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 Doubleday, New York,272 pages, $16.95
You've got to love the Irish. God knows, I'm biased. My father's parents were both Irish. In fact, my grandmother achieved no small amount of fame in West Vancouver some seventy years ago by getting Mrs. Fingall-Smith, the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Society, totally snackered on home-made "tonic"--a concoction of dandelion wine fortified with a generous dose of whiskey. This, of course, is all part of the irrepressible Irish spirit that Thomas Cahill celebrates in his rollicking history How the Irish Saved Civilization.
Cahill's effortless prose captures a particularly Irish blend of mysticism and bravado, mixed with a profound love of both storytelling and the pleasures of life here on earth. He argues that it was quite possibly this very mix that fuelled the success of the Irish missionary efforts at the dawn of the Dark Ages. While the Roman empire was beginning to contract and then disintegrate, hundreds of Irish scribes in remote hermitages were hunkered down copying out the texts of antiquity (great tales, I tell you!). Were it not for their zeal, we might well be bereft of much of classical Latin literature as well as the early vernacular literatures of Europe.
This whole movement to snatch civilization back from the brink started with an unlikely saviour, a poorly schooled man called Patricius (St. Patrick to many of us), who served for seven years as a shepherd slave in Ireland, converted to Christianity, escaped to England, and then returned as a priest to convert the rest of Ireland. Curiously, missionary work hadn't been a hot item for Christians in the first five centuries of our millennium. Until Patrick came along, there hadn't been any since Paul of Corinth in the first century. As Cahill notes, Patrick's radical decision to become a missionary was "as bold as Columbus, and a thousand times more humane".
Patrick's Irish-based Christianity was a far cry from the Roman-based Christianity of Bishop Augustine. While Augustine described women's embraces as "sordid, filthy and horrible", Patrick quite delighted in writing about "a blessed woman, Irish by birth, noble, extraordinarily beautiful--a true adult--whom I baptised." For Patrick, it was the love of God, love of Creation, and fearlessness in faith that counted most.
It is fortunate for us that two notable men, Columbanus and Columcille, appeared in the latter part of the fifth century. Since Patrick had already won over enough of Ireland to maintain the faith, these two men set their sights on establishing monastery footholds in Scotland, England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and even Russia. The texts both copied and created by the scribes trained under these two men were subsequently popcorned all over Europe and numbered in the thousands.
Cahill is splendid at capturing the twists that wind the springs propelling our history into entirely new realities. For example, it was Columcille--a person of whom I had never even heard before--who was a key element in the rebirth of literacy during the Dark Ages. It started when he was charged by Bishop Finian for the crime of copying a psalter that the bishop regarded as his alone. It was probably the first case ever fought over literary copyright. At its conclusion, King Diarmait pronounced, "To every cow her calf, to every book its copy"--meaning that the offspring of the bishop's property reverted to him. The humiliation of this loss chewed away at Columcille. Later, when the King killed one of Columcille's followers, he used the event to avenge himself, waged war, and left three thousand and one dead and "only one of them on the princely Columcille's side". Now Columcille had a dilemma. As a man of Christian faith, he was duty-bound to "save as many souls as perished in the battle he precipitated". Hence his almost manic creation of new monasteries, his commitment to copying old texts, and his consequent rebuilding of literacy.
The tale is timely. Cahill's sketch of Rome's demise, in some measure as a result of its inequitable taxation systems, the disappearance of its middle class, and the growth of greed, has resonance in the events of our time. "'Tis how it is," my Irish grandmother would sum up. "A people what is after getting too big for their boots, be time they'll be walking without them."
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© 2003 Sharon Oddie Brown