A Short Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

A Short Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

I didn’t know what to think when I first heard the title of this book. Was it meant to have a tongue in cheek meaning, or was it a serious work?  After all, the old joke goes, “Why did God invent whiskey?”  Answer: “So the Irish would never rule the world.”  However, when I saw the book’s subtitle, The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, I began to lean toward thinking it was a serious work.  And indeed it is a serious work. For anyone interested in history, especially early church history, this will be a fascinating and helpful read. My B.A. is in New Testament Greek, and though I knew much about the role the monasteries, monks, and scribes who built the libraries of Western Civilization and the Christian canon, I had never associated any of that with Ireland. Cahill’s work masterfully places Ireland in a context that most have never thought of. The book is rich with historical details and insights into the history of the Roman Empire, the Celtic world, Irish legends and mythology, and Church politics and policies that will intrigue the reader, and I found it a book that I was reluctant to put down, yet at the same time wanting to think on and research the points and allusions Cahill made. There are many details in this book that will enrich my Scots-Irish school programs that I do at schools, libraries, and festivals throughout the South.

The book is constructed with an Introduction; seven chapters; photographs, including two from the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells; a pronunciation guide to key Irish words; his bibliographic sources; a chronology; and his acknowledgments.

To read more about Thomas Cahill and his writing, go to this site: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/cahill/bio.html

Here is the MLA bibliographic entry:
Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book:

“After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was heard to say that to be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart” (97).

“Fixity escaped these people, as in the end it escapes us all.  They understood, as few have understood before or since, how fleeting life is and how pointless to try to hold on to things or people.  They pursued the wondrous deed, the heroic gesture: fighting  . . . drinking, art–poetry for intense emotion the music that accompanied the heroic drinking with which each day ended, bewitching ornament for one’s person and possessions” (96-97).

“[Saint] Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination . . . (115).

“”[T]he Irish believed that gods, druids, poets, and others in touch with the magical world could be literal shape-shifters” (129).