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How the Irish Saved Civilization

by Thomas Cahill

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In recent years, Thomas Cahill has created a genre uniquely his own, churning out one volume after another to acknowledge the cultural debt we owe to various groups. How the Irish Saved Civilization was the first and best of these books. It tells the remarkable story of how Christianity came to the remote outpost of Ireland, how a flowering of Celtic culture emerged, and how, when the rest of Europe was plunged into the abyss of barbarian invasions, illiteracy and war, the Irish monks preserved classical and Christian texts from oblivion.

This is a story that makes me cheer. Not often are the bookworms of this world cast as heroes in the march of time. In an age of widespread literacy and the abundance of books on every subject, it is difficult for us to grasp just how tenuous our link to the learning of the ancients is. Of course, what Cahill’s thesis does not take into account is the continuity of the Byzantine Empire, whose libraries served as a repository for so many manuscripts—but it was only during the Renaissance that much of this inheritance moved West. Until then, much depended on the tenacity of those Irish monks and their quills.

by J. Mark Bertrand