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

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385418492
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/01/1996
Series: Hinges of History Series , #1
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 44,748
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

THOMAS CAHILL is the author of the best-selling books, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval EuropeThe Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and FeelsDesire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After JesusSailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks MatterMysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World, and, most recently, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World. These six books comprise Volumes I, II, III, IV, V, and VI, respectively, of the Hinges of History, a prospective seven-volume series in which the author recounts formative moments in Western civilization. In "The Hinges of History," Thomas Cahill endeavors to retell the story of the Western World through little-known stories of the great gift-givers, people who contributed immensely to Western, culture and the evolution of Western sensibility, thus revealing how we have become the people we are and why we think and feel the way we do today.

Thomas Cahill is best known, in his books and lectures, for taking on a broad scope of complex history and distilling it into accessible, instructive, and entertaining narrative. His lively, engaging writing animates cultures that existed up to five millennia ago, revealing the lives of his principal characters with refreshing insight and joy. He writes history, not in its usual terms of war and catastrophe, but as "narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance." Unlike all too many history lessons, a Thomas Cahill history book or speech is impossible to forget.

He has taught at Queens College, Fordham University and Seton Hall University, served as the North American education correspondent for the Times of London, and was for many years a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Prior to retiring recently to write full-time, he was director of religious publishing at Doubleday for six years. He and his wife, Susan, also an author, founded the now legendary Cahill & Company, whose reader’s catalogue was much beloved in literary households throughout the country. They divide their time between New York, Rome and Paris.

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.

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)

Reading Group Guide

We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage--almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance. In this series, The Hinges of History, I mean to retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we think and feel the way we do. And it is, finally, a recounting of those essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that became Western history was in ultimate danger and might have divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether. But the great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.

--Thomas Cahill

1. As the author notes, most historians describe periods of stasis, not movement, so that we miss out on the transition periods of history. Discuss this in light of the story the author tells in this book.

2. The author often gives us tableaus where he slips deep into the scene as it's happening--the Roman soldiers facing the German tribes along the banks of the frozen Rhine, for instance. Talk about how he does this and how it depends on our understanding of the history he reports.

3. The possibility of "psychological fiction" [p. 41] came about because of Augustine's Confessions. Discuss this breakthrough to the personal in prose.

4. The author gives a picture of Irish character that spans prehistoric to current times. Discuss character as a trait rooted in or heavily influenced by geography, weather, and culture.

5. Ireland, an island, had fewer outside influences on it than did many other cultures during the Pax Romana. Discuss isolation as a protective force, and a contributor to the idea that as Roman lands went from "peace to chaos," Ireland went from "chaos to peace" [p. 124].

6. Talk about the particular Irish women presented in this book--Medb, Derdriu, Brigid of Kildare, and Dark Eileen O'Connell--and the general Irish view of the role of women.

7. Discuss the difference between Patrick and Augustine's "emotional grasp of Christian truth" [p. 115].

8. Talk about the Irish people's ability to enjoy magic and superstition and pagan influences and yet convert wholeheartedly to Christianity.

9. Christianity was "received into Rome," while Ireland was "received into Christianity" [p. 148]. Discuss the difference and its implications and results.

10. As Columcille and Columbanus traveled in Europe and converted people to Christianity and established monasteries, they worked under the rubric of a democratic principle that "a man is better than his descent" [p. 176]. Discuss this as a change in previous and subsequent spiritualities, such as that of Augustine and the Rule of Saint Benedict.

11. Is power always corrupt? Discuss this in light of the Church conspiring with the enemy (Brunhilda) against its own messenger, Columbanus, and his Irish monks.

12. Discuss the cause and effect of the clash between the Roman Christianity of Augustine's Canterbury and Celtic Christianity at the Synod of Whitby in A.D. 644.

13. Discuss how the intellectual Greek approach to thought died and the price that subsequent cultures paid for it at the Synod of Whitby or elsewhere.

14. Discuss De Divisione Naturae, John Scotus Eriugena's theory of nature and reality, and Pope Honorius III's order to burn all copies of it. From what the author presents here, talk about the difference between pantheism and what Scotus suggested.

For Discussion: The Hinges of History Series

1. Each book gives a piece that helps complete the picture of who we are, of our history, of our humanity and acts as a piece in a puzzle. How effective is this type of a reckoning of our past?

2. The author did not write the books in his series in strict chronological order. Instead he traces large cultural movements over many centuries. How does this choice affect the understanding of each book as a piece in the puzzle? Or as an individual work?

3. In his books, the author gets inside the heads and hearts of his subjects, using a very close third-person point of view. How does this choice strengthen his premise? Does it have limitations?

4. The author is Roman Catholic. Is he able to present these histories without being biased by his Catholicism? Does one's religion (or lack of it) necessarily constrict or color one's view?

5. Discuss the nature and history of the Irish and the Jews as read in these books. What are their ambitions, their differences? How do they differ from the Romans and the Greeks in all three books?


We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage—almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance. In this series, The Hinges of History, I mean to retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we think and feel the way we do. And it is, finally, a recounting of those essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that became Western history was in ultimate danger and might have divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether. But the great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.

—Thomas Cahill

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How the Irish Saved Civilization 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 74 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 10 months ago
Very entertaining history of Ireland.
Harrod on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent review of Ireland's contribution to Western Civilization!
ccooney on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It took a while for the author to get to Ireland and the Irish, chapter 3 to be precise. (page 71) While the backdrop about Rome and books and literacy was interesting, there were points I was thinking in a Monty Python voice, "Get on with it."Unfortunately, for me at least, the book seemed to have waves of this throughout it. Something very interesting and fascinating would be told. I would be enthralled, happily turning the pages to discover more. Then it would dissolve into a slower pace and seem to drag along, and I was reading just because of will. Then the book would pick up again.There are certain parts that stuck out and I would happily read again. There are other parts I would gladly skip over.So if you're interested in things like bits about Irish mythology, literacy, religious beliefs, St. Patrick's life, women's roles in Irish Christianity, etc, you'll find parts of this book that will quench that. However there may be parts of the book that you need to drudge through.
Brent.Hall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had to read this for my Irish History class in college. Had a great professor...this was our introductory reading...pretty quick and interesting argument. Wish I saved all my books from college though, now I have to go back and buy them again!
brett_in_nyc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Cahill's books, and I bought this one hook line and sinker. I wonder now how much of an historian or scholar he really is though. His stuff is really imaginative and positive. And, I certainly think the Irish saved civilization, and continue to this day to bridge difficult brooks. They invented it and mastered it, and modeled it for the rest of the world through difficult exploitative and oppressive times, and now they are thriving. Good for them and good for us. I have read his others and will continue to do so.
maunder on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cahill's book presents fascinating information about how the world descended into the "dark ages" after invasion of the Roman Empire by the "barbarians". The decline of literacy was precipitous and yet in one far-flung outpost, Ireland, a flowering of learning was engendered by the work of St. Patrick, and his successors. The society was a remarkable one and the contributions of Irish Catholicism are invaluable. Very readable.
ashergabbay on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This weekend I finally got around to reading How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. This book, originally published in 1995, is the first in a series by Cahill called Hinges of History, books that examine "turning point" events in history. This book tells the story of how Irish monks and scribes "saved civilization" by preserving Western literature during the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman empire (5th century) and before the rise of Charlemagne in France (8th century). Cahill depicts a lively and detailed picture of the fall of Rome in the hands of the Barbarians and then proceeds to paint with loving, vivid colours the person who made it all possible: Patrick, the man who almost single-handedly "created" Ireland.This is not an academic book. Cahill writes for the general public, keeping his books short, his verse flowing and interspersed with humour ("How these people would have loved the batmobile!") and avoiding footnotes and lengthy appendixes. This approach is a mixed blessing; Cahill's brevity makes for a fast-paced read and a good grasp of the main facts, but the cost is oversimplification of historical processes and proneness to exaggeration.
pandorabox82 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A quick, insightful read. This book was one of the texts used in a class I took focused on Irish history, and I have loved it ever since. The thing that has always struck me is that even though the Irish were so separated from the rest of the world, they still managed to save so much of it.
jchancel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I generally do not like to read nonfiction. I find that most nonfiction authors merely state facts. Cahill is different. Although some may argue that his enthusiasm and sarcasm detract from the academic quality of the book, I found that it made me pay more attention and learn more than I expected. At times Cahill is a little too gungho and seems more of a cheerleader than a historian, but at the same time it is fun to read a book on a subject that the author seems to thoroughly enjoy. The sections on Saint Patrick are perhaps the most memorable and enjoyable parts of the book. All in all this is a good read and I recommend it to western history enthusiasts.
TheBooknerd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've really enjoyed reading this book. Cahill's narrative voice and style of writing are a lot of fun. His sarcastic, irreverent humor turns dates, facts, and theories into an entertaining story about humanity. No, this may not be the most credible historical source -- Cahill's opinions are far too present for this to ever be mistaken for objective history, and his treatment of the subject rather limited in focus -- but this book will get you thinking. If you're already a history buff, read with a smile (or a smirk). If you've shied away from reading history outside of a classroom, do give this book a try. I currently can think of no better book to prove that history does not have to be a dry recital of information.
MatthewSG on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was an overly-short, extremely lacking handling of an interesting and rich topic. Half of the book was an unnecessary love letter to the Classics, the rest was a superficial and dry survey. The history of Irish monasticism and the preservation of European culture during the Dark Ages deserves a far superior treatment.
Diwanna on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Should be called "How St. Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity" since that's what the book is basically about. Some interesting dialogue on Ireland's culture during the early C.E. years and the backstory of Patricius was interesting, but I was not really impressed with this book.
roydknight on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cahill may oversimplify many facets and facts of late Roman culture and the rise of Irish culture in the west, but I read this as a general introduction to Irish history. If one expects more, then one will be disappointed. The case for the differences between the Roman way of "doing church" and the "monastic way of doing church" is a great study in comparisons (quotes are mine, not Cahill's!). And if one is bothered by the over religious nature of this discussion, one must understand that there was no alternative to the evolution of history during this time.Cahill does show how monastic culture (from Patrick through Columcille) preserved much if not the majority of literature, both secular and sacred). Apparently the Irish enjoyed copying everything! But even more than this, there was and is an attitude within the Celtic mindside that functionality through relationships is much more important and emphasized than orthodoxy through tradition.Having not read any thing else by Thomas Cahill, I would look forward to sampling and reading his other works.
davidpwithun on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Before reading this book I had heard from quite a few people that it was a great read. They were wrong; it was better than great! The description of St. Augustine and his later, unfortunate, influence on Western Christianity was spot on as was his juxtaposition of this influence with the (much more Orthodox) Christianity of St. Patrick and his Irish children. This book was an engaging, lively, and informative exploration of Celtic Christianity and its adherents who would later save civilization for Western Europe. I don't have any Irish in me, but by the end of this book I was certainly wishing I did! The only complaint I have is that I wish Cahill would have taken a closer look at the ties between the ancient Celtic Church and the Coptic Church, as I think (largely through the influence of Aziz S. Atiya's writing on the subject) that Coptic Christianity was a very significant influence on the Celtic Church. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the roots of the West.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great short read about early Irish history if one discounts the author's paranoid view of seeing the fall of Rome as a template for the impending demise of the United States of America, crushed by Mexican and Haitian "hordes". While the US will certainly become a less white country, immigration was and will never be the trigger of doom in this still largely empty country. It is truly strange that a descendant of the malnourished and poor Irish immigrants wants to shut the door to people in need. Although not helping "the least among you" fits the world view of US Christian Conservatives. Besides his conservative Catholicism, it is the author's dirty old man perspective that imbues the book with a pungent yet funny flavor. The heathen Irish had very catholic sexual mores. The unstoppable Irish libido later on shocked the English puritans.Too many pages of this rather short book are devoted to the fall of Rome, in which the author partly misinforms his readers. He largely follows the outdated Gibbonian Christian degeneration argument for the fall of Rome, using the prissy Saint Augustine as his key witness. This allows him to present the vibrant heathen Irish in the best of light (I have to learn more about the old Irish sagas) and turn Saint Patrick into a true hero. In an otherwise good account of the Irish saint's life, I wish he had included more information what made the Irish chieftain kings accept Christianity. The sudden spectacular conversion of most of the island remains a mystery to me.The author also fails to develop the economic successes of the Irish monasteries. After the destruction of the Roman large estates, it was the autonomous Irish monasteries that established engines of economic growth in the wilderness. This model was developed in Ireland where civilization and trade were notable by their absence. A fortunate side effect was the creation of scriptoria that preserved many Latin texts.The author's titular claim that the Irish saved civilization, however, is totally wrong. Firstly, can anybody today still limit the use of civilization to Western civilization? Secondly, there was the Rome that never fell, Constantinople as well as Alexandria. Many of the Latin authors also survived either via Greek or Arabian scribes. The Irish monks managed to re-establish pockets of civilization, often in remote spaces. It took others to recognize the value of what they had saved. Petrarca and the early humanists rediscovered the ancient manuscripts rotting away in the monastery libraries.Overall, an enjoyable and highly readable account of early medieval Ireland that is somewhat flawed by the author's prejudices that flavor the text to the detriment of accuracy.
AnneDenney on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent read, very interesting, and entertaining too. The author presents a fresh and sometimes astonishing version of history, and one that makes perfect sense. His version/ translation of St Patrick's Breastplate is very moving.
BenjaminHahn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to like this book, but ultimately I was unimpressed with Cahill's argument that "the Irish saved civilization". He almost gets there, and maybe he would have if he had dedicated a hundred pages or more to this overall short book, but he keeps it brief and spends a lot of his space on making a poor case for how civilization ended. Cahill's argument on Rome's fall is quite short and a little disappointing since he brushes aside a lot of the existing scholarship that has gone into this question. He eventually settles on greed and loose morals and then poses that the values of early Christianity pulled the tatters together. Cahill also makes an argument for early Irish peoples having a certain cultural attitude that lends itself to Christian enlightenment. Thus Ireland was a prime place for the remnants of book learned Christian monks to settle and keep the flame alive until they were strong enough to reseed England and the rest of Europe with the Greek/Roman/Christian heritage. The big question left over is exactly what does Cahill mean by "civilization"? If he means a certain Roman Christianity version of Greek enlightenment, then yes, he might have a good argument here. But if he simply means "civilization" as in cities, with trade, philosophy, religion, agriculture, ect. then we have a bit of a problem. Were there any other places that were committed to retaining and preserving knowledge during this time? Why yes, there were. Byzantium was still going strong, as was Baghdad. In fact, the Islamic tradition was also doing basically the same thing as Cahill says the Irish monks were doing, copying and studying Greek and Roman classics. In fact, the Islamic scholars made many advancements in mathematics and medicine during this time. And if we want to extend "civilization" to include the east, then we can't forget China and South Asia too.Overall, I think Cahill's writing style was engaging and he certianly gave me some food for thought. But as "hinge of history" he really should have called his book something like "How the Irish Helped Saved Western Civilization" instead of the sweeping generalization he posits on the book's cover.