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How the Irish Saved Civilization (Hinges of History) Hardcover – Mar 1995


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1 edition (Mar. 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385418485
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385418485
  • Product Dimensions: 14.6 x 2.5 x 21.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,086,968 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review

HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILISATION is a shamelessly engaging, effortlessly scholarly, utterly refreshing history of the origins of the Irish soul and its huge contribution to Western culture ... For its portrait of St Patrick alone, it will resonate in the memory. (Thomas Keneally)

Lyrical, playful, penetrating and serious ... an entirely engaging, delectable voyage into the distant past, a small treasure (Richard Bernstein in the New York Times)

This sweepingly confident overview is more entertainingly told than any previous account ... An elegant book (P.J. Kavanagh in the Sunday Telegraph) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

The untold story of Ireland's role, from the fall of Rome to the rise of medieval Europe. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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First Sentence
On the last, cold day of December in the dying year we count as 406, the river Rhine froze solid, providing the natural bridge that hundreds of thousands of hungry men, women, and children had been waiting for. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Peasant TOP 500 REVIEWER on 16 July 2011
Format: Paperback
There is no doubt about it, this is a deeply flawed book. It is, however, an enjoyable read, if you are prepared not to let those flaws annoy you. The story of how classical texts were preserved in Irish monasteries isn't well enough known, and it is true that, once the enlightened minds of the Renaissance started looking for them, many of the surviving texts were traced in monasteries with strong Irish connections. And the tale of St Patrick, familiar to every Irish schoolchild, is illuminating and interesting enough to be worth telling to a new audience.

Unfortunately Cahill, who is clearly writing for a US audience, combines a strong personal agenda with a lack of historical knowledge. He repeatedly characterises early Irish christianity as "Catholic" in the sense of "as opposed to Protestant" when not only is that anachronistic, but Christianity in early Ireland wasn't even centred on Rome (it was inspired by the Desert Fathers of North Africa; differences were only resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664). He uses arguments based on the shape of the early church in the post-Roman provinces when these are irrelevant to Ireland's totally different tradition. He is equally weak on Irish pre-Christian culture, unable to decide whether it survived into the Christian era or was wiped out by Patrick.

Cahill's bias lets him down repeatedly, and he often wants to have his cake and eat it. Early on he cites as an example of vile anti-Catholic propaganda the tale that, in Irish parochial schools, the 'nuns told their charges never to order ravioli on a date lest their boyfriends be reminded of pillows'. I'm sure anyone who was schooled by Irish nuns in the 50s or 60s could top that with even more hilarious examples.
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46 of 55 people found the following review helpful By jakeysane on 2 Sept. 2006
Format: Paperback
Anyone reading this book will receive, at page 51, the following advice: "Most of Plato is impenetrable at first reading. If it begins to give you a headache, skip to the end of the passage - and just take my word for it."

By then, if you have any critical sense at all, you will have realised that this is not the most intelligent book ever written.

This is its argument: the Romans were ruthless, rapacious and overbearing. But at the same time, they were superficial, effete and degenerate. Compared with the virile, energetic, free-living barbarians massed around their frontiers, the Romans and their Empire were a waste of space. Nevertheless, `the Irish' deserve undying praise from the rest of the world because they copied out much of the literature left behind by the `unattractive' Roman civilisation, and `saved' it for posterity.

Why classical literature was worth saving is not immediately clear from Cahill's account. In a brief summary, he reviews only five celebrated classical writers: Virgil, Cicero, Plato, er . . . Ausonius, and, er . . . St. Augustine.

Virgil's Aeneid, he tells us, was valuable as the first great national epic - superior to the `folk epics' of Homer, though (as he later demonstrates) inferior to the `Irish epic', the Tain. Cicero is dismissed as shallow and boring. Plato, as we have seen, was `impenetrable' (anyway, his works were saved, not by the Irish, but by the Byzantines - almost the only time the great Eastern Roman Empire which lasted until the fifteenth century is mentioned at all - except as "a small defensible state on the Bosporus"). Ausonius, the 4th century poet and politician, was decadent and foolish (though clearly some anonymous and diligent Irish monk thought his work worth preserving).
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By VanGo on 2 July 2007
Format: Paperback
Totally misleading title - should be done under the Trade Descriptions Act really. Only gets to answer the claim of the title in the second to last chapter! The topic definitely deserves a proper going through as Cahill admits in the footnotes - the only study on Irish missionaries in Europe is from 1921 as a PhD thesis!

However, Cahill is a bloody good writer. Lively and witty and I went along with most of what he wrote: Pleasurable meanderings through Augustine's writings (both irreverent and serious), Saint Patrick, Irish mythology and poetry (not especially germain and a bit of a bore really), Classical Roman literature, Irish missionaries.

If only all history could be written like this - even if it's a bit wonky on the old Irish bias.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 27 May 1998
Format: Paperback
Very disappointing. Unfortunately, I fell for the catchy title. I felt the whole book's tone was summed up by Chahill's statement on the final pages that Jackie Onassis Kennedy had been kind enough to review the book and give helpful comments (or words to that effect). Well, unless I am much mistaken she is hardly the most eminent scholar of Irish history and nor is Cahill judging from this book. It is badly written, lacks both profondity and originality, and has a most irritating and condescending tone. I could have written it myself based on what I remember from school history classes a few years ago.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 24 April 1998
Format: Paperback
Thomas Cahill's book is a feeble (and cheap) attempt to whip up Irish-American patriotism. In fact, a catchy title and an attractive cover are about the only things this book has "going for it." Cahill is completely misguided and presents his arguments with a chaotic incoherence. He is also misinformed. For ex., he states that the art of the medieval period was filled with smiling and playful demons, as it was meant to be perceived as "light" by the audience. It is common knowledge that medieval art, religious art, was on the apocalyptic end of the church propaganda spectrum. His tone is always condescending, as if he were speaking to a group of children who could never possibly comprehend the sophisticated arguments he's making. He attempts to elevate the Irish to the status of the saviors of civilization, but does so by mocking other groups, such as the Mormons (whom he calls uneducated). His style makes the topic itself less interesting. It is not scholarly or even acceptable for main-stream readers. I would love to read a book which deals with the same subject written by someone else, as the topic itself, divorced from Cahill's inaptitude, is fascinating and definitely overlooked by true scholars, since it deals with a transitional period. Probably THE worst book I have ever read.
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