Cahill\'s How the Irish Saved Civilization

Thomas Cahill opens his story describing Rome\'s fall, “For as the Roman
Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the
Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish who were just
learning to read and write, took up the just labor of copying all of western
literature - everything they could get their hands on. These scribes then
served as conduits through which Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were
transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined
vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed.” (Cahill, p.3) The theme
of this book is that the scribes did something unique, they saved civilization,
not the masses of people, but literature, the content of “classical
civilization.” (Cahill, p. 58) One reads of the time from Rome\'s fall to
medieval times learning through the stories of the characters, most notable
Augustine and Patrick.
Augustine, his faith based on Roman Chrisitanity, “looked into his own
heart and found the anguish of each individual.” (Cahill, p. 115) Patrick, the
slave turned Christian, escapes only to return to convert the Irish. He was the
first missionary to the barbarians beyond Greco-Roman law “who looked into the
hearts of others.” (Cahill, p. 115)
Cahill notes Ireland is the only land where Christianity is introduced
without violence - there were no murdered Irish martyrs. (Cahill, p. 151) He
discusses the growth of monasteries in Ireland and their eventual spread to Iona
and beyond by Columcille and his “White Martyr” followers. (Cahill, pp. 171-
184) Growth continues as Columbanus establishes the first Italo-Irish
monastery where monks continue to pray and copy. Between these two men Irish
monasteries were established in England, Scotland, Italy, France and beyond.
Historically the Irish are not credited with a major role in this time
period and Cahill attempts to prove the society/culture of this time has its
roots in Ireland. He states, “Ireland, at peace and copying, stood in the
position to become Europe\'s publisher.” The Saxons had blocked routes to the
English mainland. A new, illiterate Europe was rising from Roman ruins...
Ireland would reconnect Europe with its own past by way of Ireland\'s scribal
hands. (Cahill, 183) These monasteries become centers for learning, presumable
the predecessor of modern universities.
I have two favorite parts to this book, first, the contrast Cahill makes
between Augustine and Patrick. I am catholic, from birth, and I never really
thought of Augustine in the manner Cahill portrays him, the dark versus bright
side of Chrisitanity. Augustine becomes self-conscious, “the man who cried I...”
(Cahill, p/ 39) He wanted truth. We see the classical world through him.
Patrick on the otherhand is a Christian convert, an escaped slave, who returns
to Ireland to save it. He brings the Roman alphabet and Roman literature with
him. He also brings a more personal faith with him that pagan Ireland
eventually accepts. Hungry for knowledge faith and literacy essentially become
My other favorite part was the stories of the early Irish war heroes
that became possessed by warp-spasm, particularly Cuchulainn. Cahill uses
exerpts form The Tain to illustrate how they lived in fear of their mythological
creatures, lived in fear of dying, and used alcohol, particularly beer, to drink
the fears away, Patrick became the alternative. (Cahill, pp. 83-85)
I enjoyed this book immensely, probably because I am three fourths Irish
myself. It probably makes me prejudiced. I do feel he was biased in his views
but I don\'t think that there is an author who isn\'t biased in his or her
viewpoint. Cahill, obviously Irish himself, is no worse than the others. Read
the Times Picayune, or listen to TV news for an example. His bias (and pride)
is evidenced when he writes, “Latin literature would almost surely have been
lost without the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its
great national literatures without the example of the Irish, the first
vernacular literature to be written down. Beyond that, there would have
perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage
thought.” (Cahill, p.193) Cahill notes that the Hebrew bible would have been
saved by the Jewish people and the Greek literature was preserved by the
Byzantines. He acknowledges that literature may have survived elsewhere but it
is only a momentary aside in his story ... after all, his point is that THE
IRISH saved civilization.

You\'ve got to love the Irish - especially this time of year!

Category: English