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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very partial view, 16 July 2011
This review is from: How the Irish Saved Civilisation: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (Hinges of History) (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. 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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Aug 2015 10:58:25 BDT
Last edited by the author on 26 Aug 2015 11:03:15 BDT
gille liath says:
It's you who are mistaken, in assuming that Catholic = 'centred on Rome'. The Irish never saw themselves as anything other than part of the universal church; it's simply that they were geographically separated from it for a time. The proof is that, unlike most people in similar circumstances, they were willing to give up their own preferences in usage when the time came. As for being 'inspired by the Desert Fathers' (who were themselves nothing but members of the Catholic/Orthodox church), that is sheer baseless assertion. Whether you know anything about what it is like to be educated by Religious, or are just assuming stereotypes are true, I couldn't say.

I believe you, though, that this is a poor book.

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Sep 2015 15:56:11 BDT
Peasant says:
Hang on, hang on. I was criticising the author for characterising early Irish religion as being the same as modern Roman Catholicism. It was precisely my point that it was not so. The connection between early Irish Christianity and the Desert Fathers isn't some mad idea of mine, it's the generally recognised interpretation.
As for the matter of education in Ireland during the 50s and 60s; Cahill wants to suggest that it is libellous to suggest that it was puritanical and narrow minded. Cahill himself is American and though he may have received a Catholic education, he did not recieve an Irish education. I don't think I am 'just assuming stereotypes' when I base my conclusions on the experiences of my friends, on numerous autobiographies and on the flow of chilling revelations in the Irish press in recent years. After all, what is one to base one's views on?
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