Monday, February 17, 2014

Tom Cahill. How the Irish Saved Civilization

     Tom Cahill. How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995) Cahill backs up his claim with an imaginative reconstruction of why and how the Irish adopted (and adapted) Christianity. St Patrick, a romanised Christian Briton, appealed to their Celtic gloom and sense of martyrdom. They had a tradition of killing a man as a sacrifice to the terrible forces that would otherwise overwhelm them. Jesus’s crucifixion was to them a confirmation of their sense of indebtedness to the gods; he was an analogue of the dying Gaul, a central sacrificial figure in their mythology.
     They also had a great sense of history, and a grand tradition of oral literature. Patrick taught them letters, and they used this new technology not only to record their own traditions, but even more to absorb the knowledge and traditions of the peoples over the seas. In this way they preserved classical literature and philosophy as well as early Christian theology and the scriptures. The adapted the Eastern practice of solitary hermitages into sociable groups of like-minded men (and women, and sometimes both), thus founding the monastic tradition. They founded monasteries all over Ireland and Scotland, and then moved south and east into England and Europe. They christianised Europe north and west of the Alps, and that’s how they saved civilisation.
     Cahill writes wonderfully well; he has the Irish/Celtic gift of smithing words. He quotes enough original sources and provides enough hard data that his thesis rings true. The book’s a history of the imagination rather than a history of ideas. In constructing it, Cahill reminds us that ideas without imagination are stillborn. Read it, you’ll enjoy it even if your skepticism is aroused. ***

No comments: