Review of How the Irish Saved Civilization

Review of How the Irish Saved Civilization

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In 476 AD, centuries of amassed knowledge in science and philosophy, literature and the arts lay in peril of destruction alongside the physical Roman Empire. Thomas Cahill's book How the Irish Saved Civilization sheds light upon the role of the Irish people in the conservation and rebirth of civilization and the Western tradition after the fall of the Roman Empire. It is here that Cahill opens his book and after a brief description of classical civilization, that we are given a look at another people, far different from the Romans and Greeks- the vibrant and intriguing Celts. How these people came in contact with the civilized world and how they assisted in pulling the West out of the Dark ages is, then, the paramount of Cahill's argument.

Cahill begins his discussion of the Irish people in an extensive reference to Medh, the Queen of Connacht. Through her story we are first shown the aggressive spirit and strength of the Irish people. As Cahill relays, no barbarian tribe or nation was feared like the Irish when it came to the slave trade, and it is through this vein of interaction- the slave trade- that a young man by the name of Patricius is introduced to the realm of Unholy Ireland. Taken from his home in Romanized Briton, he is subject to several years of slavery in the most unsavory of conditions. These conditions serve as a catalyst for his spiritual enlightenment and ultimately that of the Irish peoples (38).

St. Patrick, as he would be called, after revelation from God, escapes from slavery and returns to his home in Britain for a short time. On return to Ireland, St. Patrick dedicates the remainder of his life to spreading Christianity through the land. He transformed original Celtic warrior values into new Christian ones. Not only did St. Patrick love the Irish people, but the Irish people loved St. Patrick. Cahill notes: "as the Roman lands went from peace to chaos, the land of Ireland was rushing even more rapidly from chaos to peace" (124). The Irish, then, in their new fervor for Christianity, began setting up centers of spiritual learning. It is here in these monasteries, we learn, that monks and scribes of Ireland begin their preservation of any and every bit of literature and knowledge that they come into contact with.

Cahill illustrates how this new monastic system of learning proves to be one of the most important foundations established after the fall of the Roman Empire.

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After the Irish monks learned to read and write the languages of the Bible, they picked up pagan literature as well, "unconcerned about orthodoxy of thought" (158- 159). Thus, not only was Christianity spread, but the work of Plato and Aristotle and Virgil and Cicero was preserved and perpetuated to enlighten those in the Dark ages and people today. They eventually even developed two scripts of their very own (166). As Ireland's monastic libraries continued to grow in number, little to no sign of major learning was present in Roman lands. Cahill states: "Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe's publisher" and continues "would reconnect Europe to its own past" (183).

The historical significance of this is no doubt clear upon reflection of history and subsequently in modern times. This tradition of monastic learning would spread beyond Ireland. Irish monks like Columcille "would themselves colonize barbarized Europe" (184). As these men and women set out to spread the Christianity that they had learned, the information and the secular learning that they had preserved was left behind and burned into the places they would encounter as well. As Cahill puts it: "they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe" (196).
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