Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

How The Irish Saved Civilization
Thomas Cahill

As someone who is part Irish, I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not well-versed in Irish history. That’s why I wanted to read this book. That, and the fact that many people over the years, some of them Irish-American, have strongly recommended it to me (one even chided me).

Thomas Cahill is well-positioned to do the job of explaining to the masses the crucial part the Irish played in saving Western Civ. A former academic, he now makes his living by writing. So he has the chops and the incentive to write plainly for the average educated reader. The fact that his writing is often inspiring is a bonus.

You don’t have to be Irish to get a charge out of How The Irish Saved Civilization. Because, as Cahill so eloquently shows, the Irish actually did in the Middle Ages save the West, which means that all residents of the Western world (and by extension, the planet, in this Westernized present) owe them an enormous debt. After Rome fell to the barbarians, civil life in Europe (i.e., the Classical heritage of Rome) was decimated. Learning, science, literacy, art, architecture, engineering, plumbing, legal principles—the whole lot, and far more, took a nosedive. By a series of twists, turns and sheer blooming luck, that heritage ended up almost totally in the hands of the Irish, a people whose land the Romans and the barbarians had shown very little interest in because it was considered so worthless, so beyond the radar. The Irish didn’t just warehouse it, though. They preserved it, engaged it, re-charged it. Then they sent it back to Europe, which was truly a Dark Continent by this time.

It’s not as though no one knew about all this. But Cahill’s skill is in taking it out of the academy and bringing it to a general audience, thereby kicking down some of what he calls the bulwark of Anglo-American dominated history, which has very seldom acknowledged the importance of Ireland. Now we can all learn about this tradition, from Skellig Michael, to a flexible, non-Puritanical, women- and nature-affirming Christianity, to Green Martyrdom, to new insights on a young Romanized Briton slave called Patricius, better known as St. Patrick. (By the way, the Irish were the first European country to do away with slavery.) There’s the paradox of a people who converted en masse to Christianity but who kept some of their pagan Celtic customs (pretty wild ones, too). It’s an account of a people enraptured with learning, writing, calligraphy, book arts. And committed to nature, joy and justice. (It wasn’t all sweetness and light- Cahill accounts for that, too.

On a very few occasions, Cahill overstates, as when he says, “in four centuries between Paul and [Saint] Patrick there are no missionaries.” That’s true of Europe, but not true of the churches in the East. But, on the whole, the book is convincing.

Eventually, the barbarians would destroy almost all of this Ireland, and Vatican control would greatly diminish its spiritual distinctiveness, but the Irish would start to revive their golden age in the 19th century. Cahill shows just how much of the Celtic civilization there is yet to learn about and revive. John Scotus, for one, gets my vote.

Submitted by Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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