Ex Hibernia: A Book Review of “How the Irish Saved Civilization”

This book has been on my reading list for years, and I finally picked it up; and could not put it down. It is an amazing read!! Thomas Cahill leads us on a brilliant romp through 5000 years of Irish history, gleaning cultural and intellectual treasures as he points out the surprising significance of a small country that in modern history has never really seemed to enjoy it.

He begins with a glimpse of that corner of the world in the year the Rhine froze over and the barbarians headed for the gates of Rome, and there fell a chilling economic and sociological hoarfrost over the Pax Romana which had been depended upon by the actuaries of the civilized world up till then. The stalwart but weary theology of Augustine had many centuries to hibernate before it would be taken up and plied as a stairway to Heaven by the Reformers, and so the spirituality of St. Patrick and his cohorts of the green and white (and later, red) martyrdoms would arise to bear up all Europe on their shoulders. And not just by their asceticism, but by their unanticipated erudition. The Book of Kells with its ornate symbolism and painstaking calligraphy is but one example of the decades – no, the centuries – of monastic dedication to academic excellence that preserved for civilization the beauties of classical scholarship.

We wander with him through a skein of enigmatic threads of thought and influence that can be traced from Plato to Yeats, John Scotus Eriugena to Columcille, James Joyce to Alaric the Goth; but which, when you step back to take them all in together, form a consummate Celtic knot of history, weaving in and out through art and archaeology and literature and religion. Ireland’s ever-buoyant spirit comes out in perfect bas-relief, with characters as brilliantly portrayed as Medb (indomitable will and sexual fearlessness) and Cuchulainn (the warp-spasm of the Irish heroic warrior king) and the Morrigan (Irish shape-changing goddess of Druidic stock). And we can clearly see the vestiges of their sway over the present day inhabitants of Éire who have still the soul of their forebears.

Cahill captures their enduring poignance with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s quote at the passing of JFK: “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” But for me the lasting significance of Cahill’s work is summed up at the end. He correctly perceives across the span of all human history a dichotomy of Roman and catholic, power-brokers and peacemakers, conquerors and lovers, the worldly and the saintly. And it is the latter – those who are truly Irish at heart – that God will always use for our salvation.


Photo credit: Dymet @ Flickr.com


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