Monday, March 17, 2014

Festive Book Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! In case you're looking for a way to celebrate the holiday without any fuss about food, green beer, parades, etc., here's a book review I wrote years ago. Naturally the best way to celebrate in this style is to get a copy of the book for yourself today (and possibly flip straight to the parts about St. Patrick himself), but if you're short on time, skim this old (and amusingly pretentious-sounding) review to get a quick look at why Ireland was THE place to be in the Europe in the Middle Ages.

Title: How the Irish Saved Civilization
Author: Thomas Cahill
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell
Publication Year: 1994
Read: January 2011
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: History
Rating: 4 Monks

I've noticed that history books on Goodreads are often given lower star ratings by people who are upset to find that the author was using information to present a cohesive thesis rather than providing an unbiased account. Although it is right to bring up slant in evaluating the truth of a thesis, it's somewhat sad to see these complaints for Cahill's defense of pre-Joycean Irish civilization when one of Cahill's major arguments is that biased English historians prevented any appreciation of Irish civilization in the past. I haven't read enough on Irish history to know if Cahill's desire to show an "unblemished" era of Irish greatness allows him to present Ireland entirely falsely, but I can't help thinking that even if it does, it's about time that the early Christian Irish get a book slanted towards them.

And though I want to give Cahill and his peaceful, practically polytheistic Christians as much chance to greatness as I can, I will admit that Cahill is at least exaggerating the title. The Irish didn't exactly "Save Civilization": they saved Latin writing of the pre-Christian Roman Empire, thus allowing us to read Cicero and Seneca today. Cahill, to his credit, seems to use that contribution of the Irish as only a part of his claim for an Irish golden age. The Irish's greatest contribution to civilization, he argues, was their counter-Augustinian Christianity. In the Irish hey-day, St. Patrick wrote of God's love for all creatures and people despite their foibles, the Irish developed universities and brought limited literacy to lay people, and Irish missionaries brought their tolerant Christian beliefs and love of writing across Europe.

Cahill is a gentle writer, often stopping to say, "Let us explore this world a little more before we move on," and presenting a picture of what life may have been like in the capital in the last century of the Western Roman Empire, and in Britain, and also in Ireland. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the miseries of Roman tax collectors and shepherds all over. Cahill is a convincing writer, too. His version of Irish history may be as compelling for the Irish today as the Christian resurrection was for the Irish of St. Patrick's day.

I only wish that Cahill had made the book longer and more scholarly. As fascinating as the epic Tain is, it doesn't seem quite right to base the entire view of pre-Christian Irish civilization on literary works and the evidence of a sacrifice victim/volunteer in a bog. I would have appreciated some more archeology, riotous debate between scholars who've argued about when human sacrifice in Ireland took place, and careful footnotes. (Most disappointingly Cahill doesn't like to do normal bibliographies; he prefers to write about his favorite sources and hope you'll be encouraged to read them yourself.) As the book is, it's a light history that shows the Irish as a scribal powerhouse of the early mediaeval period.

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