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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very partial view
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...
Published on 16 July 2011 by Peasant

versus
46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Irish Stew - a tabloid history
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...
Published on 2 Sept. 2006 by jakeysane


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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very partial view, 16 July 2011
By 
Peasant (Deepest England) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
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. Calling traditional Irish Catholicism narrow-minded and sex-obsessed is not a libel, but Cahill has too much of an axe to grind to see it.

More seriously, Cahill also ignores the role of Byzantium and the Eastern Empire - which only fell in the 15th century, AFTER the start of the Renaissance - and of Arab scholarship; at least, if not more, important in preserving classical texts. Claiming that, without the Irish monks, the knowledge of the classical world would have vanished without a trace is overstating the case.

By presenting his arguments so poorly - in many places the book is incoherent, his arguments contradictory - we find ourselves doubting whether any of this is worth paying attention to. There is a place for a good, popular book decribing the importance of the north, Ireland included, in early Christianity and the preservation of scholarship. If you are seriously interested in the way the late Roman Empire turned, Transformer-like, into the Roman Church, try The End of Antiquity: Archaeology, Society and Religion in Early Medieval Western Europe or The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, though I wouldn't describe either as a light read. Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation also has a good section on the role of the Celtic West in preserving Christian culture; shorter, far more readable and with better pictures.
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46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Irish Stew - a tabloid history, 2 Sept. 2006
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). Augustine is the only one who merits Cahill's sustained attention and praise - implying (some might think controversially) that Augustine must have been the greatest, or at least the most interesting, of all classical authors.

Cahill's impoverished catalogue of classical literature is understandable when you realise that actually he hates the Romans. They are, he tells us, those who have plenty, but want more. For Cahill, being `Roman' is a state of mind, as much as a cultural or political identity, and one which he deplores.

By contrast, `the Irish' are a chosen people with a world-saving mission (join the queue!). They have all the virtues and hardly any vices: but even their vices are virtuous. In spirituality, morality, poetry, architecture, and every other field of human endeavour Cahill can think of (including metalwork), they were the first, the best, the exemplary.

In labouring that point, Cahill never lets common sense get in the way. He presents myth and history as equally credible: Cuchullainn killed 130 kings in one day; St. Brendan dined on the back of a whale; St. Columbanus arrived in Lombardy in 612 AD - take your pick. Rome was the `vastest and most powerful empire in human history' - greater than China and Persia, then. There were no `real' missionaries between St. Paul and St. Patrick - so, Cahill asks us to believe, for the first four centuries AD, Christianity just blew about the world on the breeze, from Ethiopia to Ireland. Palladius, who went to Ireland before Patrick can be dismissed - because he was not Patrick. Patrick was a Briton who `became' an Irishman.

Without doubt, the Irish contribution to European history is unduly overlooked. There is a genuine need for a sensible and readable history of how Christianity came to Ireland in classical times; how and why classical learning was preserved there; and how monks from Ireland spread Celtic Christianity though post-classical Europe. Unfortunately, Cahill does not provide that. He clearly does not understand the essence of his subject: i.e. why classical civilisation was important to the world, and why it was worth `saving'. His account is sprinkled with howlers and blunders; and his quotations are not footnoted, so it is impossible to verify the bases for his controversial claims - though many appear suspect.

`How the Irish Saved Civilisation' is the historical equivalent of a tabloid newspaper: some facts, some myths - and a lot of spin and blarney - all muddled together, and wrapped up in a neat package in the hope that nobody will read it very carefully.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars cheerful and meandering, 2 July 2007
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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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What a nightmare!, 24 April 1998
By A Customer
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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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Any Irish/N. Irish schoolchild could have written this, 27 May 1998
By A Customer
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
1.0 out of 5 stars About as historically accurate as a conspiracy theory, 21 Sept. 1997
By A Customer
I do not disagree with the author's central premise, that in the dark ages, much of Western Europe's literary and historical heritage would have been lost without the assistance of Irish monks. HOWEVER, the author's historical research is painful. He refers to theories about Ireland's pre-history and early history that have been questioned, if not completely discredited. He never cites a dissenting view, most probably because of his inadequate research. Few (if any) scholars consider the Book of Invasions a historical document. (To those who have never heard of it, it's like believing in Atlantis) Many scholars argue with the idea that Patrick had ever been to the continent, let alone to Rome. The authors biases against pagan literature and history are offensive. He doesn't miss a chance to cite pagan sources that refer to sexual or bodily functions and his "analysis" of these sources constantly refer to them as lustful and unintelligent. The discerning should be able to recognize bad scholarship, even if they are not familiar with the subject matter. If you read this book and believe its contents, you will know less about Ireland than when you started.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Specious reasoning..., 10 Dec. 1998
By A Customer
Mr. Cahill has written an entertaining work on an interesting subject, but for his premise to work, he has to take a narrow view. The Irish saving civilization indeed! They certainly helped, but what Cahill ignores are the efforts of the Byzantines and the Arabs, who also copied and preserved classical manuscripts. Cahill would make you think that the Irish are the only ones who went about this business. Let's spread the credit where it's deserved.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Catholic doctrine masquerading as history, 22 Sept. 1998
By A Customer
This book purports to be about Ireland, but it is really about Catholic doctrine in Ireland. The historical material concerning the Roman Empire is already well known. There is some Irish history, but only as much as one reads in the lives of the saints. The title is misleading and the book, at least up to page 127 where I quit reading, is not worth buying. A one star rating is too high.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic portrait of the Celtic Church -- but who did they save civilization from?, 9 Feb. 2008
By 
This review is from: How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (Paperback)
Cahill's tribute to early Celtic Christianity is powerful and heart-felt. I've never seen a finer account of St. Patrick's life and times. And then Cahill captures an era of powerful authenticity for the young Celtic church. He respectfully reports that the Irish were sending female and male apostles to mainland Europe. A recently discovered sarcophagus in Amay, Belgium is decorated in the old Celtic style, and bears the image of a woman holding a bishop's crosier. The image is labeled "Saint Chrodoara". (p. 195.) And a medieval Irish text called the Martyrology of Tallaght names 119 female saints, though of these, the life stories of only four (Brigid, Monenna, Ite, and Samtham) are now known.

Of course this outburst of spirit was quelled for the sake of conformity with a church of imperial Rome. And Irish Catholicism settled into a quieter era, featuring a genial tolerance for pagan tradition, and devotion to book learning. Cahill makes a strong case that the Irish text copyists and scholars saved our heritage of classical thought from the ravages of a barbaric age. But I want to ask Cahill -- was it the so-called barbarian invaders of Europe who tried to destroy the classical heritage? Or was it more the imperial church itself, with its drive to suppress older pagan traditions of religion, philosophy and art? Does Cahill blame the nomadic migrants for what the church itself did? Who was it really, that the Irish Celtic Church saved civilization from?

--author of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars EXCELLENT BOOK, 18 Aug. 2013
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This review is from: How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (Paperback)
THIS IS A BRILLIANT BOOK OF A SIDE OF IRISH THAT ONE DOESN'T USUALLY HEAR ABOUT.i RECOMMEND IT TO ALL READERS,NOT JUST IRISH READERS.
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