A Portuguese-American take on “My Father Left Me Ireland”

My first year at McGill was a real challenge. While everybody else seemingly had extant CEGEP friends or dormmates, I lived with family members, which meant I didn’t casually run into colleagues. However, living with my grandparents during undergrad proved a great gift, allowing me to tap into an inheritance of wisdom I otherwise would’ve missed out on, one that Michael Brendan Dougherty communicates in his 2019 memoir.

This went beyond an undying loyalty to Cristiano Ronaldo over whatever team he plays for (hence my evolution from a Man U fan to a Real Madrid fan to a Juventus supporter) or the conspicuous US-Portugal flag sticker among the bumper stickers on my first car. I discovered by living with my grandparents the same themes this memoir foregrounded.

My Father Left Me Ireland addresses its author’s roots in a moving memoir of letters to his father. The book concisely addresses fatherhood, patriotism, masculinity, Irish history, and politics (in a sort of indirect but philosophically conservative fashion). The author recounts evolving relationships with his mother, who worked hard to confer Irishness on her son, and his father, estranged in Ireland during his son’s upbringing. The strained relationship between father and son manifests in a cultural gap which Dougherty closes over time with the help of his late mother. The memoir ends with reconciliation and Dougherty raising his daughter on Irish lullabies and storybooks, looking forward to having a son. Fatherhood becomes a pathway for cultural transmission and culture a corresponding avenue for building a family.

Vale Da Serra, Portugal, 2014

While I couldn’t relate to the familial estrangement, Dougherty’s book resonated with me as a first-generation American. I often feel my ancestry delivers me a rootedness in a world afraid of commitment. Growing up in Kansas where I couldn’t encounter my culture in the community (unlike Dougherty’s upbringing around Irish-American groups), I worked extra hard to learn the culture through my family. We watched Portuguese soccer, interspersed our rambunctious conversations with our mother tongue, and transformed ingredients found in a Midwestern grocery store into classic recipes, keeping strong the “identity that could not be bought and sold” (129). Whether my parents and grandparents explicitly recognized it, they knew that our common inheritance mattered beyond any marketized, instrumental reason, beyond “technocratic manipulation” (94). Sure, knowing an extra language comes in handy, but being in touch with my roots is about so much more.

Most importantly, living with my grandparents enveloped me in stories. I heard the stories of death and destitution that marked rural life in Salazar-era Portugal. The ills of imperialist wars, the travails of child labor, and the sorrow of infant mortality uncovered the tragedies of history. But I heard too the dreams, fulfilled and unfulfilled, that pushed people to reach beyond the stone walls of their village plots. I heard about the festivals, the rhythms of rural Iberian life, and the joyful days jutting out of laborious routines.

Most powerful were the ancestral tales. These continuously give weight to my own faith and love of history. For instance, my great-great-great-grandfather witnessed the Miracle of the Sun in Fatima, a major Catholic milestone. This story inspires me to hold fast to my faith even in my toughest moments. If my own ancestors could witness a miracle like that, who knows what God has in store for me? Additionally, knowing about the first Figueiredo transforms history into a fortification of sorts. Playwright and knight Goesto Ansures (from the region of Portugal I still have Figueiredo family in) saved his love during the Reconquista by wielding a fig branch against her captors. What romance, what sacrifice, what fortitude! These stories gave me ammunition to combat the demons of high-anxiety liquid modernity, exemplifying Dougherty’s (remarking on Patrick Pearse) observation that the “ghosts of dead men had bequeathed a trust to the living” (142). Imposter syndrome was no match for the spirit of dedication and sacrifice my forerunners bequeathed; therefore, doubt had no grip on me.

My street in Montreal, 2017.

In that cozy Little Portugal apartment, I picked up many languages of my culture beyond the one some mock as “drunk Spanish”— the languages of recipes, prayers, and family. Through cooking especially, I bridged generational divides that our prevailing culture plays up with grievance-laden memes, but also the Atlantic ocean’s separation. Maybe my grandmas don’t understand all of Gen Z’s norms or speak fluent English, but sharing a kitchen bakes in an authentic familial bond. Foodways are folkways. Crucially, cooking goes beyond the country, conveying a more granular local distinctiveness. Although Portugal is tiny, about 1.3 times smaller than my current state of Pennsylvania, regional differences abound. For instance, the dense, cinnamony Bolo de Cabeça is native to Torres Novas, a city of 15,000 near my maternal family’s village. On a savory note, Queijo da Serra, a stinky yet delicious sheep’s milk cheese, can only hail from the Serra De Estrela mountain region in the center-north of the country, close to my paternal family’s stomping grounds. The transmission of culinary nuances communicates far more than flavor. As Nicholas Williams notes, “our biographies are condensed into dishes and bites”. For me, food tapped into a deep well of knowledge difficult to ascribe words to. Somehow, Dougherty does it justice, explaining how culture is “a funny thing . . . this collective personality that is constantly feeding you information about itself” (50). Like language was a conduit for Dougherty, so was food for me, a way of reaching this collective personality to later share with others.

Serra de Estrela, 2014.

My forerunners and their stories find me when I least expect it. Sometime in early July 2017, I was 19 and interning for Representative Dan Lipinski in Washington DC. Staying in Foggy Bottom, I badly needed a haircut and looked for something local. One July day, I strolled from the sweltering heat into Puglisi Hair Cuts, a quintessential old-school barbershop. Halfway into my haircut, my barber, after asking about my story, told me one of the other barbers was from Montreal. Not only that, but he was Portuguese. In DC, it’s rarer than rare to run into a fellow Lusophone, let alone one from Montreal, where my family landed in North America. In a strange twist of fate, this man cutting hair in the neighborhood I was living my “anywhere” life in was the son of the barber who cut my grandfather’s hair when he arrived in Canada. Similarly, Dougherty advanced far in his career but recognizes that no matter where you go, you can’t forget your roots. As he grew, he fostered an even closer, inspiring relationship with his Irishness and father alike.

By describing this process, Dougherty reaches the core of patriotism. His story explores the ways we connect to ancestors, from a deep, sacrificial commitment expressed by participants in The Rising to modern forms like consumerism or even ironic aloofness. “My Father Left Me Ireland” potently critiques shallow liberal, individualistic ideas of belonging as inadequate for fulfillment. Instead, he elevates a profound understanding of nationalism centered on an “immense inheritance of imagination and passion” (27), delivered without rationalization in contemporary political terms (contra Yoram Hazony or Rich Lowry). The importance of this inheritance emerges when it becomes the target of despots and prejudiced leaders. Systems like residential schooling forced on Indigenous children or the interminable horrors of slavery or the mass sterilization of Uighur Muslims in China erase unique pasts and destroy families. Any student of history recognizes that these dehumanizing tactics are intertwined with physical violence. Dougherty himself stated in an insightful 2012 interview with the University Bookman that “enslavement stripped Africans of their ethnicities, their languages, and their religion”. This recognition broadens the applicability of his ideas. Culture and a sense of belonging are crucial; conscious attempts to erase either deny people their God-given human dignity. For those with more interest, other authors like Michael Twitter ably engage with the interconnections between culture, tradition, and the harms of prejudice.

In an era “thick with skepticism for everything received” (38), Dougherty calls on readers from all backgrounds to recognize the sacrifice wrapped up in roots. In this sense, his work is counter-cultural, flying in the face of the flattening “myth of liberation . . . a solvent that . . . slowly and inexorably dissolved any sense of obligation in life” (86). He recognizes, as G.K. Chesterson put it, that it’s too easy to forget about the “democracy of the dead [which] refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about”. Finally, an author gave me the words to explain why I want to teach my children the prayers my great-grandmother taught me, to show them how to properly cut greens for Caldo Verde, how to gleefully cheer on the Seleção, and how to retell the lore of Goesto Ansures — the first Figueiredo. We each have the responsibility to nurture what we’ve gotten.

My Father Left Me Ireland provides readers an idea of what they can conserve and be a steward of. Such stewardship represents a healthy way to combat the pervasive societal fatherlessness Dougherty decries. And importantly, his outlook begets mutual respect. Sometimes in my youth, I could be a little too intransigent, unwilling to listen to other sources of wisdom. Today, greater prudence allows me to find strength in my roots without reifying the past or dismissing different perspectives. As Dougherty recognizes, a healthy national attachment is not about chauvinism; the recognition that traditions matter allows one to appreciate a diversity of traditions. Ideally, we follow W.E.B. Du Bois’ instruction to maintain a “pride of self so deep as to scorn injustice to other selves”. A reverent approach allows me to appreciate pluralism while emphasizing common bonds and foregrounding my Luso-American story.

No matter where I go, I won’t forget where my family once was. Through groups like the Portuguese-American Bar Association and the Portuguese-American Leadership Conference of the US (PALCUS), I found others seeking both to continue traditions and seek success in America. I employ my own skills and experience to these ends, discussing American politics in Portuguese media and researching the centrality of the Portuguese-language Catholic parish in Montreal. Down the line, when I someday become a father, I’ll know to reread “My Father Left me Ireland” in the search for a healthy patriotism.

Moderate Communitarian politics. Catholic. 1st Gen Portuguese-American born and raised in Kansas. Now a law student in Pennsylvania.