William F. Buckley. His political leanings were summed up most succinctly by himself, when he “dreamed of Trumpism without Trump” in May 2017. Unlike much of the mainstream Republican Party, his priorities are not military adventurism abroad or endless tax cuts for the rich but a revived nationalism rooted in faith and family. As with certain libertarians, upon first glance some of his critiques seem reasonable, even agreeable. In much of his writing, Dougherty takes aim at the atomization of modern life, the ways in which we have been forced to see ourselves exclusively as individuals. He is ambivalent about the rougher side of neoliberal capitalism and particularly critical of Silicon Valley. Reading My Father Left Me Ireland, I found myself almost agreeing with his assessment of “this thing that makes our grandparents into strangers to us, that leaves us disconnected from each other, ill-equipped to meet these moments in life, when real injustice, real sorrow, and real grief visit us.” The problem, of course, comes when defining what that “thing” is.

For Dougherty, the diagnosis is simple: the church has lost its power, the people no longer venerate the old conservative nationalism, and the place of the family is no longer sacrosanct. Such are the ways Ireland has fallen. From his position growing up at the end of history on the United States’s liberal east coast, he envied the distant echoes of fury and blood he sensed in the Irish past; now he envies the renewed ethnonationalism of Poland and Theresa May’s brief flirtation with Red Toryism. The most direct statement of ideology in the book is Dougherty’s diagnosis of this resurgence:

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. It might put on a mask of invincibility, but it does so in full fearful knowledge of the nation’s vulnerability.

In other words, the barbarians really are at the gates, and the tide of xenophobia and violence is nothing more than a rational response to a real problem.

Dougherty’s chief enemy is liberalism, the loss of nationalist fervor, and the revisionism of historians and commentators who have seen the Irish Revolution as misguided, even tragic. It’s hard to disagree with his distaste for the glib dismissal of the revolutionary generation among certain smug liberals. But there is a strange, telling gap in both his history and his arguments. In My Father Left Me Ireland, there is no real engagement with the period between independence and the Celtic Tiger. The 1916 Rising is described in loving detail before whole decades of the new state are swallowed up in a few glancing references to industrial schools and poverty. No account is made for the hundreds of thousands brutalized in institutions of church and state. There is no mention of the fact that the Little Catholic State That Could had, in the mid-twentieth century, more people incarcerated per capita than the USSR under Stalin.

Also absent from the book is any mention of the Irish left, of socialists and communists other than James Connolly, of the ways in which the meaning of Irish nationalism was fought over by the Official IRA, the Provisional IRA, and many others. The ways in which Marxist republicans came to see themselves as part of a global anti-colonial struggle against empire, allied with left-wing national liberation struggles all over the world, are missing. There is no room either for the fact that Sinn Féin—the largest left-republican party in the country—now consider themselves firmly pro-immigration. (An exit poll from the recent 2019 elections found that 70 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “on the whole, immigration has benefited Irish society.”)

Instead of engaging with these counter-narratives, Dougherty wields his fatherhood as a license for violence, mixing together tender scenes of holding his newborn daughter with the most bloodthirsty words of Irish nationalist Patrick Pearse he can find. He concludes that “this baby girl in my arms overthrows all uncertainty about it. Manhood is found in sacrifices, offered joyfully. The only liberation worth having is one accomplished in sacrifice.” At the heart of this passage is an attempt to unify the person of the child with the nation. An attack on one is an attack on both, and the response must be swift and merciless. It’s not difficult to see how this translates to the violent enforcement of closed borders—presented as necessary for the protection of the nation, but also for the restoration of honor, the fulfillment of one’s masculine purpose.

This nationalism is not just for Ireland’s benefit. Within Dougherty’s “anti-globalist” political vision is a desire to construct a clean American nationalism, less coarsely expressed than Trumpism but with the same net result. Irish-American identity, like other white ethnic identities in the United States, is a convenient vehicle; a green bottle to hold the old poison. Because while immigration and the decline of the white majority in the United States are not explicitly invoked in Dougherty’s book, they loom behind every wistful paean to the old country. His friends and reviewers, usually one and the same, give the game away. Ross Douthat, envious of Dougherty’s heritage, frets about “our collapsing birthrate” in the New York Times. Yuval Levin is even more explicit at Dougherty’s own National Review, writing, “This is why having children often drives parents back to their own traditions, and why the rise of a rootless cosmopolitanism in the West has accompanied and accelerated declines in birth rates. And it is also why family, community, religion, and nation are inexorably linked.” Both writers, incidentally, are thanked in the acknowledgements to this book in a long list of reactionaries, including exorcism fan Rod Dreher.

Dougherty is not operating in a vacuum. America wields influence in Ireland in innumerable ways, from a vast network of tax-avoidance schemes for corporations, to lavish charitable giving like Chuck Feeney’s liberal Atlantic Philanthropies, to the enormous tourism industry. There are almost five times as many Irish Americans than people living on this island, and many occupy positions of enormous power and wealth in the United States. The Trump administration and its hangers-on count dozens of Irish Americans among their ranks: Mike Pence, Brett Kavanaugh, Paul Ryan, Michael Flynn, Kevin McCarthy, John Kelly, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, and Sean Hannity, all of distant Irish extraction, are happy to toast a pint of Guinness and speak of their fondness for the particular lump of soil from which their great-great-grandfathers sprung.

For these people, being authentically Irish is about where your grandfather was born, not about where you live and work every day.

On the other side, Ireland is crawling with glassy-eyed men doing make-work jobs for lobbying groups with questionable funding sources and names that sound like “The Emerald Forum” or “The Columbanus Institute.” These are people who believe, as one former government minister did, that Ireland should be “closer to Boston than Berlin.” Their old, defunct political vehicle, the Progressive Democrats, succeeded, with the help of Ireland’s other two right-wing parties, in ending birthright citizenship via a 2004 referendum that employed the recognizably racist tropes of “birth tourism” and “anchor babies.” Catholic reactionaries in both countries have deep personal, professional, and ideological links; their network is well funded, patient, and deadly serious. While the two Irish parties explicitly chasing this vote, Renua and Aontú, polled about 2 percent between them in the most recent elections, Peter Casey, an explicitly racist independent candidate, narrowly missed out on a seat in the European Parliament.

In the depths of the last financial crisis, the Irish government produced a strange, year-long event series called The Gathering, aimed at luring those with Irish ancestry back to the country to visit, to invest, even to live. There is a long tradition of locating an approximate Irish great-grandparent for someone famous or wealthy, putting a hurley in their hand, and announcing that, magically, they were Irish all along. At the same time, a nine-year-old kid from Wicklow who was born in this country can face the threat of deportation simply for having parents without Irish citizenship. In My Father Left Me Ireland, Dougherty himself dismisses his Irish passport as a bauble, saying, “I felt on the edge of the pitch that if I was Irish at all, it was only in the most technical and bureaucratic sense. The Irish state, recognizing the circumstances of my birth, must give me a passport and allow me to live and work in Ireland if I choose.” What is technical and bureaucratic to an American writer trying to find himself in the old country is the most vital thing in the world to tens of thousands with precarious visas, or people seeking international protection being brutalized by the Irish government’s savage Direct Provision system.

This is not some piece of accidental arrogance. The 2004 referendum, the nastier elements of The Gathering, and Dougherty’s book are all assertions of the same ideological point: what matters is bloodline. For these people, being authentically Irish is about where your grandfather was born, not about where you live and work every day. In an interview with Hugh Linehan at the Irish Times, Dougherty is even more explicit, addressing those Irish people who might balk at being told what to do by a “plastic [paddy]”: “To borrow a bit of Pearse’s fanaticism: I don’t care what you think, I was owed this and I’m going to claim it.” In perhaps the most excruciating section of the book, he appears as a wise and benevolent bringer of the Irish language back to the people: “My intention was that my daughter learn Irish, but through her, I’m beginning to think all of you have a chance.” Thanks, bud; very kind of you.

There are legitimate arguments to be made about the extent to which Irish people living outside the country can and should influence the political process. I don’t wish to deny agency to the hundreds of thousands forced out by economic ruin. What is clear is that someone who has never lived here, who claims heritage in the name of his father and the dead generations for a transatlantic nativist project, is not an arbiter of Irish identity. Ireland belongs to its people, whether they were born here or came by choice or circumstance. Your father didn’t leave you shit, Michael. It wasn’t his to give.