Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

How the Irish Saved CivilizationHow the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Own. I'm going to actually give it 3.5 because the first half of the book was so good.

I started this on the beach and read for about 4 hours straight (ish) what with watching kids and people and dogs thrown in. I did manage to sit there and get sunburned though. I found the chapters interesting and the comparisons easily (too easily?) applicable to modern day. Ausonius' poetry being politically correct and expected; Augustine being a robust thinker. The description days of the Roman Empire being fat and happy and their failure to be prepared for invasion. All of that made sense in a historical as applied to today sense. I enjoyed the writing and the pace of that section. He made an argument for Western Civilization and learning as was known through the fall of Rome.

The next part was a lot new to me. I enjoyed the mythos of Ancient Ireland. My kids had just been reading and narrating about the Tain and other stories in their AmblesideOnline Year 7 readings, so that crossover of ideas was quite helpful. Cahill introduces an Irish people rife with story and as ready to hear the gospel as the Greeks had been. His tracing of where they came from and his discussion of a national character were interesting. His storytelling is a little bawdy in this section, but probably good.

We come back to the church and to Patrick. Here is where some of Cahill's claims start to fall apart for me. His story of Patrick was engaging and interesting, the work Patrick did in Ireland to evangelize the people was miraculous for sure. Cahill's characterization of the Irish comes into play here and as the narrative continues the Irish remain Irish but believe the Gospel. There's less fighting, but in general the Gospel makes no real change in their lives and activities. This is contrasted sharply with the uniform whitewashing of culture that the Church is described as having over the rest of Europe.

And, then, Rome falls.

The last part was, IMO, the part that knocked stars off. Part of the issue, for me, is that while this isn't an academic work, it is presented as scholarly for the public. The bibliography is insufficient, IMO, for helping with the claims that he is making. All of the books in all of Western Europe were entirely destroyed? All of civilization imploded that completely? Now he had made an argument that they were already failing from within to advance in intellectual and cultural ways (cf. Ausonius and his poetry) I think he needed to make a much stronger argument that salvation was necessary for the continent.

All of the sudden, out of nowhere the Irish come to save the day. These men who were exiled from their green isle and have been copying any scrap of paper that came their way. I did love that he portrayed the monks as loving learning and the creative impulse that came out of their copywork. I guess I wanted to see more than two paragraphs make the case that civilization needed saving and that the Irish swooped in like Superman to save it without any real danger to those who were in need.

The sharp dichotomy he built between the Irish church and the Continental church is disturbing as well. He also seems to have dug to find many salacious stories to keep modern readers engaged and reflects on Saint Brigid, in particular, with a decidedly modern eye. He paints Ireland with a fine brush and European Christianity with a broad one and then compares distinctions. This is a book for a careful, mature reader IMO.

I loved how he brought story, poetry, philosophy, and memoir together to build his story. It was fun to meet Beowulf in the pages as I had just finished it. His use of story to display the Irish character was very well done.

Overall, I'm not disappointed to have read it. I greatly enjoyed vast swaths of it. I'm disappointed in the speed with which it was all wrapped up. The overall arc was good, but the last chapters felt rushed and not as carefully crafted and engaging as the beginning. They were more jumbled and a timeline of events was hard to follow. I'm also not totally convinced he made his case - that civilization needed saving and the Irish are the means by which it was accomplished.

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  1. This is a really good review. I'm kind of besotted with this book, but I haven't read it in about a decade. I'll be sure to keep your thought in mind when I read it again -- I'm hoping to do so in the next school year while I'm reading Medieval literature with my kids.

    1. Thanks, Kelly. I'd love to hear your thoughts when you finish it!

  2. Interesting! I found the “saving” of civilization to be more about the preserving of manuscripts that were being fairly overlooked or even discouraged/destroyed in the rest of Europe (where people weren’t just trying to survive and scholarship completely abandoned anyway), that we now look to that illustrate Ancient Greece, etc. The Celtic church, after all, did lose to/give way before the power of centralized Rome, so their influence after a while was scant.

    1. I think that's what he posited, I just don't think he proved it very well.


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