Cahill’s How The Irish Saved Civilization Essay, Research Paper

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 violencethere 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!

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