If the Irish really saved civilization as Thomas Cahill suggests, perhaps future generations will remember Cahill as the writer who saved the art and science of history. Because How the Irish Saved Civilization is far more than a mere record of fact—as a true historian, he crafts and interprets a story of things past, showing how the facts fall together and why they are important.
Cahill doesn't begin with the Irish right off. His story starts at the beginning of the fifth century A.D., one and a half thousand miles from the Emerald Isle. Rome: center of the world in Classical times, a place of great learning, great culture, and great sophistication, a place far removed from the barbarians of the far northwest.
How did Rome fall? and why? These are questions Cahill attempts to answer, not by examining the minutiae of politics and warfare, but through the lens of cultural and philosophical developments. He brings everything from St. Augustine to Gibbons's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Virgil vs. Homer into the conversation.
Which is one reason this is such a good book. Cahill is not only a master of language with a poet's sense of word placement and sentence construction, he has a broad knowledge of a wide range of subjects, including art, literature, history, religion, rhetoric, and philosophy. There isn't a boring page, or one that doesn't show us yet another example of the interrelatedness of all things.
So how did the Irish save civilization? After describing the salient differences between Roman and Celtic culture Cahill tells us, though it's not the glamorous answer many readers may expect. Instead, he simply describes the ways in which Irish monks, the fruit of recent Christian missionizing, copied and preserved the scope of Classical literature, both secular and sacred.
But this does not mean that Cahill's narrative becomes dull or boring at this point. Quite the contrary—in some ways, this is where it picks up, as he describes in-depth Irish monasticism, Celtic and Druidic society, and the similarities and differences between Celtic and Graeco-Roman poetry and literature.
How the Irish Saved Civilization is a very unique book. It combines history with historiography, literary analysis with literary style, creating an insight into the bridge between two worlds—one Classical and pagan, the other Christian and Medieval—seldom afforded scholars and popular readers alike. As enjoyable as it is informative, Cahill's book is highly recommended.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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