How the Irish saved civilization : the untold story of Ireland's heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of medieval Europe

by Thomas Cahill

Paperback, 1995




New York : Nan A. Talese, Anchor Books, 1996, c1995.


The perfect St. Patrick's Day gift, and a book in the best tradition of popular history -- the untold story of Ireland's role in maintaining Western culture while the Dark Ages settled on Europe. Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of civilization. Not only did he bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become "the isle of saints and scholars" -- and thus preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians. In this entertaining and compelling narrative, Thomas Cahill tells the story of how Europe evolved from the classical age of Rome to the medieval era. Without Ireland, the transition could not have taken place. Not only did Irish monks and scribes maintain the very record of Western civilization -- copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever lost -- they brought their uniquely Irish world-view to the task. As Cahill delightfully illustrates, so much of the liveliness we associate with medieval culture has its roots in Ireland. When the seeds of culture were replanted on the European continent, it was from Ireland that they were germinated. In the tradition of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, How The Irish Saved Civilization reconstructs an era that few know about but which is central to understanding our past and our cultural heritage. But it conveys its knowledge with a winking wit that aptly captures the sensibility of the unsung Irish who relaunched civilization.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member jcbrunner
A great short read about early Irish history if one discounts the author's paranoid view of seeing the fall of Rome as a template for the impending demise of the United States of America, crushed by Mexican and Haitian "hordes". While the US will certainly become a less white country, immigration was and will never be the trigger of doom in this still largely empty country. It is truly strange that a descendant of the malnourished and poor Irish immigrants wants to shut the door to people in need. Although not helping "the least among you" fits the world view of US Christian Conservatives. Besides his conservative Catholicism, it is the author's dirty old man perspective that imbues the book with a pungent yet funny flavor. The heathen Irish had very catholic sexual mores. The unstoppable Irish libido later on shocked the English puritans.

Too many pages of this rather short book are devoted to the fall of Rome, in which the author partly misinforms his readers. He largely follows the outdated Gibbonian Christian degeneration argument for the fall of Rome, using the prissy Saint Augustine as his key witness. This allows him to present the vibrant heathen Irish in the best of light (I have to learn more about the old Irish sagas) and turn Saint Patrick into a true hero. In an otherwise good account of the Irish saint's life, I wish he had included more information what made the Irish chieftain kings accept Christianity. The sudden spectacular conversion of most of the island remains a mystery to me.

The author also fails to develop the economic successes of the Irish monasteries. After the destruction of the Roman large estates, it was the autonomous Irish monasteries that established engines of economic growth in the wilderness. This model was developed in Ireland where civilization and trade were notable by their absence. A fortunate side effect was the creation of scriptoria that preserved many Latin texts.

The author's titular claim that the Irish saved civilization, however, is totally wrong. Firstly, can anybody today still limit the use of civilization to Western civilization? Secondly, there was the Rome that never fell, Constantinople as well as Alexandria. Many of the Latin authors also survived either via Greek or Arabian scribes. The Irish monks managed to re-establish pockets of civilization, often in remote spaces. It took others to recognize the value of what they had saved. Petrarca and the early humanists rediscovered the ancient manuscripts rotting away in the monastery libraries.

Overall, an enjoyable and highly readable account of early medieval Ireland that is somewhat flawed by the author's prejudices that flavor the text to the detriment of accuracy.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I do get why this book on "How the Irish Saved Civilization" was a bestseller. Not only is it the perfect gift for St Patrick's Day, it is entertaining and readable. But I also found it superficial and not reliable. It may be the contrast with some really fine histories and biographies I've read lately, but several things in this book made it suspect to me. Cahill isn't a historian. The short biography at the end says only that he has a MFA in "Film and Dramatic Literature" and that he has studied theology. His pro-Catholic bias is notable throughout. (He even takes gratuitous slams at Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.) I don't claim a writer of a solid history has to be a historian--some of those great histories and biographies recently read were by journalists. And all writers have their take, from conservative to Marxist, that are evident to me. But notably, the good ones, whatever their background or worldview, have pages of sources and notes to back up their claims--this didn't.

But the reason I ended up feeling the book was dubious was the actual content, starting with the title and the very premise: Irish monks saved civilization by preserving classical literature. Other reviewers have pointed out that the Western world isn't the whole of civilization. (Even as Cahill at one point conflates "the whole of the civilized world" with the Roman Empire. What about China, for instance?) And others preserved the old Latin learning. Not just in Europe, the Eastern Roman Empire remained in existence until 1453. Cahill though claims the Irish were more liberal in what they copied than those on the continent. And of the Eastern Romans, he claimed that the "literature of ancient Greece were well enough preserved at Byzantium, but Latin literature would almost certainly surely have been lost without the Irish." I find that hard to credit. They didn't read Vergil at Constantinople?

I think part of why I also find it hard to swallow his encomium to Christianity as a preserver of classical Greek and Roman civilization is that it also did so much to destroy it. One poignant illustration of that is the fate of the works of Sappho. Cahill himself notes that among the treasures of antiquity lost were almost all her poetry. What he doesn't tell you is that her poems were preserved until nearly A.D 1000, at least according to A Book of Woman Poets, "when a wrathful church destroyed whatever it could find. In 1073 her writings were publicly burned in Rome and Constantinople by order of Pope Gregory VIII." So, I guess I wonder, why is it these "great gift-givers" of civilization didn't preserve her for us?

But Cahill doesn't give me a good answer for this, especially because so little of the book even focuses on that part of the story. We don't get to Ireland at all until Part III starting on page 71. The section that tells us how the Irish saved this learning doesn't begin until Part VI on page 145--in a book of 218 pages. Between that we get a biography of St Patrick, who Cahill claimed was "the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery." And he'd be wrong by nearly a millennium--look up the "Cyrus Cylinder," called the "first charter of human rights" from the Persian king who ended the Jewish Babylonian exile--a biblical scholar such as Cahill should know better.

Other things irked me. Particularly the comparison of the barbarian "hordes" that destroyed Rome to "the Mexicans, Haitians, and other dispossessed peoples seeking illegal entry" to the United States. It's a point he repeats at the end, and seemed all the more ironic considering Cahill's condemnation of the prejudice their fellow Catholics, the Irish, experienced in America. It's not that there weren't interesting points in the book I'd like to read more about. Such as the case for Augustine's Confessions as the first real autobiography and "story of a soul" and the indomitable Brigid of Kildare, an abbess with the power of a bishop. Cahill might even be right in his take on history--but I didn't find the case presented in his book convincing.
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LibraryThing member PhoenixTerran
The concept behind the Hinges of History series, of which How the Irish Saved Civilization is the first volume, is commendable: to bring attention to important moments and players in often overlooked in Western history.

That being said, I was sorely disappointed in the first book. To begin with, the first quarter of the text doesn't even mention the Irish except for brief allusions. Instead, he focuses on Roman history and culture. When he finally does begin to address the issues of Ireland and its people, and in particular St. Patrick (who technically wasn't even Irish), very little is devoted to the supposed subject of the book.

I was astonished to discover, by reading the chapter notes, that large portions of the book are virtually invented and are not based on scholarly research. He diverges from commonly held theories, offers very little evidence to support his own, and shows very poor scholarship. For a book that is portrayed as historical fact, these are very serious issues that the reader might not be aware of since they are buried in the notes, which aren't even referenced to in the main text.

Certainly, he brings up interesting subjects that deserve more attention. Unfortunately, they had to be culled from what can be seen as a seriously flawed book.

Experiments in Reading
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LibraryThing member eilonwy_anne
This is an entertaining and informative book, and the audiobook is winsome and sparkling, courtesy of 'performer' (not credited merely as 'narrator') Donal Donnelly. The personality of the subjects is amply shown by the texts quoted, and the story is interesting and definitely underknown, if not unknown. What really gives me pause is the suffusion of Cahill's own biases in the text. This isn't a scholarly work, but even for a popular history, the degree to which Cahill's opinions and judgments color the narrative gives me pause and makes me trust his version of history slightly less. Oozing affection for things and people Irish is appropriate to the work, and I'm with him on his nostalgia for the Celtic Church, if only from descriptions in Brother Cadfael books. But in general, the Occidocentric (saved Civilization did we, or just one?) and Christianocentric biases seemed a little strong. Plus, he totally buys into monkish anti-Viking propaganda.

My favorite part was the biography and discussion of Patrick and his assumption of and effects on Irishness.
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LibraryThing member cm37107
Thomas Cahill tells the story of how Europe evolved from the classical age of Rome to the medieval era. Without Ireland, the transition could not have taken place. Not only did Irish monks and scribes maintain the very record of Western civilization -- copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever lost -- they brought their uniquely Irish world-view to the task.… (more)
LibraryThing member misskate
Very revealing on a personal level. I discovered a good deal of my "irishness" in the descriptions of the people. Made me rather proud of the tenacity of the monastaries in preserving early writings. That may be why I love books!
LibraryThing member NeitherNora
A great premise, and some good insights, but overall I was too bothered by the point of view to give a better rating -- the focus is less on civilization than on Christianity, and in fact the narrator seems to consider the two interchangeable, making many assumptions of Christian superiority and being, at best, fondly patronizing toward pre-Christian Irish society. The text felt based more on religious sentimentality than on hard historical facts, which is what I really would've wanted to read. I may have taken less of an issue with it if the title had divulged this slant from the beginning -- "How the Irish Saved Christian Civilization" would be much more appropriate. Also, spent a good deal too much time talking about irrelevant details of Roman philosophers. So, 2 stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member jchancel
I generally do not like to read nonfiction. I find that most nonfiction authors merely state facts. Cahill is different. Although some may argue that his enthusiasm and sarcasm detract from the academic quality of the book, I found that it made me pay more attention and learn more than I expected. At times Cahill is a little too gungho and seems more of a cheerleader than a historian, but at the same time it is fun to read a book on a subject that the author seems to thoroughly enjoy. The sections on Saint Patrick are perhaps the most memorable and enjoyable parts of the book. All in all this is a good read and I recommend it to western history enthusiasts.… (more)
LibraryThing member ashergabbay
This weekend I finally got around to reading How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. This book, originally published in 1995, is the first in a series by Cahill called Hinges of History, books that examine "turning point" events in history.

This book tells the story of how Irish monks and scribes "saved civilization" by preserving Western literature during the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman empire (5th century) and before the rise of Charlemagne in France (8th century). Cahill depicts a lively and detailed picture of the fall of Rome in the hands of the Barbarians and then proceeds to paint with loving, vivid colours the person who made it all possible: Patrick, the man who almost single-handedly "created" Ireland.

This is not an academic book. Cahill writes for the general public, keeping his books short, his verse flowing and interspersed with humour ("How these people would have loved the batmobile!") and avoiding footnotes and lengthy appendixes. This approach is a mixed blessing; Cahill's brevity makes for a fast-paced read and a good grasp of the main facts, but the cost is oversimplification of historical processes and proneness to exaggeration.
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LibraryThing member davidpwithun
Before reading this book I had heard from quite a few people that it was a great read. They were wrong; it was better than great! The description of St. Augustine and his later, unfortunate, influence on Western Christianity was spot on as was his juxtaposition of this influence with the (much more Orthodox) Christianity of St. Patrick and his Irish children. This book was an engaging, lively, and informative exploration of Celtic Christianity and its adherents who would later save civilization for Western Europe. I don't have any Irish in me, but by the end of this book I was certainly wishing I did! The only complaint I have is that I wish Cahill would have taken a closer look at the ties between the ancient Celtic Church and the Coptic Church, as I think (largely through the influence of Aziz S. Atiya's writing on the subject) that Coptic Christianity was a very significant influence on the Celtic Church. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the roots of the West.… (more)
LibraryThing member killerX
Rambling. Unreadable. Didn't finish it, I figured if it hasn't managed to get on track a quarter of the way through it isn't going to.
LibraryThing member Diwanna
Should be called "How St. Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity" since that's what the book is basically about. Some interesting dialogue on Ireland's culture during the early C.E. years and the backstory of Patricius was interesting, but I was not really impressed with this book.
LibraryThing member jpsnow
The richness of such a downtrodden culture, the role of women, the honesty of the people, the openness of thought, and the permanence of the heritage are all impressively conveyed. The Irish have their own epic stories (Tain Bo Cuailge about Medb -- she's no Dido -- and Ailil) and poems. Being at the outer edge of the Roman empire, they were able to learn without being noticed. St. Patrick and others became educated and Christian, and brought that back to their homeland. Monasteries were established and became a refuge for the constant stream of similar religious scholars from all over Europe (and these brought their books with them). When the dark ages receded, the tradition had been maintained and flowed back out to new monasteries across the continent.… (more)
LibraryThing member maunder
Cahill's book presents fascinating information about how the world descended into the "dark ages" after invasion of the Roman Empire by the "barbarians". The decline of literacy was precipitous and yet in one far-flung outpost, Ireland, a flowering of learning was engendered by the work of St. Patrick, and his successors. The society was a remarkable one and the contributions of Irish Catholicism are invaluable. Very readable.… (more)
LibraryThing member brett_in_nyc
I love Cahill's books, and I bought this one hook line and sinker. I wonder now how much of an historian or scholar he really is though. His stuff is really imaginative and positive. And, I certainly think the Irish saved civilization, and continue to this day to bridge difficult brooks. They invented it and mastered it, and modeled it for the rest of the world through difficult exploitative and oppressive times, and now they are thriving. Good for them and good for us. I have read his others and will continue to do so.… (more)
LibraryThing member pandorabox82
A quick, insightful read. This book was one of the texts used in a class I took focused on Irish history, and I have loved it ever since. The thing that has always struck me is that even though the Irish were so separated from the rest of the world, they still managed to save so much of it.
LibraryThing member iegneg
Entertaining, but should be supplemented w/ other histories on this period.
LibraryThing member BenjaminHahn
I really wanted to like this book, but ultimately I was unimpressed with Cahill's argument that "the Irish saved civilization". He almost gets there, and maybe he would have if he had dedicated a hundred pages or more to this overall short book, but he keeps it brief and spends a lot of his space on making a poor case for how civilization ended.
Cahill's argument on Rome's fall is quite short and a little disappointing since he brushes aside a lot of the existing scholarship that has gone into this question. He eventually settles on greed and loose morals and then poses that the values of early Christianity pulled the tatters together.
Cahill also makes an argument for early Irish peoples having a certain cultural attitude that lends itself to Christian enlightenment. Thus Ireland was a prime place for the remnants of book learned Christian monks to settle and keep the flame alive until they were strong enough to reseed England and the rest of Europe with the Greek/Roman/Christian heritage.
The big question left over is exactly what does Cahill mean by "civilization"? If he means a certain Roman Christianity version of Greek enlightenment, then yes, he might have a good argument here. But if he simply means "civilization" as in cities, with trade, philosophy, religion, agriculture, ect. then we have a bit of a problem. Were there any other places that were committed to retaining and preserving knowledge during this time? Why yes, there were. Byzantium was still going strong, as was Baghdad. In fact, the Islamic tradition was also doing basically the same thing as Cahill says the Irish monks were doing, copying and studying Greek and Roman classics. In fact, the Islamic scholars made many advancements in mathematics and medicine during this time. And if we want to extend "civilization" to include the east, then we can't forget China and South Asia too.
Overall, I think Cahill's writing style was engaging and he certianly gave me some food for thought. But as "hinge of history" he really should have called his book something like "How the Irish Helped Saved Western Civilization" instead of the sweeping generalization he posits on the book's cover.
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LibraryThing member Kendall41
Cute. A fun read if you're Irish, but be careful of over-interpreting the Irish role in all this
LibraryThing member kaelirenee
An amazing telling of the spiriting away of religious and philisophical texts to the monestaries of Ireland.
LibraryThing member AnneDenney
An excellent read, very interesting, and entertaining too. The author presents a fresh and sometimes astonishing version of history, and one that makes perfect sense. His version/ translation of St Patrick's Breastplate is very moving.
LibraryThing member roydknight
Cahill may oversimplify many facets and facts of late Roman culture and the rise of Irish culture in the west, but I read this as a general introduction to Irish history. If one expects more, then one will be disappointed. The case for the differences between the Roman way of "doing church" and the "monastic way of doing church" is a great study in comparisons (quotes are mine, not Cahill's!). And if one is bothered by the over religious nature of this discussion, one must understand that there was no alternative to the evolution of history during this time.

Cahill does show how monastic culture (from Patrick through Columcille) preserved much if not the majority of literature, both secular and sacred). Apparently the Irish enjoyed copying everything! But even more than this, there was and is an attitude within the Celtic mindside that functionality through relationships is much more important and emphasized than orthodoxy through tradition.

Having not read any thing else by Thomas Cahill, I would look forward to sampling and reading his other works.
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LibraryThing member amandachapman
Cahill does a wonderful job of researching the history of Ireland in this book. Ireland who has never seen a Renaissance or Enlightenment proves the Irish are resilient. The Irish just becomming literate kept copies of books that were burned across Rome. These people have been overlooked for their contributions to European civilized world. The Irish were so insignificant the Romans didn't even bother to conquer them. Cahill captures a lovely history of St. Patrick. A Roman Briton named Patricuis became a slave who became Patrick. He chose to be Irish and went inland to bring christianity to the Pagans withour martyrdom or war. The book suggest he may have confessed to murder at the age of 15 this is not known for sure. The Irish become literate and do not self impose censorship to the suprize of churchman who thought only to read religious content. Ireland was the first to pass private confession and its innovation spread throughout the rest of the church. The Irish recovered from invaders, such as, the Vickings, Normads, and The Great Famine to be strong in their design.… (more)
LibraryThing member Harrod
Excellent review of Ireland's contribution to Western Civilization!
LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
High marks for focusing on a little-known period of history - the time between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the High Middle Ages. I did feel that it took the author a while to get to his point - a lot of time was spend laying the groundwork for what Roman civilization was and what was going on in pagan Ireland before getting to the explosion of a literate culture around Irish Christianity. A quick, short read packed with details about Ireland in the early medieval period.… (more)


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