Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review: How The Irish Saved Civilization

Thomas Cahill wants to let you into a secret in this book - that civilization as you know it today is all because of the Irish. Not the generation of the Celtic Tiger, nor the Wild Geese, but much further back, to the days when the Roman Empire was collapsing and the dark ages were kicking in. The Irish, and in particular, the Irish monks, were busy copying the great works of the ancient world in their monasteries while on Continental Europe they were being destroyed by the marauding barbarians. It was those same monks, in the next generations, which reintroduced civilization and philosophy to Europe, launching the rise of the medieval period.

The story is well told, with lots of interesting detail, such that you could imagine Cahill as one of the great Irish bards. He brings the reader on a time travelling adventure to observe what was happening across Europe in the 400s and 500s AD. It's fascinating, and well worth reading if you're at all interested in history, particularly Irish history. There's a good chapter on Saint Patrick, using the source material of his confession, and lots on the legacy of Patrick, as Columba (Columcille), Columbanus and others reach beyond Ireland to Scotland (Iona), England (Lindisfarne), and the continent with missionary zeal. Yet having said all that, there were a few things that troubled me.

Firstly, the author seems to be much too taken by the loose Celtic pagan morality, hearkening for those simpler days with easy sex and ready violence, where everyone was a warrior (what has changed?!), infusing those ancient morals with a thoroughly modern secular abandon. He refuses to be critical of the standards of the time, and rather urges for us to return to such behaviour.

Secondly, while it is acknowledged that it was the monks who saved civilization, there appears to be little understanding or explanation of why they were committed to the good news, why they would give and go and serve, or indeed what the good news was. The fact that the Book of Kells is a book of the gospels seems to be a secondary matter, compared to their elaborate decoration.

All in all, I think I could recommend the book for those interested in the heritage and history of what a bunch of Christians achieved on this island all those centuries ago, but with a firm warning that it can sometimes descend into nationalist propaganda, or undue Romanism (given the independence of the Irish Church in this period), and there's some foul language as well. Perhaps what I'm saying is that the topic is a great one, but I wish it was covered in another format than in this particular book!

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