1997-01-07: How the Irish Saved Civilization

How the Irish Saved Civilization

The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (1995)

by Thomas Cahill (-)

I looked at this book several times before I got a chance to read it, primarily because of my unwillingness to purchase a book; I read a library copy, which I had to wait a long time for.

As a polemic, it is a superb book, and very interesting. Cahill makes a strong case for the pivotal role played by early Irish Christians in preserving Latin literature, and even the ability to think critically. It is easy to read and understand, no doubt a large part of its popularity (a long time on the NY Times best seller list).

As history, I found it disappointing. Perhaps there simply is not sufficient historical material for the period to satisfy me. Still, Cahill indulges in a lot of “supposition and insight” (acknowledged in his bibliography). He might have speculated more on a crucial topic: How did the Celts, and particularly the Druid communities, of Ireland react to the presentation of Christian notions, and how did they adapt their roles to the new order? The apparently uncontested fact that Ireland’s conversion was bloodless means that someone gave up (at least ostensibly) their former ideas, values, and position; what was accepted in their place?

I am not very hopeful that these questions will be answered definitively. Yet anyone might speculate on this most interesting conversion. Cahill’s few statements that touch on the question are feeble and contradictory.

He does, however, provide an annotated bibliography, some of which I intend to follow-up.

Late antiquity:

  • Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity (1971)
  • Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (1967)
  • Sir Samuel Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire (1906)
  • Gibbon, Decline and Fall, at least Book I and chapters 15 and 16
  • William McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963)

Celtic mythology:

  • Thomas Kinsella tr, Tain Bo Cuailnghe (1970)
  • Proinsias MacCana tr, Celtic Mythology (1968)
  • Frank O’Connor tr, Kings, Lords, and Commons: An Anthology from the Irish (1970)


  • Hanson, St. Patrick: His Origins and Career (1968) much untranslated Latin
  • Thompson, Who Was Saint Patrick? (1985/1986)

Early Irish church:

  • Kathleen Hughes, The Church in Early Irish Society (1966)
  • John T. McNeill, The Celtic Churches (1974)

Finally, Cahill includes a chronology related to Irish Christianity and its effects on the Western world.



c BC 3000

Stone Age settlers begin to construct elaborate Irish passage graves such as Newgrange


In Greece, Homer composes Iliad and Odyssey


Founding of the City of Rome


Greece’s Golden Age: the flowering of Athenian democracy under Pericles; the time of Sophocles, Phidias, Socrates, Plato, etc.


Celts invade the City of Rome for the first and last time

c 350

Celtic tribes cross to Ireland and settle there, displacing earlier inhabitants

BC 70 –

AD 14

Rome’s Golden Age: the time of Cicero, Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, et al.

BC 31

Octavian becomes first Roman emperor and takes the name Caesar Augustus

c AD 100

Medb is queen of Connacht in Ireland


The teenaged Augustine goes to Carthage

c 395

Death of Ausonius


Patricius is taken into slavery; Augustine publishes his Confessions


Largest Germanic invasion of the Roman Empire


Roman garrison abandons Britain


Alaric the Goth sacks the City of Rome


Death of Augustine at Hippo


Bishop Patrick arrives in Ireland


Death of Patrick


Reign of Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor, who is deposed by Odoacer; end of the Roman Empire in the west

c 500

Brigid founds Kildare


Columcille leaves Ireland for Iona

c 590

Columbanus leaves for Gaul


Death of Columcille; Augustine, the papal librarian, baptizes the English king of Kent at Canterbury


Columbanus dies at Bobbio


Aidan founds Lindisfarne


Synod of Whitby


Alcuin takes over direction of Charlemagne’s Palatine School


First Viking attack on Lindisfarne

c 845

John Scotus Eriugena arrives at the court of Charles the Bald


The monks abandon Lindisfarne for the last time


Vikings are defeated decisively by the forces of Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf


Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland


Elizabethan plantation of Ireland begins


Cromwell arrives in Ireland and begins his massacres of Catholics


Battle of the Boyne: the Catholic (and Stuart) cause is decisively lost to the victorious William of Orange; the flight of the Wild Geese, the Irish Nobility, begins soon after


Catholics are excluded from office for the first time


Penal laws are enacted, depriving Catholics of civil rights


Daniel O’Connell, “the Liberator” and masterful Irish politician, forces Catholic Emancipation on the British Parliament


Famine. Massive emigrations begin


Douglas Hyde founds Gaelic League to revive Irish culture


William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory found the Abbey Theatre. James Joyce leaves Ireland


Easter Rising. Irish Republic proclaimed


Irish War of Independence


Britain and Ireland sign treaty establishing the Irish Free State, but excluding the six counties of Northern Ireland still under British rule. Ulysses published


Yeats takes his seat in the first Irish Senate and is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature

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