Thursday, October 7, 2010

How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad;
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.
{G.K. Chesterton}

This book came into my hands by a rather entertaining series of encounters. I spotted it once while volunteering at the library, but had no room for pleasure reading at that point in time. I set it aside with a sigh over the probability that it would be forgotten in the pile of books that I have wished to read but have neither the capacity nor the time to remember and read them all. Then, not a few months later, I ran across it again on a bookshelf at a coffee shop and determined that I would stop in again when I had more time. Not even a full day later, a teacher recommended it to our class even as I was copying the name down in my notes to remember it. Of course at that point it was pretty much assured that I would read it. The coffee shop owners were gracious enough to lend it to me and here I am a week later and rather the better for having read it.

Cahill's story begins with the fall of the Roman Empire as it has exhausted its creativity and lives in the memory of greatness with the hollowness of inner decay. As civilization began to shift with great heaves and hurls, reshaping the political geography of Europe through centuries of flames and disorder, Cahill points his readers to the remote western boundary where the last light of the ancients burned on in an unwavering flame. Thanks to St. Patricius, slave turned missionary to the Irish, the works of men like Aristotle, Plato, Homer, and Virgil survived the Dark Ages of thought to stir the minds of another generation. As his converts began to form monasteries, they developed a great love for education and the written word, even going so far as to invent new languages and scripts when they had mastered Latin and Greek. They preserved and copied all of the greats, forming libraries that were in many cases the sole repositories of those works in western Europe. As Roman Catholicism retreated to the last few of the aristocratic upper echelons of society, Patrick's Irish converts were active in preserving and spreading both the sacred and the secular works.

It was a very informative read on a time in society that is often forgotten because it had so few educated and informed people who could document it firsthand. I enjoyed it because I can sympathize with the Irish monks who enjoyed their early church fathers liberally seasoned with Greek philosophers. Plus, history is interesting, and Cahill actually writes about it as a vibrant story rather than a faded tapestry. Kudos to both author and subject.

3 comments:

Hamilcar Barca said...

i read this last year, and agree with you - Cahill's writing style is a breath of fresh air for the stodgy, historical non-fiction genre.

OTOH, i felt Cahill never actually proved his prime assertion - that roving, book-carrying Irish priests did in fact save Western civilization. still, it was an enlightening read.

Christopher said...

This sounds interesting. There's something strange about how Ireland, which is a fairly tiny island, looms large the history of world literature--in the 20th Century, in the time of St. Patrick, and even the ancient Irish, which Robert Graves uses as his key to understanding world myth in The White Goddess.

tci said...

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