Since its publication in 1995, Thomas Cahill's "How The Irish Saved Civilization" has become the page-turning equivalent of a green tie or "I Brake For Leprechauns" bumper sticker: An easy impulse buy for St. Patrick's Day. I think Cahill mostly had this in mind when he gave the book its magnificently over-the-top title.
Cahill's thesis for his title is this: During the last days of the Western Roman Empire and the centuries immediately following, while barbarians laid waste to troves of accumulated wisdom on the European mainland, a doughty group of Irish monks set about transcribing and sometimes re-contextualizing treasured ancient texts. This learning would in time be brought back and absorbed by generations across the European continent to whom it would otherwise have been lost.
"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," he writes.
Except as it turns out he doesn't really mean this. Later he backtracks about the Jewish and Greek part of his argument. He's more definite about Latin learning, though not precise at all about what exactly was saved even there. Precision is not a strong point with this book, as many other reviewers point out here. Since the book does have a way of engaging you enough to care about these matters if you weren't of a mind to before, one might argue that Cahill writes not as a historian but polemicist, and a darn good one given the tempers he ignites.
For me, the annoying weakness of "How The Irish" rests more on two points. One is how shabbily the book deals with its title subject on its own admittedly subjective grounds. At its core, "How The Irish" is a loosely-sketched essay on the title subject, preceded by 150 pages of punditry on the debased state of the late Roman empire; an Irish fable about a stolen bull Cahill breezily treats as fact; and the fuzzy history of St. Patrick, to whom Cahill applies much warmth but little light. Only the last 50 pages cover the question of how the Irish saved civilization, and since copying books isn't scintillating reading matter, their overall impact is anticlimactic.
The second, much worse problem for me is how the book focuses our attention not on the Irish or St. Patrick but the busy intellect of Thomas Cahill. He wanders from the thesis in many places, understandable since he's pushing some thin factual points, to force himself and his ideas forward at every turn. This gets annoying. Does Cahill really need to give us his opinions on Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Will Durant, Act Up, Norman Vincent Peale, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Marcus Aurelius in a book on medieval Ireland? "How these people would have loved the Batmobile!" he says of the ancient Irish at one point, summing up their love of stories. Now if only Gibbon had DC Comics to draw upon!
Cahill even uses his bibliography as an excuse for more opining rather than source referral, averring that "some of the most deeply held things are sourceless." I doubt that's the kind of argument a college professor would accept, or even Will Durant.
Give the guy credit, he's a dazzling show-off. Matthew P. Cochrane earlier wrote a review here on the book that's too kind, but he does say something that I think sums up the case for Cahill rather well: "[H]is writing resonates with the reader and the book reads much more like a page-turning novel than an obscure history lesson."
Of course, novels have the advantage over history lessons of making up their own facts as they go along. Cahill's not a wholesale reinventor, just an indelicate reinterpreter of worthwhile territory who needs to be read in the same careful spirit of those ancient maps he references at one point in the text: "Here Do Be Monsters".
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