How the Irish Saved Civilization

Thomas Cahill

How the Irish Saved Civilization.

In celebration of the fact that your writers will be heading off to Ireland next month, the book under consideration in this issue is Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization.  Subtitled The Untold Story of Ireland’s Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, this small treasure of a volume tells briefly and poetically of the “dark ages” -- that time when learning, scholarship, and culture disappeared from the European continent.  The great heritage of Western civilization - from Greek and Roman classics to early Jewish and Christian works - would have been utterly lost if not for the efforts of the holy men and women of unconquered Ireland.

Cahill’s delightful and illuminating look into a little-known but crucial piece of history takes the reader to the “island of saints and scholars,” the Ireland of the Book of Kells and that venerated figure, St. Patrick.  Here, far from the chaos into which the rest of Europe had dissolved, monks and scribes lovingly and laboriously preserved the West’s written treasury.  As stability returned to Europe, Irish scholars were instrumental in spreading learning across the continent.  Thus, the Irish were not only conservators of civilization, they became shapers of the medieval mind, and put a unique stamp on Western culture.  Consider this:

“The word Irish is seldom coupled with the word civilization.  When we think of peoples as civilized or civilizing, the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Italians and the French, the Chinese and the Jews may all come to mind.  The Irish are wild, feckless, and charming, or morose, repressed, and corrupt, but not especially civilized.  If we strain to think of “Irish civilization,” no image appears, no Fertile Crescent or Indus Valley, no brooding bust of Beethoven.  The simplest Greek auto mechanic will name his establishment “Parthenon,” thus linking himself to an imagined ancestral culture.  A semiliterate restaurateur of Silician origin will give pride of place to his plaster copy of Michaelangelo’s David, and so assert his presumed Renaissance ties.  But an Irish businessman is far more likely to name his concern “The Breffni Bar” or “Kelly’s Movers,” announcing a merely local or personal connection, unburdened by the resonances of history or civilization.

And yet ... Ireland, a little island at the edge of Europe that has known neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment --- in some ways, a Third World country with, as John Betjeman claimed, a Stone Age culture --- had one moment of unblemished glory.  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 great labor of copying all western literature --- everything they could lay their hands on.  These scribes then served as conduits through which the 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.  Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable.  Without the Mission of the Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one --- a world without books.  And our own world would never have come to be.”

Cahill’s lyric prose, coupled with quotations from Irish epic poetry and translations of Biblical stories, brings a strain of magic to this short treatise on Irish history.  If you’ve always sworn that the study of the past isn’t your cup of tea, How the Irish Saved Civilization could change your mind.  Be sure to read all about it!

Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.