How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

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by Thomas Cahill

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The perfect St. Patrick's Day gift, and a book in the best tradition of popular history — the untold story of Ireland's role in maintaining Western culture while the Dark Ages settled on Europe.

Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of

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The perfect St. Patrick's Day gift, and a book in the best tradition of popular history — the untold story of Ireland's role in maintaining Western culture while the Dark Ages settled on Europe.

Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of civilization. Not only did he bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become "the isle of saints and scholars" — and thus preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians.

In this entertaining and compelling narrative, Thomas Cahill tells the story of how Europe evolved from the classical age of Rome to the medieval era. Without Ireland, the transition could not have taken place. Not only did Irish monks and scribes maintain the very record of Western civilization — copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever lost — they brought their uniquely Irish world-view to the task.

As Cahill delightfully illustrates, so much of the liveliness we associate with medieval culture has its roots in Ireland. When the seeds of culture were replanted on the European continent, it was from Ireland that they were germinated.

In the tradition of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, How The Irish Saved Civilization reconstructs an era that few know about but which is central to understanding our past and our cultural heritage. But it conveys its knowledge with a winking wit that aptly captures the sensibility of the unsung Irish who relaunched civilization.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Charming and entirely engaging, delectable voyage into th edistant past, a small treasure." —The New York Times

"A lovely and engrossing tale . . . Graceful and instructive." —Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times

"Cahill's lively prose breathes life into a 1,600-year-old history." —The Boston Globe

Richard Eder
A lovely and engrossing tale...Graceful and instructive.
Los Angeles Times
New Yorker
When Cahill shows the splendid results of St. Patrick's mission in Ireland...he isn't exaggerating. He's rejoicing.
Boston Globe
Cahill's lively prose breathes life into a 1,600 year-old history.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An account of the pivotal role played by Irish monks in transcribing and preserving Classical civilization during the Dark Ages. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Ireland's shining moment in European history was in the Dark Ages, when it did yeoman labor for future generations. Preserving literacy, Latin, and Christianity while Western Europe was isolated and barbarian, Irish monks also returned Christianity to Europe with ideas like confession that are part of the modern Catholic Church. Cahill is director of religious publishing at Doubleday, and this is his second book on Ireland. His narrative-highly literate and affectionate, if somewhat rambling and indulgent-links literature, philosophy, history, and lots of legends as he describes the fall of Roman civilization and the lives of saints Patrick and Columba, especially how they established the monasteries critical to the preservation effort. As a freewheeling, witty popular history of Irish Christianity in the Dark Ages, this will amuse and enlighten your Irish kin, and the book is recommended for that audience. The title notwithstanding, there is no untold story here.-Robert C. Moore, DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Co. Information Svcs., N. Billerica, Mass.
Richard Bernstein
In the great irish tradition...lyrical, playful, penetrating and serious...An entirely engaging, delectable voyage into the distant past, a small treasure.
The New York Times
The New Yorker
When Cahill shows the splendid results of St. Patrick's mission in Ireland...he isn't exaggerating. He's rejoicing.
The Boston Globe
Cahill's lively prose breathes life into a 1,600 year-old history.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Hinges of History Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

The word Irish is seldom coupled with the word civilization.  When we think of peoples as civilized or civilizing, the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Italians and the French, the Chinese and the Jews may all come to mind. The Irish are wild, feckless, and charming, or morose, repressed, and corrupt, but not especially civilized. If we strain to think of "Irish civilization," no image appears, no Fertile Crescent or Indus Valley, no brooding bust of Beethoven. The simplest Greek auto mechanic will name his establishment "Parthenon," thus linking himself to an imagined ancestral culture. A semiliterate restaurateur of Sicilian origin will give pride of place to his plaster copy of Michelangelo's David, and so assert his presumed Renaissance ties. But an Irish businessman is far more likely to name his concern "The Breffni Bar" or "Kelly's Movers," announcing a merely local or personal connection, unburdened by the resonances of history or civilization.

And yet . . . Ireland, a little island at the edge of Europe that has known neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment—in some ways, a Third World country with, as John Betjeman claimed, a Stone Age culture had one moment of unblemished glory. 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 great labor of copying all of western literature—everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the 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. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one—a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.

Not for a thousand years—not since the Spartan Legion had perished at the Hot Gates of Thermopylae had western civilization been put to such a test or faced such odds, nor would it again face extinction till in this century it devised the means of extinguishing all life. As our story opens at the beginning of the fifth century, no one could foresee the coming collapse. But to reasonable men in the second half of the century, surveying the situation of their time, the end was no longer in doubt: their world was finished. One could do nothing but, like Ausonius, retire to one's villa, write poetry, and await the inevitable. It never occurred to them that the building blocks of their world would be saved by outlandish oddities from a land so marginal that the Romans had not bothered to conquer it, by men so strange they lived in little huts on rocky outcrops and shaved half their heads and tortured themselves with fasts and chills and nettle baths. As Kenneth Clark said, "Looking back from the great civilizations of twelfth-century France or seventeenth-century Rome, it is hard to believe that for quite a long time—almost a hundred years—western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea."

Clark, who began his Civilisation with a chapter (called "The Skin of Our Teeth") on the precarious transition from classical to medieval, is an exception in that he gives full weight to the Irish contribution. Many historians fail to mention it entirely, and few advert to the breathtaking drama of this cultural cliffhanger. This is probably because it is easier to describe stasis (classical, then medieval) than movement (classical to medieval). It is also true that historians are generally expert in one period or the other, so that analysis of the transition falls outside their—and everyone's?—competence. At all events, I know of no single book now in print that is devoted to the subject of the transition, nor even one in which this subject plays a substantial part.

In looking to remedy this omission, we may as well ask ourselves the big question: How real is history? Is it just an enormous soup, so full of disparate ingredients that it is uncharacterizable? Is it true, as Emil Cioran has remarked, that history proves nothing because it contains everything? Is not the reverse side of this that history can be made to say whatever we wish it to?

I think, rather, that every age writes history anew, reviewing deeds and texts of other ages from its own vantage point. Our history, the history we read in school and refer to in later life, was largely written by Protestant Englishmen and Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. Just as certain contemporary historians have been discovering that such redactors are not always reliable when it comes to the contributions of, say, women or African Americans, we should not be surprised to find that such storytellers have overlooked a tremendous contribution in the distant past that was both Celtic and Catholic, a contribution without which European civilization would have been impossible.

To an educated Englishman of the last century, for instance, the Irish were by their very nature incapable of civilization. "The Irish," proclaimed Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria's beloved prime minister, "hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion [Disraeli's father had abandoned Judaism for the Church of England]. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry [i.e., Catholicism]. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry [!] and blood." The venomous racism and knuckle-headed prejudice of this characterization may be evident to us, but in the days of "dear old Dizzy," as the queen called the man who had presented her with India, it simply passed for indisputable truth.

Occasionally, of course, even the smug colonists of the little queen's empire would experience a momentary qualm: Could the conquerors possibly be responsible for the state of the colonized? But they quickly suppressed any doubt and wrapped themselves in their impervious superiority, as in this response by the historian Charles Kingsley to the famine-induced destitution he witnessed in Victorian Ireland: "I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don't believe they are our fault [emphasis mine]. I believe that there are not only many more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better and more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours."

Nor can we comfort ourselves that such thinking passed long ago from the scene. As the distinguished Princeton historian Anthony Grafton wrote recently in The New York Review of Books of history departments at the better American universities: "Catholic culture—like most Catholics—was usually disdained, as the province of lesser breeds fit only for the legendary parochial schools where nuns told their charges never to order ravioli on a date, lest their boy friends be reminded of pillows. Stereotypes and prejudices of this kind, as nasty as anything fastened upon Jews, persisted in American universities until an uncomfortably recent date."

That date may be only the day before yesterday. Yet this is not to accuse any historian of deliberate falsification. No, the problem is more subtle than deception—and artfully described by John Henry Newman in his fable of the Man and the Lion:

The Man once invited the Lion to be his guest, and received him with princely hospitality. The Lion had the run of a magnificent palace, in which there were a vast many things to admire. There were large saloons and long corridors, richly furnished and decorated, and filled with a profusion of fine specimens of sculpture and painting, the works of the first masters in either art. The subjects represented were various; but the most prominent of them had an especial interest for the noble animal who stalked by them. It was that of the Lion himself; and as the owner of the mansion led him from one apartment into another, he did not fail to direct his attention to the indirect homage which these various groups and tableaux paid to the importance of the lion tribe.

There was, however, one remarkable feature in all of them, to which the host, silent as he was from politeness, seemed not at all insensible; that diverse as were these representations, in one point they all agreed, that the man was always victorious, and the lion was always overcome.

It is not that the Lion has been excluded from the history of art, but rather that he has been presented badly—and he never wins. When the Lion had finished his tour of the mansion, continues Newman, "his entertainer asked him what he thought of the splendours it contained; and he in reply did full justice to the riches of its owner and the skill of its decorators, but he added, 'Lions would have fared better, had lions been the artists.'"

In the course of this history, we shall meet many entertainers, persons of substance who have their story to tell, some of whom may believe that their story is all there is to tell. We shall be gracious and give them a hearing without disparagement. We shall even attempt to see things from their point of view. But every once in a while we shall find ourselves entertaining lions. At which moments, it will be every reader for himself.

We begin, however, not in the land of lions, but in the orderly, predictable world of Rome. For in order to appreciate the significance of the Irish contribution, we need first to take an inventory of the civilized empire of late antiquity.

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What People are saying about this

Thomas Keneally
A shamelessly engaging, effortlessly scholarly, utterly refreshing history of the origins of the Irish soul and its huge contribution to Western culture.
—(Thomas Keneally, author of Schlindler's List)

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How the Irish Saved Civilization 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 53 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If there is one unexcusable thing in the world, it is a dull history book. Too many historians go at their task with no flair. NOT SO of Mr. Cahill. He writes history with color, with beauty, with feeling. He integrates his history with other facets of the human experience--pulling in theology and philosophy. 'How the Irish Save Civilization' is a great book. It makes me proud to be part Irish.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked this book. I enjoyed Cahill's thesis, even though I thought he could have spent more time elaborating more on it. I have read all of the HINGES OF HISTORY series except The Gifts of the Jews. I'm hoping to get to it shortly. His chapters on Patrick are good and I really enjoyed all the education on Irish literature, etc. His early chapters are good too. Cahill is very good at giving the reader a context for where he is going to go. I was also pleased that there were less references to sex in this book than some of the others.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was very good. It is a book that will make you think and recall facts learnt long ago in history class. It was very intriging and very informative. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Irish history.
Francesca-Marie More than 1 year ago
How the Irish Saved Civilization was ultimately a fascinating and enlightening read. There is nothing more enjoyable than a book that will provoke thought, and this book did just that, and beautifully so. While the undue bias against paganism was more than a bit off-putting at times, the book overall was enjoyable. The style is engaging and accessible without feeling too “dumbed down,” which is refreshing and pleasant, as such a balance is difficult to find. Even without considering the writing style, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this book had a deep personal impact on me. It was a factor in my renewed interest in my Irish heritage, as well as in my reconsideration of my view of the Catholic Church. Saint Patrick’s faith, as it is portrayed in this book, as well as the faith of his followers, is far different from harshness I perceived during my Roman Catholic education in my youth. Had it been shown to me then as I saw it in this book—warm, hopeful, accepting—I may not have wished as strongly as I did for some time to disassociate myself from any aspect of it. But I digress. Thomas Cahill’s book is a thorough and thoughtful investigation of the oft overlooked impact made by the Irish on the course of Western Civilization’s history. I feel it is not only interesting, but certainly a must-read for anyone looking to really understand the period. It provides such a wealth of information that is not often presented elsewhere. Once one is able to move past the anti-pagan bias, the book is truly a captivating and inspiring piece. I would certainly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
great book. really helped me to understand what happened in the dark ages and the irish contribution to recivilizing europe.
Guest More than 1 year ago
To think my Irish ancestors had saved civilization! Okay, Kenneth Clark in his book Civilisation attributes the deed to Charlemagne while Cahill, in his lovely tale, credits the Irish. Who cares? The thing was saved, and Cahill's book is a most charming read. Cormac Keegan, author of IRISH FIRST, EUROPEAN SECOND
Guest More than 1 year ago
You will be disappointed if you read this book as a history text. Instead, its value is in the colorful way in which Cahill dramatizes the remarkable contributions of St. Patrick and the Medieval Irish monks. Cahill is a very insightful writer. His description of the many parallels between the falling Roman Empire of the early fifth century and the United States of the early twenty-first century is alone worth the price of the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book offers a summary of the transformation from the Roman Era through the dark ages to the dawn of the Middle Ages. Most of the summary is well covered in many other books but the material about St. Patrick and the Irish Monks involvement in preserving civilation is nicely summarized.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book appears to fall in the new genre of "creative non-fiction". If one accepts this and an occasional leap in faith, it is an entertaining read.
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I enjoyed listening to How the Irish Saved Civilization on my commutes. The Whys and Hows of History and Civilizations during the Dark Ages are thought provoking and stimulating. I read Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea after How the Irish Saved Civilization, and have Cahill's other books from his Hinges of History on my to-read list.
CandaceU More than 1 year ago
How the Irish saved Civilization was an interesting read. This book provided a look into the role of the Irish in civilization, which is often overlooked. This book also provide interesting details into history for example, Thomas Cahill explained how the Romans feared the Irish because they would show up to battle with crazy hair only wearing a torc (neck ornament) around their neck. Cahill tied their appearance during battle to their strong and stubborn mentality. I also enjoyed how the author used literature from ancient western civilization to provide an in depth understanding to the moral before, during, and after the fall of Rome, and of how the Irish transformed and saved civilization by saving books.
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