By Thomas Cahill
Anchor Books, 246 pp, 1995
Is this book still on the bestseller list?
It seemed like it dominated the sales charts for years and years, way back
when. It was always on my list of books to acquire, but I never got around
to it until this past February, when I attended the best used book sale on
the planet. I picked up a paperback copy in good enough shape for a buck.
Ain't America great?
Anyway, this book deserved all the acclaim
and profits. It's a fantastic read, breezy and casual, yet learned and
scholarly. It's too bad more historians don't write like this.
So how did the Irish save civilization? In
a nutshell, after Rome was crushed and sacked by heathen barbarians,
education and learning took a nearly fatal blow. The barbarians were
sweeping across Europe, wiping out monasteries and library, killing,
raping, looting, and setting civilization back a thousand years or so.
In the meantime, the Irish were fat and
happy on their emerald island, warring against each other, writing epic
poems, and lusting after the other sex. These Irish were in fact a lusty
lot. Let's just say they enjoyed life with a passion and zeal unmatched by
their more reserved and refined Roman Britons on the next isle over. But
they were also uneducated pagans. Their poems existed in spoken form only.
Into this atmosphere entered St. Patrick, a
Roman Briton, a Christian convert, and blessed by a zeal to save the Irish
from paganism. He instilled in them a love of learning, of writing, of
knowledge, and thousands were soon busily copying the great books of the
times from Latin into their own tongue, a Gaelic that formed the basis of
After Patrick died, Irish exiles willingly
left their beloved home and fanned out over Europe as far as Kiev,
establishing monasteries, building cities, and educating the barbarians.
They were thousands tiny points of light in a world darkened by war,
bloodshed, and ignorance. They kept the spirit of learning and
civilization alive when both were near death.
That's the short form. Cahill rounds it all
out with wonderful detail. It's obvious he admires the Irish of those
times, as well we all should. We owe them a huge debt we can never pay
back, except, perhaps, to vow that heathen barbarians intent on death and
destruction will never go unchallenged, and the burning flame of liberty
and knowledge will never be extinguished.