Book review: How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill, reviewed by Richard the Poor

Book Review
by Richard the Poor of Ely

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe
By Thomas Cahill, pub. Nan A. Talese – Doubleday, New York
Copyright 1995 by the author

Well, here’s a nice bit of nationalist hyperbole.  Cahill so boldly and broadly states his goal in the title that when he doesn’t quite reach it the reader (at least this one) feels cheated and disappointed.  He spends virtually all of the book setting the stage to explain how the monasteries established by Irish missionaries in the sixth and seventh centuries became the centers for the revival of learning in the Carolingian era, and then passes over that subject in at most a few pages.

Mr. Cahill, you’ve shown us how Western Europe lost “civilization”, and how the Celtic catholic church got to be the people who would bring it back.  Can’t you devote the same attention to the subject stated in your main title?

It’s not that the book is bad; it’s just that it’s incomplete.  Much of the historical material is presented through biographices of a few key people (Ausonius and Augustine of Hippo for the Late Roman Empire, for example).  An entire chapter discusses the mindset of pagan Ireland, and another discusses the life and labors of St. Patrick.  When the chance comes to sum up the saving of civilization by Irish missionaries with the life of the ninth century philosopher John Scotus Eriugena (John the Irishman from Ireland), this “most splendid blossom of the continental spring” rates only two pages.

Cahill includes many excerpts from Irish poetry of the era.  While the most relevant may be “The Hermit’s Song” (attributed to a disciple of St. Patrick) as it shows (according to Cahill’s commentary) how the quiet hermitage of a solitary monk became a full-fledged community, my favorite is a ninth-century insert into a miscellany by an anonymous copyist, beginning with the line “I and Pangur Ban my cat”.

If one wants to look for the heroes in “Ireland’s Heroic Role”, the people Cahill nominates for the honor are St. Patrick (of course), Columcille (known outside Ireland as St. Columba), who brought Celtic Christianity to England, and St. Columbanus, who went to Europe and set up monasteries as far south as Italy.

Cahill’s basic premise is that the catholic (i.e. open-minded) character of the Irish allowed them to value knowledge regardless of its source, and thus their monastic scribes copied Classical literature in addition to religious works.  They were then the people that Europe would turn to for scholars when the bits of Europe started to come back together.

Personally, I don’t feel it was their “Irishness” that let the Irish save Civilization, but simply the fact that they were literate when few others were.  The monks at the monasteries founded by Irish missionaries would become the logical choice for administrators as Medieval Europe was beginning.

[from the March 1997 Seahorse]