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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

Thomas Cahill
Published by Bantam-Doubleday-Dell in 1995
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2005


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After reading this fine book, I thought the title might be expanded to this: "How Civilization Nearly Killed off All the Irish and How the Irish Saved Civilization Anyway." This book starts off with a great quote from Reinhold Niebuhr on the page before the Table of Contents:

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.

This is an amazing quote because it reminds us of a deep truth about human nature which is overlooked by the majority of people in the world, up until now. They act as if they believe that everything that is true or beautiful or good makes the Best Seller List immediately or the Talking Head Shows on TV or the newspapers, when in truth the opposite is the norm. Niebuhr's statement certainly applies to the work of the Irish which comes down to us today filled with faith, love, and hope.

What led me to read this book was twofold. One: I had already read and enjoyed Thomas Cahill's book on the Jews, and Two: I came across this passage while reading Rudolf Steiner (1): "the forces which rise up out of the earth and take hold of the human double, are of the very best kind in the island of Ireland." Steiner went on to say that "Ireland is that portion of the earth that has no share in Lucifer, that portion to which Lucifer has no connection." We might expect to find a native peace-loving folk in that land and that is exactly what Cahill reveals to us. The evils of Ireland were beset upon it by foreigners who came to Ireland to conquer it, to exploit it, to rule it with neglect. Civilization came to Ireland the same way. The Vikings from Norway founded the first towns of any note in Ireland. Before them, each person lived in a family independently of other families and not grouped together.

Thus it is important that we understand that the native characteristic of the Irish was a peace-loving folk, and that everything else came as a reaction to the invasions by foreigners into their land.

[page 3] The word Irish is seldom coupled with the word civilization. When we think of peoples as civilized or civilizing, the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Italians and the French, the Chinese and the Jews may all come to mind. The Irish are wild, feckless, and charming, or morose, repressed, and corrupt, but not especially civilized. If we strain to think of "Irish civilization," no image appears, no Fertile Crescent or Indus Valley, no brooding bust of Beethoven. The simplest Greek auto mechanic will name his establishment "Parthenon," thus linking himself to an imagined ancestral culture. A semi-literate restaurateur of Sicilian origin will give pride of place to his plaster copy of Michelangelo's David, and so assert his presumed Renaissance ties. But an Irish businessman is far more likely to name his concern "The Breffni Bar" or "Kelly's Movers," announcing a merely local or personal connection, unburdened by the resonances of history or civilization.

But as the barbarians were burning Rome along with its books, the Irish monks were burning the midnight oil copying the great works of Western literature. To these hard-working monks we owe much of our knowledge of ancient literature.

[page 3, 4] For, 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.

Cahill makes an important observation about transitions in history — these are often neglected or overlooked for the very reason that historians are often experts in only one period of history. He cites Kenneth Clark as an exceptional historian who gives the Irish credit for the transition from the classical to the medieval period of history.

[page 5] Many historians fail to mention it entirely, and few advert to the breathtaking drama of this cultural cliffhanger. This is probably because it is easier to describe stasis (classical, then medieval) than movement (classical to medieval). It is also true that historians are generally expert in one period or the other, so that analysis of the transition falls outside their — and everyone's? — competence. At all events, I know of no single book now in print that is devoted to the subject of the transition, nor even one in which this subject plays a substantial part.

Cahill takes us through the Fall of Rome when Alaric is asked by the Roman envoys after being given his terms, "But, what will that leave us?" Alaric paused. "Your lives." In that pause, Roman security died and a new world was conceived. (Page 31) We might say that is the "Pause that Refreshed the World" — to paraphrase a Coca-Cola slogan. Out of the destruction of Rome came many exciting possibilities — a new world.

He next takes us to Augustine of Hippo, whom he calls "almost the last great classical man — very nearly the first medieval man." (Page 39) Cahill notes how Augustine used the word "I" — a name we can only use in reference to our individual self not anyone else — abundantly, and notes how rare such usage was before Augustine. Steiner has pointed to many of the great prophets of biblical times as being aware of their singular "I" or "I am" nature, and it was this rare nature which attracted people to them, people whose nascent "I am" was beginning to be felt, but who knew not what it was. Cahill gives the evolution of humankind its due when he calls attention to the appearance of the word "I" in literature over the ages.

[page 40] Open any collection of Great Thoughts or Great Sayings — especially one that, like Bartlett's, goes in chronological order — and let your eye pick out the I's. In the oldest literature their paucity and lack of force will begin to impress you. Of course, characters in Homer refer to themselves occasionally as "I." Socrates even speaks of his daimon, his inner spirit. But personal revelation, such as we are utterly accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. Even lyric poems tend to be objective by our standards, and the exceptions stand out: a fragment ("The moon has set. . ."), attributed to Sappho, and the Psalms, attributed to King David.

He compares the writings of Augustine — "the Man Who Cried 'I'" he calls him — to those of Marcus Aurelius of which he says, "For all their ponderousness, the great emperor's thoughts are never more personal than a Chinese fortune cookie." (Page 40) To Cahill, Augustine is "the father not only of autobiography but of the modern novel. He is also a distinguished forebear of the modern science of psychology." (Page 41)

Augustine found a challenge for a time in Manicheism, but soon outpaced its limitations. "Like Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormonism, it was full of assertions, but could yield no intellectual system to nourish a great intellect." He found more challenges in Platonism, but it was only in Christianity that he found the resonant chord which would fill his life and thoughts. It happened when one of Paul's letters falls open at random and he reads this sentence, "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." His mother, Monica, prayed and prayed for her son during his years of wantonness in Rome, until "he brought himself to the death of the flesh through baptism — and to the Christian God." Two saints arose from these acts: St. Monica and St. Augustine. It is fitting indeed that America have a city named after these two saints, mother and son, on each coast: Santa Monica on the Pacific or peaceful coast, and St. Augustine on the turbulent Atlantic coast.

This next passage takes me back to several references I had earlier encountered to a cat named Pangur Ban. Thanks to Cahill I now know that this poem originated as the marginalia of a ninth-century Irish scribe. The poem contained below expands and complements the one in Anam Cara, page 55.

[page 162, 163] Perhaps the clearest picture we possess of what it was like to be a scribal scholar is contained in a four-stanza Irish poem slipped into a ninth-century manuscript, which otherwise contains such learned material as a Latin commentary on Virgil and a list of Greek paradigms:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye,
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban my cat and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Another amazing insight was to discover from Cahill that when Del and I were married on July 16, 1978 under a canopy of live oak trees, we were in effect being married under the sacred tree of the Druids in a Kildare, which means "Church of the Oak." (Page 173).

We take for granted now that what a priest hears in a confessional is sacred and he is bound not to reveal it to anyone, even embodying this principle into the strictures of civil law. What Cahill reveals is that this idea of a private confession of one's sins was an innovation of the Irish people. Naturally, one to whom one would confess their intimate indiscretions was chosen carefully, and one did not always choose some religious official, but rather a soul-friend or anam cara.

[page 177] Though one's confession was made to a human being, he or she was chosen by the penitent for qualities of true priestliness — holiness, wisdom, generosity, loyalty, and courage. No one could ever pry knowledge gained in confession from such a priest, who knew that every confession was sealed forever by God himself. To break that seal was to imperil one's salvation: it was practically the only sin the Irish considered unforgivable. So one did not necessarily choose one's "priest" from among ordained professionals: the act of confession was too personal and too important for such a limitation. One looked for an anmchara, a soul-friend, someone to be trusted over a whole lifetime. Thus, the oft-found saying "Anyone without a soul-friend is like a body without a head," which dates from pagan times. The druids, not the monks, had been the first soul-friends.

Columbanus was an itinerant monk who wandered the countryside of Ireland to bring to all those he met the message of the Good News of Christ. He had little respect for the high and mighty bishops who never ventured from the safety of their polished walls, so when the bishops summoned him to appear before a synod, he sent them a scathing letter in reply — "a letter calculated to send the bishops right up their well-plastered walls:"

[page 188] To the holy lords and fathers — or, better, brothers — in Christ, the bishops, priests, and remaining orders of holy church, I, Columba the sinner, send greeting in Christ:
       I give thanks to my God that for my sake so many holy men have gathered together to treat of the truth of faith and good works, and, as befits such, to judge of the matters under dispute with a just judgment, through senses sharpened to the discernment of good and evil. Would that you did so more often!

And there's more, a lot more. He unabashedly exhorts them to mind their own business with the same acuity and industry they are attempting to mind his business! One cannot help but think of current church sexual abuses as one reads these words from 14 centuries ago.

[page 188] He recommends his own way of life to their reverences ("if we all choose to be humble and poor for Christ's sake") and urges them, after "the Gospel saying," to become as little children: "For a child is humble, does not harbor the remembrance of injury, does not lust after a woman when he looks on her, does not keep one thing on his lips and another in his heart." It almost sounds as if the saint knows each bishop's secret sin — and means to push it in his face.

Later in an overly-familiar letter to Pope Gregory who succeeded Pope Leo the Great, he quotes the scripture that "a living dog is better than a dead lion." He received, Cahill tells us "only cold pontifical silence."

The next Irishman this book covers in detail is John Scotus Eriugena and I am indebted to Cahill for straightening me out on the various names by which he is called: Eriugena, John Scotus, Johann Scotus Eriugena, Scotus Erigena and John Scotus Eriugena with Eriugena spelled in various ways including Erigena and Origena (2). Before the Middle Ages, Scotus referred to Ireland, Minor Scotia to what is now Scotland. Thus the need for the adjectival surname of Erigena. I have encountered this amazing Christian philosopher in several of Rudolf Steiner's books, The Riddles of Philosophy, The Origins of Natural Science, and The Redemption of Thinking, and likely several other of Steiner's lecture series dealing with philosophy. One only has to read this passage to grasp the deeply spiritual nature of Scotus Erigena.

[page 209] To read his De Divisione Naturae (The Division oj Nature) after immersion in the folk literature we have been reading is a shocking experience: one is back in the world of Plato. Here is a mind that could grasp the most rarefied distinctions of the Greek philosophical tradition and, far more important, could elaborate a new system of thought, one that is balanced and internally consistent. It has more than a soupçon of Celticity in it, however, for John Scotus's favorite word is Nature, a word beloved of the Irish but one that never failed to raise the hackles of both Platonists and Roman Christians. 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.

Those who have worked their way through Rudolf Steiner's spiritual science will not see this as pantheism, but as a direct vision of the world as a fusion of spiritual and material realities. Like Steiner, Scotus Erigena “boldly opposed reason to authority: ‘Every authority that is not confirmed by true reason seems to be weak, whereas true reason does not need to be supported by any authority.’” (Page 209) Obviously this threatened the church bishops sitting on their marble thrones and a pope ordered all copies of Erigena's book on Nature burnt. Cahill adds acidly:

[page 210] Some, obviously, escaped the bonfire.
       But in the age of John Scotus Eriugena, Christian church men did not burn books. Only barbarians did that.

Ireland almost didn't escape civilization. It was civilization which burnt Erigena's books, it was Vikings who destroyed magical Lindisfarne, massacred lay people on Columcille's Iona, and even attacked the remote Skellig Michael, followed by Bangor, Moville, Clonfert, Clonmacnois, even burnt to the ground both Brigid's Kildare and St. Patrick's Armagh. Small consolation though it be for peace-loving people who preferred to live in separate families, the Vikings established the first towns of Ireland such as Limerick, Cork, Wexford, Waterford, and Dublin! But this was only the beginning of successive waves of civilization which were to devastate Ireland and its people, each in their turn.

[page 213] Ireland's next invasion — by Normans in the twelfth century — changed little, for the Irish Normans adopted Irish customs far more eagerly than the English Normans married with indigenous Saxon culture. The Normans became, in the famous phrase, "Hibernis Hiberniores," "more Irish than the Irish themselves." Subsequent invaders were not so appreciative. In the sixteenth century, the colonizing Elizabethans cut down the Irish forests (to get at the impenitent dispossessed, who harried them guerrilla-style) and contemplated genocide, after the gentle recommendation of the poet Spenser. In the seventeenth century, the Calvinist Cromwellian came close to implementing this poetic recommendation. 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 1851, while her majesty's government sat on its hands, and another million and a half emigrated during the same period, many of these dying during the difficult passage to North America or Australia. By 1914 an additional four million had emigrated, reducing Ireland's population of 1845 by a third — to less than four and a half million. That such a fertile land should have become incapable of nourishing its beloved children is indication of the economic rape it had suffered for so many centuries. For by this time, Ireland had long been England's first colony, a Third World country at the edge of Europe. It would take the Irish cultural and political movements of the twentieth century to give back to this devastated population a semblance of its self-respect.

Cahill says maybe the world is divided into the Romans and the catholics. You know the drill: those who want to rule others by force and those who wish to be allowed to live in peace in their families.

[page 217, 218] 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, and that God will provide.

One can discern that same dichotomy of Romans versus catholics in the major political parties of the twenty-first century if one cares to listen to their rantings and ravings. The big question is whether this nascent century will be spiritual or not or whether our seemingly stalwart bastions of civilization will pass away like smoke in the wind. Cahill ends his book with these words, "if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints," and I agree. And if we are to be saved by saints, no doubt many of them will trace their lineage to Ireland, "The Land of Saints."


Other Books by Thomas Cahill Reviewed:       The Gifts of the Jews

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. From Page 168 of this book, Secret Brotherhoods and the Mystery of the Human Double by Rudolf Steiner.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Footnote 2. Johannes Scotus, or John the Irishman; but since in this period many Scoti were born in Irish settlements outside Ireland, his name is qualified by Eriugena, or Irish-born. He is not to be confused with Duns Scotus, a Scottish theologian of a later period.

Return to text directly before Footnote 2.



Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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