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Irish Stew - a tabloid history
on 2 September 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.