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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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. (New York: Nan A.Talese/Doubleday. 1995. Pp. x, 246. $22.95.)

Why has this book been so popular? Why have readers been buying this book rather than more scholarly and more accurate histories of early medieval Ireland? Mr. Cahill purposely distances his legend of the Irish past from more serious works which, he purports, focus on one historical period or another rather than the transition between periods, and which tend to leave out all that is "Celtic and Catholic (p. 6).

Cahill's purpose is to explain how Patrick saved the Irish and the Irish then saved classical culture. According to Cahill, catastrophe came with the fall of Rome, when convulsive waves of barbarians (always matted" to Cahill) swelled against the Roman frontiers much as non-Americans push our southwestern borders today (p. 16). It is an essentially Gibbon-esque view of the shift to the Middle Ages, as Cahill himself proudly admits, with all the decay of polite culture and good living that the paradigm implies.We completely lost the complex world of Augustine, a vibrant intellect inspired by "the riotous blood of his homeland" (p. 56), northern Africa. (Augustine, by the way, drew heavily on St. Paul, here referred to as a wiry bald-headed Jew.")

The waves of matted barbarians would have extinguished learning, except that in a remote outpost of Europe, unholy Ireland, a valiant and semi-literate figure brought the love of letters and the Christian god. Cahill uses the possibly eighth-century epic, Tain Bo Cuailnge (copied in the twelfth century) to explicate the way of life found by Patrick when he arrived in Ireland: constant warfare, unbridled sexuality, insensate drunkenness, shapeshifting battle goddesses, headhunting and human sacrifice all ran rampant. These were the customs of the wild, brave Celts, who had dominated Europe before the Romans and had spread, according to Mr. Cahill, as far afield as New Hampshire (to, presumably, the Stonehenge of America, one of my favorite spurious Celtic sites). Patrick, himself only barely Roman in this book, persuaded the Celts to give up their human sacrifices for the sacrifice of the one god's son which, according to Cahill, was easy for the British missionary in simpatico with his new people. …