How The Irish Saved Civilization | Review & Notes

Thomas Cahill. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. Anchor Books, 1995. (245 pages)

— Notes —

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith; Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. – Reinhold Niebuhr

Introduction: How Real Is History?

…as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature — everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one — a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be. (3-4)

Looking back from the great civilizations of twelfth-century France or seventeenth-century Rome, it is hard to believe that for quite a long time — almost a hundred years — western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea. – Kenneth Clark

…it is easier to describe stasis (classical, then medieval) than movement (classical to medieval). (5)

Just as certain contemporary historians have been discovering that such redactors are not always reliable when it comes to the contributions of, say, women or African Americans, we should not be surprised to find that such storytellers have overlooked a tremendous contribution in the distant past that was both Celtic and Catholic, a contribution without which European civilization would have been impossible. (5)

We live around a sea, like frogs around a pond. – Socrates

I: The End of the World: How Rome Fell — and Why

For all the splendor of Roman standard, the power of Roman boot, and the extent of Roman road, the entire empire hugs the Mediterranean like a child’s village of sand, waiting to be swept into the sea. (12)

Medi – Terra – nea — the Sea of Middle Earth.

And as they turn to the center of their world, they turn their back on all that lies behind them, beyond the Roman wall. They turn their back on the barbarians. | That Rome should ever fall was  unthinkable to Romans: its foundations were unassailable, sturdily sunk in a storied past and steadily built on for eleven centuries and more. There was, of course, the prophecy. Someone, usually someone in his cups, could always be counted on to bring up that old saw: the Prophecy of the Twelve Eagles, each eagle representing a century, leaving us with — stubby fingers counting out the decades in a puddle of wine — only seventy years remaining! Give or take a decade! Predictable laughter at the silliness of the whole idea. But in seventy years exactly, the empire would be gone. (12)

Eternal Rome, eleven centuries old, hardly foresaw its doom. But theories about its fall are very old indeed. (12)

No, insists Augustine eloquently, it is not Christianity but vice-encumbered paganism that is bringing the empire down. …following Augustine’s lead, he [Tuscan] blames on the empire’s internal faults. Machiavelli, writing a century and a half later in a less spiritual, more cynical time, will blame the barbarians. (13)

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. – Edward Gibbon

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear, without surprise or scandal, that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldier’s pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. – Edward Gibbon

…his theory was no novelty, …Nor was it devoid of merit. (14)

These earlier interpreters — first the pagan critics of Christianity, then Augustine, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Gibbon — have defined the limits of all later interpretation: Rome fell because of inner weakness, either social or spiritual; or Rome fell because of outer pressure — the barbarian hordes. What we can say with confidence is that Rome fell gradually and that Romans for many decades scarcely noticed what was happening. (14)

The world has never known anything as deep, as lasting, or as extensive as Pax Romana, the peace and predictability of Roman civilization. (15)

What set them [barbarians] on the move was agriculture… (17)

For farmers, the safety net is the grain supply — more food than they need right now. This ancient form of money in the bank has served from time immemorial as the basis for long life, long-term planning, and all the arts of civilization. | But the complete formula is as invariable as it is archaic: economic success in the form of a store of grain triggers a population explosion, which quickly triggers the need to acquire new land to feed new mouths. (17-18)

Considered in this light, the Roman state in the West was destroyed by the same forces that had created it. – William McNeill

…to consider this enormous transformation. Why was the border guard so thin? Did the Romans not notice — at some point — that their way of life was changing forever? Did they no thing to do something about it besides bow to the inevitable? What were they thinking about? In order to answer these questions and gain a fuller picture of Roman society, we turn to a typical  Roman who helped build the world of late antiquity. (18)

Ausonius the poet.

Fecund Venus and bloody Mars did not vacate the field to the pathetic, pacifist Christ. Rather, the life of the old religion had already drained away; and by the time Christianity came to the attention of the Roman gentry, the gods were shadows of their formerly lively selves — marginal, quieti manes, rustling through a dimly viewed eternity. (22)

…the peace of all the world — all the world worth thinking about, that is — came at a stiff price: the constant, and increasingly unequal, exactions of the emperor’s tax men. (25)

But now I must ask a great concession of my readers: to pity the poor tax man, whose life was far more miserable than the lives of those who suffered his exactions. The tax man, or curialis, was born that way: Can you imagine the dawning horror on realizing that you were born into a class of worms who were expected to spend their entire adult life spans collecting taxes from their immediate neighbors — and that there was no way out? | But this was only the beginning of the horror. Whatever the curiales were unable to collect they had to make good out of their own resources! (25)

Those in the Palestine service and the army were ordered back to their native stations. They could still become senators — providing they passed through all the grades of curialis and, on reaching the highest, principalis, remained in it for fifteen years. (26)

By the fifth century, in the years before the complete collapse of Roman government, the imperial approach to taxation had produced a caste as hopeless as any in history. (27)

In 409, faced with an increasingly undefended frontier, the emperor announced the impossible: henceforth, slaves would be permitted, even encouraged, to enlist, and for their service they would receive a bounty and their freedom. By this point, it was sometimes difficult to tell the Romans from the barbarians — at least along the frontier. (29)

There are, no doubt, lessons here for the contemporary reader. The changing character of the native population, brought about through unremarked pressures on porous borders; the creation of an increasingly unwieldy and rigid bureaucracy, whose own survival becomes its overriding goal; the despising of the military and the avoidance of its service by established families, while it offices present unprecedented opportunity for marginal men to whom its ranks had once been closed; the lip service paid to values long dead; the pretense that we still are what we once were; the increasing concentrations of the populace into richer and poorer by way of a corrupt tax system, and the desperation that inevitably follows; the aggrandizement of executive power at the expense of the legislature; ineffectual legislation promulgated with great show; the moral vocation of the man at the top to maintain order at all costs, while growing blind to the cruel dilemmas of ordinary life — these are all themes with which our world is familiar, nor are they the God-given property of any party or political point of view, even though we often act as if they were. At least, the emperor could not heap his economic burdens on posterity by creating long-term public debt, for floating capital had not yet been conceptualized. The only kinds of wealth worth speaking of were the fruits of the earth. (29-30)

The citizens of the City of Rome, therefore, could not believe it when toward the end of the first decade of the fifth century, they woke to find Alaric, king of the Visigoths, and all his forces parked at their gates. He might as well have been the king of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, or any other of the inconsequential outlanders that civilized people have looked down their noses at throughout history. It was preposterous. They dispatched a pair of envoys to conduct the tiresome negotiation and send him away. The envoys began with empty threats: any attack on Rome was doomed, for it would be met by invincible strength and innumerable ranks of warriors. Alaric was a sharp man, and in his rough fashion a just one. He also had a sense of humor. | “The thicker the grass, the more easily scythed,” he replied evenly. | The envoys quickly recognized that their man was no fool. All right, then, what was the price of his departure? Alaric told them: his men would sweep through the city, taking all gold, all silver, and everything of value that could be moved. They would also round up and cart off every barbarian slave. | But, protested the hysterical envoys, what will that leave us? | Alaric paused. “Your lives.” | In that pause, Roman security died and a new world was conceived. (30-31)

II: What Was Lost: The Complexities of the Classical Tradition

So, they kept their lives, most of them. but sooner or later they or their progeny lost almost everything else: titles, property, way of life, learning — especially learning. A world in Chaos is not a world in which books are copied and libraries maintained. It is not a world where learned men have the leisure to become more learned. It is no a world for which grammaticus schedules regular classes of young scholars and knowledge is dutifully transmitted year by placid year. | Between the Sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 and the death of the last western emperor in 476, the Imperium became increasingly unstable. (35)

The straight Roman road, solidly paved, unwilling to compromise with the vagaries of local landscape, and for centuries the symbol of safe and unmolested travel, now presented the likelihood of unwelcome adventure. (35)

In the slavery business, no tribe was fiercer or more feared than the Irish. (37)

What was lost when the Roman Empire fell? (38)

What died, when no one any longer had the leisure to pass on the essentials of the classical tradition, when the barbarians burned the libraries and the books turned to dust, when the stones remaining were reassembled into rural outhouses? | We find the answer in the life of Augustine of Hippo, almost the last great classical man — and very nearly the first medieval man. (38-39)

Augustine’s is a sensibility that has since become so common that we no longer experience the Confessions as the earthquake they were felt to be by readers of late antiquity. For Augustine is the first human being to say “I” — and to mean what we mean today. His Confessions are, therefore, the first genuine autobiography in human history. (39)

For all their ponderousness, the great emperor’s thoughts are never more personal than a Chinese fortune cookie. (40)

If we page quickly through world literature from its beginnings to the advent of Augustine, we realize that with Augustine human consciousness takes a quantum leap forward — and becomes self-consciousness. (41)

To the Greeks, the Romans were cocky and underbred. To the Romans, the Greeks were too clever by half — and more than a little unsavory. (43-44)

The ancients held the practical use of words in much higher regard than we do, probably because they were much closer to the oral customs of prehistoric village life … in which the fate of an entire race man hang on one man’s words. | But we are made uncomfortable and bored by Cicero’s elaborately coaching us in all the tricks of his trade — the many techniques for convincing others to act the way we want them to. For Cicero, “to speak from the heart” would be the rashest foolishness; one must always speak from calculation… (47)

The techniques of the successful politician, the methods of modern advertising — the whole panoply of persuasion is to be found in Cicero. (47)

For in addition to learning how to write a poem for one’s own satisfaction, in addition to learning how to turn a phrase in a letter so as to please a friend, there was a larger literary task to be played out in the larger world — the polis — to which all educated men were bound to make their contribution, to bring their positive influence to bear. (48)

…the way of philosophy. Beyond the literary arts lies, however dimly perceived, the Ascent to Truth, to Wisdom. In Augustine’s day, this ascent was illumined by the works of one great teacher: Plato, the Greek philosopher who had been Socrates’s pupil and who was born in the time and place that all educated en looked to as the Golden Age — Athens in the fifth century B.C. (48)

If the liberal arts were for the few, philosophy was for the fewer. (48)

But Augustine wanted Truth, not cheap success. (49)

Manicheism. …in Mani’s system, Good was passive. …a made-to-order religion for a smart young provincial who needed to explore every dark corner of the boiling city and experience every dark pleasure it had to offer — and at the same time think himself above the herd. …Like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormonism, it was full of assertions, but could yield no intellectual system to nourish a great intellect. (49)

Socrates, at least in Plato’s accounts of him, did not so much build a positive philosophy as pose questions, questions that show up the utter foolishness of his interlocutors’ assumptions. (50)

Plato begins with his own experience of a spark of divinity in all creatures of the natural world, a spark he experiences particularly in himself and other human beings — in other words, the daimon of Socrates. But the spark is experienced within a world of corruption and death, the world of the flesh. (51)

Has the  great Plato mistakenly equated knowledge with virtue? (56)

…for Augustine ideas do not float free, abstracted from their human context. …With the discipline of his education, he is transformed into that unusual specimen: neither denatured academic nor effete upper-class connoisseur, but a man of feeling who takes ideas seriously. (57)

We have been using Augustine as a lens for viewing the classical world. What is about to be lost in the century of the barbarian invasions is literature — the content of classical civilization … | We did lose, at any rate, the spirit of classical civilization. (58)

The struggle for existence and the struggle with fear now gain the ascendancy once more, and what remains of classical civilization will be henceforth found not in life but between the covers of books. | What is really lost when a civilization wearies and grows small is confidence, a confidence built on the order and balance that leisure makes possible. (59)

We have encountered Roman law already — as a dead letter, promulgated by the emperor and circumvented, first by the powerful, then increasingly by anyone who could get away with it. (60)

Call them the people of the Dark Ages if you will, but do not underestimate the desire of these early medieval men and women for the rule of law. There was, moreover, one office that survived intact from the classical to the medieval polis: the office of Catholic bishop. (61)

It wold become the task of the bishop — often the only man who still had books of any kind and, save for his scribes, the only man who could read and write — to “civilize” the ruler, to introduce to him diplomatically some  elementary principles of justice and good government. Thus did the power of the bishop, sometimes himself the only “prince” in sight, continue to wax. (62)

We should not forget that the ancient world, both western and eastern, often found sexual passion — especially in women — an object of mockery and even contempt. (66)

III: A Shifting World of Darkness: Unholy Ireland

In the third century B.C., Celts invaded the Greek world, advancing as far south as Delphi and settling in present-day Turkey, where, as the Galatians (note the similarity of consonantal sounds in “Celt,” “Gaul,” and “Galatian”), they were recipients of one of Paul’s letters. (79)

What hints we have suggest that Ireland was, during this entire period, a land outside of time — that, in fact, it changed little from the time of Amhairghin to the time of Augustine. This was an illiterate, aristocratic, seminomadic, Iron Age warrior culture, its wealth based on animal husbandry and slavery. (81)

What normally changes them is outside influence, rather than inner dynamics; and Ireland, splendidly isolated in the Atlantic and largely beyond the traffic of civilization, suffered few intrusive influences. (82)

Urged on by the infernal skirl of pipers, they presented to the unaccustomed and throbbing Roman sensorium a multimedia event featuring all the terrors of hell itself. (83)

How these people would have loved the Batmobile! (86)

The Greek drama of the fifth century B.C. grew out of the seasonal liturgies of an agricultural people and magnified the conflicts of their social life — thus the necessity of significant female characters. (88)

The three adjectives — “genrous, handsome, brave” — used to describe the murdered man are a summation of the Iron Age moral code, a code that shines out clearly in all early literature and that mysteriously survived in Ireland long after its oblivion in more sophisticated civilizations — and that endures to some extent even to this day. (94)

…to be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart. | Such an outlook and such a temperament make for wonderful songs an thrilling stories, but not for personal peace or social harmony. …To such a view — the view of the servant — we now turn. to Patricius, the kidnapped boy shepherding sheep on a bleak Antrim hillside. (97)

IV: Good News from Far Off: The First Missionary

Deprived of intercourse with other humans, Patricius must have taken a long time to master the language and customs of his exile, so that the approach of strangers over the hills may have held special terror. | We know that he did have two constant companions, hunger and nakedness… (101-102)

Patricius endured six years of this woeful isolation, and by the end of it he had grown from a careless boy to something he would surely never otherwise have become — a holy man, indeed a visionary for whom there was no longer any rigid separation between this world and the next. (102)

Try though he might, he cannot put the Irish out of his mind. The visions increase, and Christ begins to speak within him:

He who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks within you.

Patricius, the escaped slave, is about to be drafted once more — as Saint Patrick, apostle to the Irish nation. (105-106)

What is remarkable is not that Patrick should have felt an overwhelming sense of mission but that in the four centuries between Paul and Patrick there are no missionaries. (107)

Patrick was really a first — the first missionary to barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law. The step he took was in its way as bold as Columbus’s, and a thousand times more humane. he himself was aware of its radical nature. “The Gospel,” he reminded his accusers late in his life, “has been preached to the point beyond which there is no one” — nothing but the ocean. Nor was he blind to his dangers, for even in his last years “every day I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved — whatever may come my way. But I am not afraid of any of these things, because o the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.” (108)

With the Irish — even with the kings — he succeeded beyond measure. Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased. (110)

However blind his British contemporaries may have been to it, the greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century. (114)

Patrick’s emotional grasp of Christian truth may have been greater than Augustine’s. (115)

V: A Solid World of Light: Holy Ireland

For as the Roman lands went from peace to chaos, the land of Ireland was rushing even more rapidly from chaos to peace. | How did Patrick do it? We have noted already his earthiness and warmth. but these are qualities that make for a lowering of hostility and suspicion; of themselves they do not gain converts among the strong-willed. We can also be sure that the Irish found Patrick admirable according to their own highest standards: his courage — his refusal to be afraid of them — would have impressed them immediately; and, as his mission lengthened into years an came to be seen clearly as a lifetime commitment, his steadfast loyalty and supernatural generosity must have moved them deeply. For he had transmuted their pagan virtues of loyalty, courage, and generosity into the Christian equivalents of faith, hope, and charity. (124)

Throughout the Roman world, Christianity had accompanied Romanization. (124)

Once the emperor had conferred on Christianity its position of privilege, most Romans had little difficulty in reading this sign of the times for what it was and grasping that their own best interest lay in church membership. Though it would be cynical and ahistorical to conclude that conversions to Christianity in late antiquity were made only for the sake of political advancement or social convenience, it would be naive to imagine that Christianity swept the empire only because of its evident spiritual superiority. Certainly, the Christians of the first three centuries, whose adherence to Christianity could easily prove their death warrant, were devout and extraordinary. But from the time of Constantine, the vast majority of Christian converts were fairly superficial people. (125)

It would be understatement to assert that the Irish gods were not the friendliest of figures. (126)

Patrick held out to these warrior children, in his own person, a living alternative. It is possible to be brave — to expect “every day . . . to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved — whatever may come my way” — and yet be a man of peace and at peace, a man without sword or desire to harm, a man in whom the sharp fear of death has been smoothed away. … Patrick slept soundly and soberly. (128)

One needs a sense of identity before one can complain of its absence. (129)

The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. (131)

This magical world, though full of adventure and surprise, is no longer full of dread. Rather, Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out. We have only to be quiet and listen, as Patrick learned to do during the silence of his “novitiate” as a shepherd on the slopes of Sliabh Mis. | This sense of the world as holy, as the Book of God — as a healing mystery, fraught with divine messages — could never have risen out of Greco-Roman civilization, threaded with the profound pessimism of the ancients and their Platonic suspicion of the body as unholy and the world as devoid of meaning. (133)

Where in Patrick’s own story, is there any negative treatment of the temptations of the flesh? … Patrick is as silent about sex as are the Gospels. | It may simply be that Patrick, in his zeal to baptize — to wash clean — Irish imagination, was not as sex-obsessed as his continental brethren and felt little need to stress these matters. (134)

Trial “marriages” of one year, multiple partners, and homosexual relations among warriors on campaign were all more or less the order of the day. Despite Patrick’s great success in changing the warrior mores of the Irish tribes, their sexual mores altered little. (135)

Patrick’s adventures in the Irish dreamworld must have reached their crucial moment when he faced the phenomenon of human sacrifice. (135)

…we delude ourselves about the complex history of religious feeling if we think that all sacrifice — human included — can be reduced to this base motive. …no human society could hold together for long if it understood sacrifice only along the lines of the savage tribe in King Kong, offering terrified beauties to the Beast. (137)

Patrick declared that such sacrifices were no longer needed. Christ had died once for all. (140)

Yes, the Irish would have said, here is a story that answers our deepest needs — and answers them in a way so good that we could never even have dared dream of it. We can put away our knives and abandon our alters. These are no longer required. the God of the Three Faces has given us his own Son, and we are washed clean in the blood of this lamb. God does not hate us; he loves us. Greater love than this no man has than that he should lay down his life for his friends. That is what God’s Word, made flesh, did for us. From now on, we are all sacrifices — but without the shedding of blood. It is our lives, not our deaths, that this God wants. (141-142)

For God’s pleasure and man’s are reunited, and earth is shot through with flashes of heaven, and the Chalice has become the druidic Christian smith’s thanksgiving, his deo gratias. | And that is how the Irish became Christians. (144)

VI: What Was Found: How the Irish Saved Civilization

For only this former slave had the right instincts to impart to the Irish a New Story, one that made new sense of all their old stories and brought them a peace they had never known before. | Patrick’s gift to the Irish was his Christianity — the first de-Romanized Christianity in human history, a Christianity without the sociopolitical baggage of the Greco-Roman world, a Christianity that completely inculturated itself into the Irish scene. Through the Edict of Milan, which had legalized the new religion in 313 and made it the new emperor’s pet, Christianity had been received into Rome, not Rome into Christianity! Roman culture was little altered by the exchange, and it is arguable that Christianity lost much of its distinctiveness. But in the Patrician exchange, Ireland, lacking the power and implacable traditions of Rome, had been received into Christianity, which transformed Ireland into Something New, something never seen before — a Christian culture, where slavery and human sacrifice became unthinkable, and warfare, though impossible for humans to eradicate, diminished markedly. (148)

Patrick, the incomplete Roman, nevertheless understood that, though Christianity was not inextricably wedded to Roman custom, it could not survive without Roman literacy. (150)

And so the first Irish Christians also became the first Irish literates. | Ireland is unique in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed. (141)

The Irish of the late fifth and early sixth centuries soon found a solution, which they called the Green Martyrdom, opposing it to the conventional Red Martyrdom by blood. The Green Martyrs were those who, leaving behind the comforts and pleasures of ordinary human society, retreated to the woods, or to a mountaintop, or to a lonely island — to one of the green no-man’s-lands outside tribal jurisdictions — there to study the scriptures and commune with God. (151)

Irish generosity extended not only to a variety of people but to a variety of ideas. (158)

To John t. NcNeill, that most balanced of all church historians, it was precisely “the breadth and richness of Irish monastic learning, derived from the classical … authors” that was about to give Ireland its “unique role in the history of Western culture.” (159)

Whereas elsewhere in Europe, no educated man would be caught dead speaking a vernacular, the Irish thought that all language was a game — and too much fun to be deprived of any part of it. They were still too childlike and playful to find any value in snobbery. (160)

Here and there in the surviving manuscripts — at the tail end of a convoluted Latin translation of a Pauline letter, in the margins of an impenetrable Greek commentary on scripture — we find the bored scribblings of the Irish scribes,… (160)

They did not see themselves as drones. …In this dazzling new culture, a book was not an isolated document on a dusty shelf; book truly spoke to book, and writer to scribe, and scribe to reader, from one generation to the next. These books were, as we would say in today’s jargon, open interfacing, and intertextual — glorious literary smorgasbords in which the scribe often tried to include a bit of everything, from every era, language, and style known to him. (163)

Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act. In a land where literacy had previously been unknown, in a world where the old literate civilizations were sinking fast beneath successive waves of barbarism, the white Gospel page, shining in all the little oratories of Ireland, acted as a pledge: the lonely darkness had been turned into light, and the lonely virtue of courage, sustained through all the centuries, had been transformed into hope. (163-164)

Nothing brought out Irish playfulness more than the copying of the books themselves, a task no reader of the ancient world could entirely neglect. (164)

The result of such why-is-the-sky-blue questions was a new kind of book, the Irish codex; and one after another, Ireland began to produce the most spectacular, magical books the world had ever seen. (165)

…dried sheepskin… it is interesting to consider that the shape of the modern book, taller than wide, was determined by the dimensions of a sheepskin, which could most economically be cut into double pages that yield our modern book shape when folded. (168)

Astonishingly decorated Irish manuscripts of the early medieval period are today the great jewels of libraries in England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and even Russia. How did they get there? The answer lies with the greatest Irish figure after Patrick, Columcille, prince of Clan Conaill, born in the royal enclosure of Gartan, on December 7, 521, less than ninety years after Patrick’s arrival as bishop. (169)

The Green Martyrdom had been a failure, both because of the apparently unquenchable Irish tendency to sociability and, perhaps even more important, because of the natural fertility of Ireland itself, which possessed nothing resembling an Egyptian desert and almost no place that did not, with a little foresight, abound in “leeks from the garden, poultry, game, salmon and trout and bees.” (171)

Brigid of Kildare, a convert of Patrick’s (and, perhaps, the noblewoman he describes as “pulcherrima“), ruled as high abbess of an immense double monastery — that is, a foundation that admitted both men and women, another irregularity that would have deeply offended Roman Catholic sensibility… (172-173)

Brigid’s monastery was famous for its hospitality. This is the table grace associated with her name:

I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiven love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God, embrace.

However unorthodox Brigid’s rule by Roman standards, it is easy to see from the tales about her how Christian faith, which was strong enough to deprive a tyrant of his sword, unman a king, and empower the powerless, impressed this warrior society. It would be reckless overstatement to claim that women possessed equality in Irish society; but their larger presence here ensured a greater stress on physical amenities …and on the value of intimacy… This larger female presence also contributed to the teeming variety of Irish religious life — a variety that would have distressed the Romans, had they known of it. (175)

Respect for differences was written into the rule books of the Irish monasteries. “Difference is the condition of everyone,” cautions the Rule of Saint Carthage, “and different the nature of each place.” Irish abbots suggested; they did not enforce. And though the abbacy often passed from father to son, another irregularity that would have alarmed the Romans, the Irish balanced their aristocratic preoccupation with lineage by a refreshingly democratic principle: “A man is better than his descent,” insists a law of this period, thus asserting the primacy of individual spirit over common blood. Perhaps nothing would have distressed the Romans as much as the way these monks shrugged off he great Roman virtue of Order. In an instruction to his brothers, Columbanus, whom we shall soon meet, affirmed the great Gospel virtue over all else: “Amor non tenet ordinem” (“Love has nothing to do with order”). | The Irish also developed a form of confession that was exclusively private and that had no equivalent on the continent. In the ancient church, confession of one’s sins — and the subsequent penance (such as appearing for years by the church door in sackcloth and ashes) — had always been public. (176)

The Irish innovation was to make all confession a completely private affair between penitent and priest — and to make it as repeatable as necessary. …personal conscience took precedence over public opinion or church authority. (177)

It is a shame that private confession is one of the few Irish innovations that passed into the universal church. How different might Catholicism be today if it had taken over the easy Irish sympathy between churchmen and laymen and the easy Irish attitudes toward diversity, authority, the role of women, and the relative unimportance of sexual mores. (178)

Not only are the Roman provinces gone, the whole subtle substructure of Roman political organization and Roman communication has vanished. In its place have grown the sturdy little principalities of the Middle Ages, Gothic illiterates ruling over Gothic illiterates, pagan or occasionally Arian — that is, following a debased, simpleminded form of Christianity in which Jesus was given a status similar to that of Mohammed in Islam. (180)

To the Irish, the pope, the bishop of Rome was was successor to Saint Peter, was a kind of high king of the church, but like the high king a distant figure whose wishes were little known and less considered. Rome was surely the ultimate pilgrim’s destination — especially because there were books there that could be brought back and copied! But if your motive was holiness:

To go to Rome
Is little profit, endless pain;
The Master that you seek in Rome,
You find at home, or seek in vain. (181)

The first three public libraries had been established at Rome under the reign of Augustus, and by the time of Constantine there were twenty-eight. By the end of the fourth century, if we are to believe one writer, Ammianus Marcellinus, who may be indulging in hyperbole, “Bibliotecis sepulcrorum ritu in perpetuum clausis” (“The libraries, like tombs, were closed forever”). (182)

Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe’s publisher. …While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past way of scribal Ireland. | Columcille provided that step. (183)

He had the gift of second sight, combined with a power to control other men by the force of his own personality. (187)

More than half of all our biblical commentaries between 650 and 850 were written by Irishmen. (195)

Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe. | And that is how the Irish saved civilization. (196)

VII: The End of the World: Is There Any Hope?

The Greek approach to thought was now almost completely lost. (203)

The intellectual disciplines of distinction, definition, and dialectic that had once been the glory of men like Augustine were unobtainable by readers of the Dark Ages, whose apprehension of the world was simple and immediate, framed by myth and magic. A man no longer subordinated one thought to another with mathematical precision; instead, he apprehended similarities and balances, types and paradigms, parallels and symbols. It was a world not of thoughts, but of images. (204)

By the mid-seventh century, the visible image has assumed far greater reality than the invisible thought. (204-205)

John Scotus, who was probably a layman, is the first philosopher of the Middle Ages, the first truly Christian philosopher since the death of Augustine in 430, the first European philosopher since the execution of Bothius in 524, the first man in three hundred years who was able to think. (208)

In John Scotus’s system Nature is a virtual synonym for Reality — all of reality, our natural world as well as the reality of God. In Scotus there is no useful distinction between natural and supernatural. Though the system is both subtle and elaborate, one sees immediately his debt to Patrick’s simple worldview. Reality is a continuum, and all God’s creatures are theophanies of God himself, for God speaks in them and through them. (209)

In the eighteenth century, the spirit-crushing Penal laws denied Catholics the rights of citizens. But it took the famines of the nineteenth century — the Great Hunger — to finish the Irish off. Nearly one million Irish people died of hunger and its consequences between 1845 and 1841… (213)

That such a fragile land should have become incapable of nourishing its beloved children is indication of the economic rape it had suffered for so many centuries. (213)

If the Vikings lost Ireland its leadership role, the Penal Laws very nearly destroyed its identity. (214)

Even at their lowest point, the Irish kept the candle of hope burning. (215)

I don’t know what it does to you, dear Reader, but the unlikely survival of an Irish codex in the gnarled hands of a Kerry farmer sends shivers up my spine. (216)

But that road system became impassable rubble, as the empire was overwhelmed by population explosions beyond its borders. So will ours. Rome’s demise instructs us in what inevitably happens when impoverished and rapidly expanding populations, whose ways and values are only dimly understood, press up against a rich and ordered society. …If the world’s population, which has doubled in our lifetime, doubles again by the middle of the next century, how could anyone hope to escape the catastrophic consequences — the wrath to come? But we turn our backs on such unpleasantness and contemplate the happier prospects of our technological dreams. | What will be lost, and what saved, of our civilization probably lies beyond our powers to decide. No human group has ever figured out how to design its future. That future may be germinating today not in a boardroom in London or an office in Washington or a bank in Tokyo, but in some antic outpost or other — a kindly British orphanage in the grim foothills of Peru, a house for the dying in a back street of Calcutta run by a fiercely single-minded Albanian nun, an easygoing French medical team at the starving edge of the Sahel, a mission to Somalia by Irish social workers who remember their own Great Hunger, a nursery program to assist convict-mothers at a New York prison — in some unheralded corner where a great-hearted human being is committed to loving outcasts in an extraordinary way. (217)

Perhaps history is always divided into Romans and Catholics–or, better, catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because they instinctively believe that there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their name implies, are universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human being is an equal child of God, an that God will provide. The twenty-first century, prophesied Malraux, will be spiritual or it will not be. If our civilization is to be saved — forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass “in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind” — if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints. (217-218)

— VIA —

Cahill’s ability to distill history down into accessible bites makes reading his work a delight and pleasure. I’m struck again by the very earthy reasons life takes its twists and turns; agriculture, geography, food, disease, pride, complacency, etc. Patrick’s Christianity, or perhaps more to the point, the Irish interpretation of Christian values, and it’s love and penchant for literature and education are illustrated as the central elements, common among all successful civilizations.

On page 137, the discussion of Irish human sacrifice, a practice common throughout human history, had me wonder if we actually still perform human sacrifice today. As we send our men and women off to war, to fight our battles, to ward off evil, to protect and guard the sovereign state, and to appease the powers of humanity, there are resonances of reasoning that seem to echo through the ages.

The final paragraph in the book is brilliant, thus highlighted in heading bold.

Mars’ Hill review.

About VIA


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  4. Denny Smith

    A great, late-night adventure reading this roller-coaster summary & commentary on my twinkly eyed, piety-chested progenitors, by whom I mean my ancestors in heart, head and hand. Catholic missionaries, Irish toiling folk and Irish Catholic altar boy who celebrated dear St. Pat’s feastday with a mass sung in Latin. I am, quite genuinely, gratia plena ad aeternam, that I was born on the receiving end of the good Irish Brothrs’ rescue of Tacitus, Epicurus and Thucydides.

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