How The Irish Saved Civilization – book review

With Saint Patrick’s Day coming up soon you may find it interesting to read a book that details what is an overlooked contribution of Irish society to the wold.

The book How The Irish Saved civilization by Thomas Cahill is a fascinating look at what was happening in Ireland while the rest of Europe was in what is known as the Dark Ages.

The books starts with a detailed description of the fall of the Roman empire. The author points out that the fall actually happened over hundreds of years, and was so gradual that most members of the empire just had a vague sense that “things used to be better”.

The way that the Irish “saved civilization” was basically by being out of sync with the rest of the word. When the ancient Roman Empire was at its peak and classical literature was at its best, Ireland was still a savage land filled with unread, unwashed barbarians.

Literacy and classical literature came hundreds of years later to Ireland than to the rest of Europe. This was in large part due to  Saint Patrick himself. He a was well educated boy living in England who had a classical Roman education. He was kidnapped by an Irish raiding party and kept as a slave.  Like other slaves in Ireland he was kept naked all the time.

After several years, he was able to escape. After he made it back home he then made the decision to return to Ireland. However, he did not come back to exact revenge, but to teach the Irish about Christianity and the intellectual wonders of the ancient world.

Against all odds, Patrick’s teaching caught fire and the Irish delved into Christianity and literature with a passion. As the rest of Europe was falling into the Dark Ages the Irish were building universities and libraries and reading and copying the ancient manuscripts.

Remember that there were no printing presses, Xerox machines or word processors. Each book had to be painstakingly copied by hand. In mainland Europe and the Mediterranean millions of  books and scrolls were being lost and the population was becoming more and more illiterate. In Ireland  monks and scholars were copying and preserving the works of Plato Aristotle, Virgil an Homer.  Many of these works would have been lost forever if copies had not been saved in walled monasteries in Ireland.

So on Saint Patrick’s day, instead of drinking green beer and wearing a funny hat, you may want to read this excellent and well documented  book and learn about the real Saint Patrick and find out about the often overlooked intellectual history of Ireland. If you are of Irish heritage it will make you proud. And if you are not of Irish heritage, a simple “thank you” will suffice.

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