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Inspirational Reads

Oh, Thank God, It's the Irish!

March 15, 2010

Look over just to the right of the main body of my blog. No, lower. Yeah, right in there, in the section where I've listed the books I've read in 2010. Notice anything?

Yeah, I finally finished reading How the Irish Saved Civilization! And, well...yeah.

I honestly don't know why it took me so long to read this book, other than the fact that it fell behind my bed and I didn't think about it for six months and then it got shuffled down in my pile of stuff to read. Apparently, in my world, Neil Gaiman & Shakespeare > Irish. And, well, probably pretty much every one else's world, too.

Being that it's the Monday before St. Patrick's day, I thought I'd write up a little review of the book right here.

So, I think this book would have been better titled How the Irish Saved Western Civilization's Writings from the Ravages of Bands of Barbarians Hellbent on Sacking and Destroying the Roman Empire Mostly by Being on the Fringes and the Forgotten Edges of Europe. However, that doesn't flow so well, or it would just be really difficult to get onto the cover of a book and still be eye-catching.

Anyway, that alternate title pretty much sums it up.

Thomas Cahill, the author, starts out by painting a picture of the final days of the Roman Empire. Because Rome had been the sterling standard for civilization for eleven centuries, everyone wanted in because, once in Rome, it was easier to become a citizen than it was to be evicted (unless you count death as an eviction). There were lots of other problems cropping up in Rome that led to the ultimate downfall of the empire, but when the Germans began pouring over the Rhine in the early parts of the fifth century, it pretty much spelled the end for Rome's power.

Along about this time, some kid named Patricius, who lived on the western shores of Britannia, found himself kidnapped and forced into slavery by Irish raiders. This was also about the same time that Constantine was having his crisis of faith and made the conversion to Christianity--basically on his deathbed--despite having become a tad more lenient upon the Christians than some of his predecessors--Diocletian, to name one--for a number of decades. And, well, if Christianity was good enough for the Emperor, then, by golly, it was good enough for the rest of the Roman citizenry.

Because, you know, when in Rome, do as the Emperor does in order to curry favor with him and help keep your guts on the inside of your body or your head firmly attached to your shoulders.

So, Christianity spread through the noble classes because they wanted to be like Mike the Emperor and then it began catching on with the slaves because, when you've got nothing else to look forward to than a life of servitude, Christianity's promise of reward in the afterlife looks pretty good.

This is the world that Patricius lives in. And, since he's now a slave, he begins to pray to this Christian God and eventually he makes the big conversion shortly after being captured and living in Ireland. After about seven years, he escapes, hops a ship to the mainland, studies to become a man of God, and returns to the Ireland, wherein he goes about spreading the word to the Irish. Being that the Irish don't have much in the way of a nobility or a social hierarchy, they latch onto Christianity fast. And, as people are being converted, more and more folks are giving themselves over to the ministry and monasteries are being erected right and left.

In a bit of cultural switcheroo, the mainland, which had thrived under Pax Romana for over a thousand years, now was a war-torn mess, with roving bands of barbarians, bandits and even the last vestiges of the Roman legions fighting all over the place. On Ireland, where the Romans refused to go because of the mad, untamed, war-like people inhabiting the island, a widespread peace spread across the land (Pax Hibernia?) as Patricius did his work. So, as shit was going crazy on the continent, people were unassing the joint right-and-left, but where to go? Why, hell, let's go to this lovely little green island with all it's quaint little people, it's monasteries and it's sexy red-headed bitches.

As people continued to show up on Ireland, seeking refuge from the insanity going on on the mainland, they brought with them their possessions, which included books. And, what do monasteries have in spades? Scribes who love copying shit down from one page to the next! As such, once they were finished copying scriptural texts, they began copying some of the writings from the old Roman Empire and from the Golden Age of Greece and lots of other places. Wherever people showed up, they brought with them books, and those books got copied down and thusly the Irish monks saved countless texts that would have otherwise been burnt or destroyed or sacked during the battles on the mainland.

Eventually, there were enough monasteries and monks that they had to start finding new places to live. So, the monks--with all their writings--began moving into Great Britain, and then into France and eventually made their way down through Switzerland and into Italy--a kind of full-circle for the writings of Rome.

Aaaaaaaand...that's it. That's how the Irish "saved" civilization. Even though the whole thing was started off by a Briton who was a citizen of the Roman Empire who eventually considered himself Irish. Don't get me wrong; Cahill does a great job of writing the book, and the text itself is pretty easy to read. One other thing that Cahill does a good job of is linking these things together, one after another, in a way that's reminiscent of one of my favorite human beings, James Burke. While it's easy to read and the text isn't bogged down by being too full of itself or anything, the premise is pretty thin, though I understand what Cahill was trying to say and all. Without the Irish copying all this stuff down, we wouldn't have copies of the Iliad or the Odyssey. And if we didn't have any of those things, what would Hollywood have to ruin?

So, while we're all sloshing down green beer on Wednesday and remembering how much we love Guinness (you have my full permission to falcon punch anyone who says "they brew better stuff over in Ireland"), raise a glass to Patricius, who helped save "civilization" by bringing Christianity--and peace--to Ireland. Oh, and let's not forget to salute Ireland's abundance of redheaded beauties!

And to the entire book, there was no mention of Lou Holtz or any saucy redheads. More's the pity...


Scope said...

3 cheers for the saucy redheads!

Scope said...

Oh, and when the title of this post showed up last night, but I couldn't get to it, I assumed it had something to do with the bracket selections!

MJenks said...

@ Scope: My wife also thought it was about the tournament selections. So, you're in good company, especially when it comes to saucy redheads.

Sully said...

I'm copying everything you write MJ... just in case.

Pearl said...

I may have to pick this up. Sounds like something I'd read.


Chemgeek said...

"you have my full permission to falcon punch anyone who says "they brew better stuff over in Ireland""

Oh, the saint's be praised!!!!!

SkylersDad said...

18 it is!!!!

Absolutely loved that.

words...words...words... said...

I, like Scope, thought this was going to be about the tournament and the Irish's surprising 6 seed. I've been meaning to read this book.

Oh, and you still have an unclaimed prize to claim.

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

I'll be honest. I didn't really read this post. I might be a Murphy, but I only married one. Give me green beer, but I don't have the attention span for learning anything today.

Happy Hour...Somewhere said...

I love James Burke~! I have his book Connections and I suppose by now you can buy the show on DVD. My daughter is half Irish and dyed her hair red, so I will have to tell her her people saved civilization. I think she would rather turn 21 and drink a Guinness though.

Ed said...

Irish chics are soooooo HOT!

That Celtic Woman group makes my junk jump.

carissa said...

You kind of making a way of making things that would never sound interesting to me, quite appealing. Bravo. And yay for beer!

BeckEye said...

Hey, that the Irish could do anything while maintaining a constant buzz is pretty impressive.