How the Irish Saved Civilization: the Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe
© 1995 Thomas Cahill
230 pages plus bibliography, chronology, and index.
Last week I began the “Hinges of History” by Thomas Cahill. Cahill writes that his interest lies in the transition points of history, and indeed what I’ve read of him so far does focus on change-inducing elements of society. This week I read How the Irish Saved Civilization, a book I have passed countless times in my home library but have never read until this week. Be begins by acknowledging the apparent strangeness of associating the Irish with civilization, and asks “How real is history?” He points out that western history has until recently paid no notice to the role of non-Europeans and women: it has been until the last century the story of white men. With that in mind, he asks us to acknowledge that the positive role played by ignored people like the Irish and by scorned people like the Catholic Church might be similarly overlooked.
Well, I’ll grant him that, and easily — although claims of belittlement made by “The Church” are hard to take seriously. Given that his content focuses on Ireland’s role after the fall of Rome, Cahill logically begins with the fall of Rome. Rome and the classical tradition actually merit two chapters, and Cahill writes pretty well. I now understand a little more of how Rome’s economic prosperity began to rot away and consequence, understand how Frankish governments were able to rise. The very beginning is a little slow, as Cahill tries to show the decay of active culture by dissecting a late-Roman poet’s works. He tries to convey to the reader of what Europe is like in those years after the western Empire had receded into Italy before vanishing altogether: dangerous, wrought with petty conflicts and touring barbarians who gleefully put to the torch the Roman libraries. He also examines the role of the Church in attempting to hold society together.
Next he moves to “Unholy Ireland” and establishes a background: who are these people who he’s devoted a book to? Here he makes some leaps in logic I’m not comfortable with. You may have heard of Lindow Man: he is one of the “bog bodies”, or mummies occupying various bogs of the British isles and one of our main sources of information on what the pre-Roman Britons were like. Cahill wrote that Lindow Man and his brethren were willing sacrifices, that their serene composure is proof of this. I am not convinced. Even if the bog bodies do have “serene looks” on their faces, that doesn’t mean they were willing victims: they could’ve been intoxicated or drugged.
Next Cahill tells the story of Ireland’s conversion to Christianity and writes on what the Irish church was like. In his view, the Irish church were more in touch with mysticism and pagan traditions, less concerned with authority and overall more relaxed and less pretentious. This meshes fairly well with what I learned in English History I, although we didn’t really discussion Irish mysticism. (It was, after all, “English History”.) Cahill tells the story of the development of the Irish faith, centered around monasteries and guided by local priests. He actually makes me interested in monastery life. Given that the Irish were not so scornful of all things “pagan”, they willingly copied copies of manuscripts they received — even if they did were heretical texts or pagan philosophies. Then, as Europe begins to find some stability (just in time for the Vikings), Cahill tells of us about the “White Martyrdom”, of Irish monks leaving their pleasant little island for Christ’s sake, to reestablish the classical tradition in Europe.
The book ends with the arrival of the Vikings, who are Chaotic Evil and delight in putting quaint Irish monasteries to the torch. We read of the Irish monks burying manuscripts and metalwork or sending them to save havens inland, only to see Vikings settle in various parts of the British isles (where Irish monasteries had expanded). Here Celtic Britain transitions into Anglo-Saxon Britain, and at the Council of Whitby Irish-style religion is replaced by more Roman-style religion, thus ending the Irish influence on western civilization.
The book is well written and rarely boring. Cahill does concentrate on the Irish role while ignoring whatever classical activity lingered around the Mediterranean through wealthy Italian merchant-families and Islamic scholars. This is understandable for a book that is expressly written about the Irish, but it may lead casual readers to thinking that only the Irish were involved. While he did make some leaps in logic, generally the book matched with what I know, and I would recommend the read to anyone interested in the subject. I will be continuing in the series.