Hooray for the Irish
SANTA FE ? Happy St. Patty's Day. May you be in heaven an hour before the devil knows you're dead.
Personally I don't have a drop of Irish blood that I can find, but I've always enjoyed their wild and charming nature. And I have a newfound appreciation for them after reading "How the Irish Saved Civilization" while on vacation last April.
No, I'm not making this up. There really is such a book. Thomas Cahill wrote it in 1995. I wasn't aware of its existence until it appeared under my Christmas tree in 1998. I set it aside, figuring it to be one of those "Wit and Wisdom of Millard Fillmore" type books, which I would scan the next time I was in the mood for some silliness.
My wife was the one who took it on our two-week Hawaiian vacation. We each read a book a day, sitting under a palm tree on our beach. About a week into the vacation, Jeanette said, "Jay, here's a book you're going to want to read." I told her to stick it underneath my stack of unread books and I might get to it. As it turned out, the book was the right size to slip into my sport coat pocket for the long plane ride home. I hate west-to-east trips and figured I'd enjoy a good laugh.
But this book is serious, folks. Fortunately, it also is delightfully written. It's hard to put down because there is an astonishing new historical revelation every few pages. It is a history I never read in high school, college or in any of my reading since (and I read mostly non-fiction). But it is scholarly and believable.
Cahill's message is that as the Roman Empire was falling during the 5th century, St. Patrick became Ireland's first missionary. It was an island thought by the Romans to be so isolated and inconsequential that they didn't bother to conquer it. When the Empire fell, there was nothing in Ireland for the barbarians to sack, so they ignored it too.
St. Patrick was aware that artifacts were being looted and books were being burned throughout the dying Roman Empire. So he gathered all the great books as he could find and spirited them to Ireland, where he established a monastery and taught his monks to read. Then he set them to copying Western literature, which later generations of Irish missionaries returned to Europe, serving as conduits of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures back to the barbaric tribes that had brought down the Roman Empire.
The Irish missionaries went in all directions. St Brendan, the Navigator took to sea, visiting Iceland, Greenland, and North America, according to his reports. The Celtic Ogham rock inscriptions found in New England, and purportedly along the Rio Grande in Central New Mexico, are thought by some to be evidence of Brendan's voyages.
Why has the history of this period been so ignored? Cahill thinks it is because historians tend to specialize in one period of time ? the Classical Period, the Medieval Period, the Renaissance ? and no one bothers with those messy transitions in between. This "hinge" in history goes from the last decades of the Roman Empire in the middle and late 400s to the rise of Charlemagne in 800, the darkest of the Middle Ages.
Cahill says he knows of no other book, now in print, that is devoted to the subject of this transition, nor even one in which the subject plays a significant part. Kenneth Clark begins his "Civilisation" with a chapter called "The Skin of Our Teeth" in which he gives full credit to the Irish for their contribution to the transition from classical to medieval, but that's about it.
If you want to give yourself a good feeling about your Irish culture today, find this book.