We don’t learn about it in history class growing up in America, but modern Western culture owes a great deal to the Irish. And “a great deal” is putting it lightly.
Reading Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization was a pivotal experience for me, for a couple of reasons. A friend loaned me the audiobook version when I was home in Texas in the summer in 2005. I remember it well, because Cahill’s fascinating narrative is what got me hooked on audiobooks, right around the time that I started making regular 15-hour bus trips back and forth across Yunnan. I could easily listen to a couple of books each round trip and decided to put a subscription to Audible.com to good use.
Cahill’s book on the Irish also helped me grasp for the first time that history is about more than facts and dates and timelines. Cahill looks at groups of people in crucial periods and describes their overall impact on the way of thinking or course of events to follow throughout the Western world. His writing made me aware that some of the facts we learn in school aren’t necessarily untrue, but they may be presented in a way that distracts from or covers up other points of view. History is written in the perspective of men and women, who are always frail and sometimes purely deceitful, and I must be critical as a thinker in order to understand it, not just accept it blindly. That goes for reading a book from 100 years ago or an article about current events. A good lesson to learn while living in communist China.
How the Irish Saved Civilization is the first book in a series called “The Hinges of History,” which also includes volumes on the contributions of the ancient Jews, Jesus and his disciples, the Greeks, and Europe in the Middle Ages. Supposedly there are two more books to come, but I’ve been obsessively checking Cahill’s page on the Random House website for years (I mean it — years) and have seen no news of what’s next.
So, according to Cahill, what did the Irish do to save civilization?
The short version is that while the Roman Empire was falling to the barbarians and all their art and literature was being destroyed, the good monks of Ireland, tucked safely in their monasteries away from the devastation of Europe, were busy making hand-written copies of everything in their libraries. Thus were the records of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian civilization preserved. Without the work of the Irish monks, little would have been left for us today. Who knew?
And why were all these monks in Ireland?
Skip to the chapter on Patrick, or Patricius as he was born in Britain, a Roman citizen and a Christian. Captured as a slave by the barbaric Irish as a boy, he began having visions at a young age. One led him to escape slavery by telling him to walk to a waiting ship, even though he was 200 miles from the coast. Back home with his family in Britain, he continued hearing voices, but this time it was the Irish, begging him to return to them. Eventually he knew it was God calling him to take the gospel to the Irish — he heard the voice of Jesus Christ himself saying, “He who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks within you.”
So he went, after becoming ordained. Patrick went as a missionary to those who had kidnapped him. More amazing — he didn’t go grudgingly, but showed evidence of truly loving the Irish people.
According to Cahill, Patrick is the first missionary since the time of the apostles. Like Paul, Patrick is a missionary called directly by a vision, by the voice of Jesus. He is the first missionary to go to a people outside the Greco-Roman world (this includes Thomas in India). Patrick also stands out as the first person in recorded history to vocally oppose slavery, as the tides of power changed and the British began kidnapping the newly converted Irish.
Those are God-given characteristics of Patrick worth celebrating every March 17.
One last word on Cahill as an author — I don’t agree with some of his theological positions (most evident in the book on Jesus), and I’ve read another book by him outside this series and found that I also don’t completely agree with him politically. In some ways, this makes reading his books even more important to me. He holds views different from mine on some issues, but I still really enjoy the way he uses language, the way he tells a story, the way he makes me consider things I never had before. It’s good to read well-spoken authors who differ from me. It helps me grow, helps me have compassion for those who aren’t the same as me, and helps me not to be prideful.
Happy Saint Patrick’s day, all!