Thomas Cahills book How the Irish Saved Civilization, is called the untold story of Irelands heroic role in maintaining western culture, from the fall of the Roman Empire until the European dark ages. The main point of this book, as specified in the books title, is how the Irish saved civilization. How they allegedly did that is the real meaning of this book.
The author, Thomas Cahill, makes his views very clear throughout the entire book with the use of many facts, statistics and details. He clearly explains how Romes power crumbled and created chaos and anarchy all over Europe. Mr. Cahill does a magnificent job describing how European culture changed from the Roman to the medieval civilization, a civilization with a system of landlords and serfs. Other points of interest, which he made, are the spread of Irish missionaries and the study of St. Patrick.
He covers two centuries of the early Middle Ages (5th and 6th) and he makes it enjoyable to read. First he starts the book by explaining to us how reliable history really is. Mr. Cahill doesnt necessarily agree with writer Emil Ciorans remark that history proves nothing because it contains everything (Cahill pg. 5). He says instead that every age writes history anew, reviewing deeds and texts of other ages from its own vantage point (Cahill pg. 5).He explains that todays historical accounts were largely written by Protestant Englishmen and Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans; many historians have been discovering that not all of these works are always 100 percent reliable. He says that many of these historians have neglected the fact that without the contribution of the Irish monks of the past European civilization would not be the civilization, which we know today (Cahill pg. 5).
Mr. Cahills main purpose is to explain how the Irish saved civilization, but first he sets the stage by explaining how and why the great Roman Empire fell. In the late eighteenth century Edward Gibbons book, The history of the decline of the Roman Empire, was published. In this book Mr. Gibbon explains that the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of the immoderate greatness (Cahill pg. 13). This raised many questions at this time and it made other scholars investigate more about the decline of Rome. These scholars gave another interpretation by stating that Rome fell because of inner weakness, either social or spiritual; or Rome fell because of outer pressure-the barbarian hordes (Cahill pg. 13). Mr. Cahill on the other hand says that the only thing we can say is that Rome fell gradually and they for many decades scarcely notice what was happening (Cahill pg. 14).
The historian William McNeill explained that the Roman State in the West was destroyed by the same forces that created it (Cahill pg. 18). This statement is even believed today and it makes sense, take the barbarians for example.These barbarian tribes were a group of people that migrated in and out of Rome in search of game. The population of these people was not that big and they meant no harm to the Romans (so they thought). Time went by and these people learned agriculture; the barbarians learned how to farm from their neighbors the Romans and since farmers live longer lives the huge population explosion was inevitable. In search for new land these barbarians migrated to Rome. The barbarians gave Rome the last push for their inevitable decline. The Romans didnt see it coming and then when the time came for them to fight they, the Romans, were overwhelmed by numbers and were beaten by the barbarians.
The Romans did not notice that these Germanic tribes were a threat, so they didnt pay attention to them when they migrated every year. The barbarians migrated in search of a better life, looking for work; they went into Roman cites as craftsmen or as warriors. Then they became greedy and took over the entire Roman State. As you can see the Roman State fell because of the strengths that formed it. Agriculture was the Romes major strength and it became a barbarian strength as well. As they went through Rome they would destroy everything book, buildings, statues, etc. During this period of loss and destruction the Irish monks preserved everything that they could get their hands on, from both the Greek and Romans civilization.
After explaining this Mr. Cahill writes about the man that is consider as the first missionary, Patricius (St. Patrick). Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patricks Day, but they dont know how great of an influence St. Patrick was on the succeeding history of civilization. Born in Britain, Patricius (St. Patrick) was taken away from his home and family to be a slave in Ireland. Patricius, who was a shepard slave to King Miliucc, was a boy that was isolated from civilization, he used up his childhood gathering sheep. A boy who had nothing left but faith, he would spend his mornings and nights praying to the all mighty God. Then one night God spoke to him in his slumber; God told young Patricius that his time to leave the clutches of Miliucc was here. The next day Patricius escaped and traveled two hundred miles on his way to freedom. He boarded a ship, which was going to take him home; years went by and he finally made it home to Britain. There his family received him with open arms. Then one night Christ spoke to him, and told him to go back to Ireland. When he got there he was the first missionary; he had to teach the gospel and he did as God had instructed him.
St. Patrick did not only bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become the land of saints and scholars. Without the influence of St. Patrick in Ireland, the world as we know it today would not exist. St. Patricks gift of learning and his introduction into Ireland of the Greek and Roman civilizations enhanced the Irish beyond expectation. St. Patrick taught them the Roman alphabet; with this the Irish were able to enter a New World of scholarship and illuminated manuscripts. They were also able to preserve for posterity their own Celtic wisdom and mythology.
The Irish, with their newfound Christian faith, built many monastic schools; it was here where faith and scholarship not only lived in harmony, but also actually enhanced each other. It was these monks and religious, both male and female, which preserved, cherished and shared ancient knowledge. These religious monks did not only copy Greek and Roman works. As Mr. Cahill says these people engaged the text they were working on, tried to understand it after their fashion, and, if possible, add to it, even improve on it (Cahill pg. 163).
He also writes that wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills of bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literacy culture of Europe (Cahill pg. 155).
This is the way author Thomas Cahill explains in great detail the way that the Irish saved civilization from the clutches of the barbarians. Book reviewer John Hon however finds it hard to believe that the Irish were the only people interested in copying ancient texts. He claims that, the Irish did not find the love that they had for the Greeks and Romans to translate and re-deliver the Hebrew texts and their messages (Hon pg. 1), which are a very important part of todays history.
It was a totally new experience to read this book. The Irish had a great influence on European civilization; the book was enjoyable and definitely informative. The information on this fascinating book helped me understand history a little better. By reading this book we can find the purpose behind St. Patricks day. Mr. Cahill makes it enjoyable and anybody researching about the Irish culture or anybody that wants to understand the fifth and sixth century a little better should read this fascinating book.
1.Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Nan A. Talese, 1995.
2.Hoh, John. History Book Reviews. Douglas J. Malcolm, 1998.