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How the Irish Saved Civilization

This is a post I wrote in 2009, after re-reading How the Irish Saved Civilization.

I love Irish history, and this book adds an interesting dimension to the contributions of St. Patrick. While he is the one who brought Christianity to the country, he is also someone who helped saved civilization.

In the year 410, Visigoths sacked Rome and ushering in what would ultimately be the fall of the Roman Empire. As barbarians flooded the Empire, the foundations of this great empire, already weakened, crumbled. Cahill's thesis is that the fall of Rome sounded the death knell for learning and intellectual life. But all was not lost, because Ireland would provide a beacon of light in the Middle Ages.

The reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire are many and varied, and Cahill does an excellent job of discussing those. I won't go into that here; you must read the book. Whatever the cause, the fall of Rome created a vacuum that centred around literature. Vandals and Visigoths didn't have much use for literature and books. Cahill says: "What is to be lost in the century of barbarian invasions is literature -- the content of classical literature." The last quintessential "Classical Man" is Augustine, and he died in 430 as barbarians were at the gates of his city. Pursuits in the tradition of Augustine are lost during the the many years that follow, to be resurrected during the Renaissance.

Onto this scene, Patrick arrived, a Roman Briton (not an Irishman) arrived. Kidnapped as a youth, he spent six years there as a slave. He had been exposed to the gospel as a child, but it was during this time in Ireland when he truly believed.

He managed to escape and return to Britain, taking with him a burden for the Irish people. His return to his homeland did not last long. While still in Britain, he took holy orders with the intention to return to Ireland and share his faith with the people there. Patrick's presence as the first missionary to Ireland would change the course of the country's history, and in turn preserve a rich heritage of classical literature.

At this time in history, spreading the Christian faith meant the establishment of monasteries; monasteries meant learning, studying, working, and especially, copying. While there was uproar in the Empire, in Ireland, religious orders were abounding and literacy was thriving.

Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe's publisher. But the pagan Saxon settlements of southern England had cut Ireland off from easy commerce with the continent. While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe.

Ireland's influence spread as missionaries took their knowledge to Britain and the continent. Some left of their own free will, and others were exiled for various reasons. However it came to be, the learning spread. Also, individuals from other religious communities outside Ireland came to study with the intent of taking their knowledge back to their homes.

The monks naturally copied Scripture, but more than that, they copied other works of literature. Cahill makes the point well that the Irish love a good story, and they did not mind preserving the great Greek and Roman stories. Cahill makes this conclusion:

There is much we do not know about these Irish exiles. Their clay and wattle buildings have long since disappeared, and even most of their precious books have perished. But what they knew -- the Bible and the literatures of Greece, Rome, and Ireland -- we know, because they passed these things on to us ... Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down. 

Of course, Ireland did not remain free from barbarian attacks for long. Eventually the Vikings made their way to Ireland, plundering the rich stores in the monasteries. An even more formidable -- even if it appeared to be more civilizied -- foe would appear in the form of the English. The Penal Laws would deal a blow to the intellectual pursuit of a good majority of the population and years of famine would cut a devastating blow to the country. However, men like James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Padriac Colum and Seamus Heaney would continue the literary tradition.

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