Did the Irish Really Save Civilization?, Reviewed by Alex



How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe written by Thomas Cahill, is an interesting chronicle of the role the Irish, ‘the island of saints and scholars’, uniquely played as conservators and shapers of the medieval civilization and mind. Cahill argues that although retrospectively history often appears to be just one catastrophe after another simply synthesizing “a narrative of human pain”, that history is also a “narrative of grace”.[1] Precisely, history is also the “recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else…gave something beyond what was required of the circumstances”.[2] Working within this perspective, Cahill ventures to display that it was the Irish, after the fall of the Roman Empire, which took up this valiant position of service to all, exemplifying this ‘narrative of grace’. He tries to show that the Irish were essentially ‘great gift-givers’, that arrived on the scene in a time of crisis, aiding in the transition and transformation of civilization. Rather than undertaking a conventional historical endeavour of examining a static historical occurrence he attempts to examine a history in movement – the transition from the fall of Rome to the Dark ages through the lens of the Irish.

This work puts forward quite an interesting and strong thesis, but Cahill fails to proportionately support and defend such a bold thesis. Cahill’s thesis revolves around the idea that the the evangelization of Ireland through St. Patrick Ireland became a hot bed of monasticism and thus a centre of learning and literacy. Ireland’s historical openness and interest in competing ideas allowed this tide of learning to have a great breadth, “they brought into their libraries everything they could lay their hands on. They were resolved to shut out nothing.[3] Thus, as the Dark Ages began and the burgeoning Irish monastic communities began to disperse throughout continental Europe they brought their coveted books with them. Many of which had been lost to continental Europe during the fall of Rome and barbarian and the Germanic pillaging sprees. Cahill argues that it was through this preservation of Western European civilization through books that the Irish essentially saved civilization. However, this argument is predicated upon a tremendous ‘what if’ statement. In Cahill’s words: “What is about to be lost in the century of barbarian invasions is literature – the content of classical civilization. Had the destruction been complete – had every library been disassembled and every book burned – we might have lost Homer…all of classical history…Plato and Aristotle and all greek philosophy… we would have lost the taste and smell of a whole civilization”.[4] Here we realize that Cahill is working from a grand assumption: that if it weren’t for the Irish all the books which upheld Roman and western European culture and civilization would have been burned. Cahill fails to address the counterfactual observation. Historically speaking we do not certainly know that all the books on continental Europe crucial to civilization were in fact burned. Therefore, it seems more appropriate to assert that the Irish played the role as preservers of Europe’s literary civilization, not saviours. Not to mention that Cahill entirely dilutes the Irish role in saving all of European civilization when he later states: “The Hebrew bible would have been saved without them, transmitted to out time by scattered communities of Jews. The Greek Bible, the Greek commentaries, and much of the literature of ancient Greece were well enough preserved at Byzantium”.[5] This seems to starkly call into question the validity of his previous statement of the total lose of “the content of classical civilization civilizations”.[6] The issue of weather an entire civilizations, ‘taste and smell’, can be encapsulated and continued through literature is a whole other problem, also not dealt with. Thus, Cahill began with a bold and grand claim, that the Irish “Single handily re-founded European civilization”[7], but it seems that as one progresses through the book, the cracks and weak spots begin to shine through with an eventual unbearable glare of suspicion developing.

Furthermore, a similar detractor to this work was the seemingly unfounded provocative  and polemic prose regularly present. The provocative nature of some of Cahill’s assertions are not worth criticizing, however their unfounded nature and complete lack of circumstantial evidence is worthy of critique. Cahill does honestly admit in his bibliography that “of course, some of the most deeply held things are sourceless – or rather, one can no longer remember where on first learned them”.[8] Rather than a logical or stylistic justification this coms across as a clever way of cloaking his explicitly personal, ideological, and politically driven assertions often of a moral nature. An example of this can be found in one of his many appraisals of St. Augustine: He [Augustine] subsequently writes the first Catholic justification for the state persecution of those in error…The doctrine he had enunciated will echo down the ages in the cruelest infamies, executed with the highest justification. Augustine, father of many firsts, is also father of the Inquisition”.[9] Cahill retrospectively simplifies a complex moral and theological doctrine, glazes over a centuries interlude of historical occurrences, applying a contemporary moral evaluation onto a historical event without providing any legitimate context. This is simply false causality, peddled off as a authoritative historical analysis. Moreover we see the shortcomings of his callous style in his assertion that after the edict of Milan “the vast majority of Christian coverts were fairly superficial people”.[10] To make such a claim without providing any sort of substantiating evidence or entering into the context of the time smells of a blinding personal motive for presenting such assertions in this manner. Thus, Cahill frequently cherry-picks historical occurrences, glazes over their importance, highlighting what he personally see as the significance worth drawing out and than proceeds to espouse grand historical connections for the purpose of his argument, all without producing a shred of historical evidence. Although this  strategy may sell copies, it does a great disservice to the historical discourse and to the innocent reader.

Cahill’s narrative and investigative technique of selecting figures from the different eras he chronicles as a point of reference is unique and of some value. Cahill uses this technique to humanize history, to reveal some of the nitty gritty nuances of the eras in question. This undertaking is an intriguing take on Marc Bloch’s sincere view that “behind the features of landscape, behind tools or machinery, behind what appear to be the most formalized written documents,… there are men, and it is men that history seeks to grasp”.[11] Cahill attempts this through his depictions of the poet and professor Ausonius of the 4th century, Queen Medb and the warrior Cuchulainn of the pre-christian barbaric Ireland, Augustine of Hippo a father of the Church and stalwart of orthodox Catholicism, and St. Patrick the evangelizer of the Irish. He uses each character as a lens through which to view the era of interest, and than contrasts the findings to the other characters of interest. This does indeed provide a very distinctive view of history, but it is fair to ask whether from this singularly narrow approach it is appropriate to proceed to make judgements and conclusions of a whole historical period when working from the scope of one individual historical figure.

This book, although having significant deficiencies and lacking the character of a truly historical work, nonetheless challenges the reader to think unconventionally about this historical occurrence. Cahill takes a unique approach to this historical narrative, examining history over centuries through a few figures, comparing, contrasting, juxtaposing, and drawing a great deal of theories from them. Some readers may find this endeavour quite refreshing, while others may find it wildly unfounded and frustratingly personalistic. However, in a dramatized and slightly fantasized way it makes a crucial transition in history more accessible to the common reader. Moreover, Cahill can be credited with substantiating his overarching thesis in his ‘Hinges of History’ series which this book is a part of, that history is a “narrative of grace”, in which someone gave something far beyond what was expected of them in their particular situation. Although with many flaws, Cahill does display that the isolated Irish went beyond their call of duty in this instance of history. In conclusion, I leave it to the reader to decide whether the merits of this unconventional voyage in history can be positively weighed against its lack of scholarly character. An individuals appreciation or dissatisfaction with this work will stem from what they expected to attain from readings it – a provocatively stylized dramatization of history, or a robust, empirically grounded historical discourse.

[1] Thomas Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Irelands Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), The Hinges of History.

[2] Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization, Hinges of History.

[3] Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization, 158.

[4] Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization, 58.

[5] Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization, 193.

[6] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 58.

[7] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 4.

[8] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 221.

[9] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 65.

[10] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 125.

[11] Marc Bloch, The Historians Craft (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), 26.

One response to “Did the Irish Really Save Civilization?, Reviewed by Alex”

  1. Anisha says:

    It seems to be a common practice among popular historians to make bold and ultimately unjustifiable claims. I would be skeptical of a claim that any one group could “single-handedly” found European civilization, and by making this statement it looks like the author set himself up for failure. It is interesting that you mention the ideological motivations behind the author’s unsubstantiated assertions. This makes me think about the motivations of popular historians – do they want to increase public awareness of a history, or are they just trying to sell their book? Are their novels vehicles to propagate their own personal beliefs? In answer the question you posed in your conclusion (despite having not read the book), it seems to me that in this case the bold claim could be dangerous for readers who would accept it at face value. I do not think that any literary merit or entertainment value it has would justify the effect his simplifications would have on the wider public’s understanding of European history. Maybe a dramatized retelling of this sort would be more appropriate with a disclaimer that the assertions made cannot be proven. The methodology which the author used as you described is interesting. Telling the history through influential figures sounds like an interesting way to approach relating a history that takes place over a long period of time in a way that is accessible to a large audience.

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