How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill is one of those books that by the grand implausibility of its title and the excellence of its succinct execution achieves more than a 220 page volume has any right to expect.
There are two keys: First, Cahill's immense but easy erudition, how much he knows about the soft crumbling of ancient Rome into the darkness of the barbarians and the almost serendipitous way in which classical and church manuscripts became an Irish obsession. Second, Ireland's indescribable, ambiguous, playful, musical, dramatic history--which forces someone as wise as Cahill to move quickly from high point to high point and not pretend to document in detail what no one can ever know.
Cahill's approach benefits greatly from the use of poem fragments (the Irish wrote as beautifully in 500 as they do now) and a focus on key actors, notably St. Patrick.
I confess I never paid any attention to St. Patrick and regarded him as a semi-mythological species of leprecaun. No, he was a real man, woefully abused as a young fellow, who forged the first connection between the earthy Irish and Christianity. He was tough, he was loving, he was patient, he was tenacious. Through Patrick and successor men and women of the cloth, Columcille and Columbanus, to name just two, Ireland preserved the literary values at the core of the word "civilization" and extended them not only through Ireland but into Scotland and across the English Channel through northern Europe.
These Irish prelates were admittedly subjects of the Bishop of Rome, or Pope, but lived and worked so far away, with so little communication, that they were the ones, not he, who invented the systems of monasteries, scriptoria, and sacred/secular co-existence that did so much to enable this book to live up to its title.
One of the core elements in dispute between classically-based Christianity and the Christianity that emerged out of Ireland's drystone hermitages is familiar and enduring: reason versus nature.
For the dominance of reason (and its connection to an abstract realm, the metaphysical) we can thank neo-Platonists of the Mediterranean. For the life-giving breath of nature, we can thank Irish monks and nuns who took the smell of peat, the light of day, and the intermingling of the sexes as somehow connected to humanity's ineluctable essence. In their hands, particularly on the pages of their illustrated manuscripts, Greek letters became both letters and…images, i.e., things that we understood as elements of grammar but also things that we saw as manifestations of nature's irrepresible fecundity.
Cahill's book falls within a series he wrote connected as studies of the hinges of history. This is volume one. I'll read the others. He's on the side of the good guys: not the Romans, but the saints.
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