Long ago, ancient historians and philosophers bewildered themselves over a single question: “What is Jerusalem’s connection to Athens?” Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization poses a much better and more answerable question: “what is Ireland’s connection to Rome”? Rome, that great and glorious empire which officially fell in 476 A.D., was a world apart from Ireland—an island cut off from most European connections for centuries and had even escaped the peering eye of the Roman Empire—yet without Ireland, western civilization would indeed have been lost. Therefore, I shall endeavor to answer three questions: what was lost, what was gained, and how was it gained in context to Ireland and the revival of Western Civilization.
Cahill spends the first two chapters discussing the fall of Rome and its mighty civilization. The simple answer to the first question is that when Rome fell in 476 its mighty civilization, nearly twelve hundred years in the making, fell with it. Yet what did that entail and what exactly was lost? Essentially, Roman society and culture was lost once the barbarians came and sacked Rome. When Alaric and his army stood at the gates of Rome to demand surrender, Cahill states that “Roman security died and a new world conceived” (31). Cahill uses the lives and writings of Ausonius and Augustine to exemplify the Roman civilization and culture that was lost. Ausonius, being a poet, wrote many poems about the various individuals in his life, not the least being his grandmother and aunt. His writings are full of ambiguity and lacking in insight, yet that is the style of Roman literature. As Cahill would say, “there is seldom any necessary information to be communicated, insights are scarce, and genuine emotion is almost entirely absent” (21). Yet this was civilized life and it never reappeared (21). Another factor of Roman civilization that was lost was the sort of blending of Christianity and paganism. It was a cloak that could be donned and then removed (21). Moreover, the pagan gods of Rome were never quite abolished, instead they “were shadows of their formerly lively selves” (22). This morphing of Christianity didn’t reappear until Celtic Christianity revived it. Yet perhaps the biggest thing that was lost once the barbarians sacked Rome was the amount of learning and scholarship that the Empire had amassed for nearly twelve centuries. Cahill states that, “A world in chaos is not a world in which books are copied and libraries maintained” (35). The great system of learning, mainly the libraries, was victimized during the very unstable years of the Empire by looting and other forms of vandalism (35). The summary of the knowledge lost can be summarized through St. Augustine’s life and writings. As Cahill would say, he is the “last of classically educated men” (42). With the sack of Rome came the destruction or ruin of Latin and with it the literature that Cahill calls the “content of classical civilization” (58). Throughout the sections speaking about Rome, Cahill uses quotes from Virgil, Cicero, and other Latin authors to exemplify the culture and thought of Roman civilization. Had all really been lost, we would have lost everything we now hold as the basis for our perception of literature, history, philosophy, religion, and much more. Augustine not only wrote much about religion and the Christian walk of life, he also brought to new heights the classical tradition of autobiography (41). All this was lost and as Augustine lay dying in Hippo, he heard the sound of the barbarians besieging the city. Upon his death and the death of Roman civilization, all things classical were lost…but not for long.
If all things civilized and western were lost then why do we still have Augustine’s writings, Ausonius’ writings, and the works of Homer, Cicero, Virgil and especially the Scriptures? The question then to ask is what was gained and how was it gained. This is the point where the Irish enter the scene. Ireland is perhaps the most unlikely place for western civilization to call its rebirthing site but it really is. Once St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, a passion for learning and scholarship occurred which resulted in the revival of classical learning. This fervor of learning Cahill appropriately calls “a period of change so rapid and extreme that Europe will never see its like again” (123). This fervor was brought about by the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, a British Christian and former slave in Ireland during his youth. This intellectual and ecclesiastical renaissance brought many of the things that had once been lost during the fall of Rome. Through the influx of monasticism, ancient Latin and Greek texts were recopied beginning with the gospels and other Biblical texts (159). The monasteries and the hermits of “Green Martyrdom” spent most of their day studying the Scriptures and striving to increase their knowledge of God and this fever of reading and studying created centers of learning (151). But the Irish weren’t just interested in copying and studying the Scriptures, they were greatly interested in the pagan literatures of Greece and Rome and even their own pagan traditions (159). The Irish were true lovers of language and because of it, all texts whether pagan or sacred, Latin or Irish, were copied down (160). Their lack of qualms about censorship brought about a revival of the old Roman sense of paganism and Christianity combined (159). If literature and language was regained, how was it gained? Cahill states that the Irish thought literacy as “their central religious act” just as the Israelites had thought before them (163). Moreover, they were a creative people and language was something they played with all the time (164). This fervor for learning and writing permeated not only Ireland but all over Western Europe. Wherever an Irish missionary went, there he planted churches as well as schools and monasteries where literature could be copied (205). So learning and the knowledge of Latin spread once again throughout the old Roman Empire. Therefore, through the monastic life and centers of learning as well as their innate desire for creativity and love of language, the Irish saved civilization.
It is amazing to consider that a single solitary island, insignificantly placed in the North Atlantic, could have had such an impact on western civilization and for so short a time. In the ninth century, Vikings came and destroyed most of the monasteries and learning centers of the Irish (210). They stripped the books of their wealth, burned them, and killed or tortured as many monks as they pleased (211). But by the eleventh century, when Ireland regained some stability, it would never be the same cultural center that it had been before the Viking attacks (212). Still, the effects of the height of Irish learning and literacy had a long lasting effect so that today we can now read the works of Augustine, Plato, Cicero, and even the Tain Bo Cuilange to our hearts’ content. Though most of the Roman civilization was lost, Ireland revived its literature and language through monasticism and literacy. That is how Ireland saved civilization.