Review- Thomas 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.
Cahill notes Ireland is the only land where Christianity is introduced without
violence - there 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!

Category: English