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)

Patrick:

  • 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.

Year

Event

c BC 3000

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

900s

In Greece, Homer composes Iliad and Odyssey

753

Founding of the City of Rome

400-300

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

390

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

370

The teenaged Augustine goes to Carthage

c 395

Death of Ausonius

401

Patricius is taken into slavery; Augustine publishes his Confessions

406-7

Largest Germanic invasion of the Roman Empire

409

Roman garrison abandons Britain

410

Alaric the Goth sacks the City of Rome

430

Death of Augustine at Hippo

432

Bishop Patrick arrives in Ireland

461

Death of Patrick

475-76

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

557

Columcille leaves Ireland for Iona

c 590

Columbanus leaves for Gaul

597

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

615

Columbanus dies at Bobbio

635

Aidan founds Lindisfarne

664

Synod of Whitby

782

Alcuin takes over direction of Charlemagne’s Palatine School

793

First Viking attack on Lindisfarne

c 845

John Scotus Eriugena arrives at the court of Charles the Bald

875

The monks abandon Lindisfarne for the last time

1014

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

1170

Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland

1556

Elizabethan plantation of Ireland begins

1649

Cromwell arrives in Ireland and begins his massacres of Catholics

1690

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

1692

Catholics are excluded from office for the first time

1695

Penal laws are enacted, depriving Catholics of civil rights

1829

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

1845

Famine. Massive emigrations begin

1893

Douglas Hyde founds Gaelic League to revive Irish culture

1904

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

1916

Easter Rising. Irish Republic proclaimed

1919-21

Irish War of Independence

1922

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

1923

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

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