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

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!

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