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cahill-irish-savedSo I appear to be 0-for-2 in Ireland books. Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization is, like Guns, Germs, & Steel, held up as a modern pop-history classic; I first encountered it in the pages of the mom-and-pop-gift-guide Wireless catalog. Despite the nationalistic title, though, the book is not about Ireland. The first half of the volume is instead dedicated instead to ancient Rome and Cahill detailing why it was the most awesome civilization ever. I'm personally not all that enamored with ancient Rome, so this was an unpleasant bait and switch for me. (Cahill's arguments - hey, at least they weren't ancient Greece, with all the pederasty, amirite - did not do much to move me.)

Most of the second half of the book was dedicated to a mini-biography of St. Patrick, he whom Cahill credits with single-handedly saving Western civilization through the introduction of Christianity to its "warrior children" (as Cahill repeatedly and condescendingly labels the Celts). Ireland is important only so far as it provided mainland European monks a far-flung place to settle and transcribe books relatively unmolested by Goths and Vandals and what have you; while there were some notable Irish monks, the Irish as a whole are generally viewed as stupid, uncultured savages who need the Real Europeans to keep them in line. Meanwhile, though St. Patrick does indeed seem an exceptional man who lived an extraordinary life, a) l'état c'est pas lui, b) he needs a full-length biography to really do his life justice, and c) I'm not sure I trust Cahill's account of his life. Cahill alludes, for example, to a few controversies concerning St. Patrick's life but fails to give us the full story - he simply papers over concerns with personal assurances that the worries are unfounded. I recall better biographies like Undaunted Courage, where Stephen Ambrose clearly has great admiration for Meriwether Lewis yet does not shy from detailing the few mistakes made in his command; he trusts that his reader can still respect a less-than-perfect human being and not see one mistake as irretrievably spoiling the whole. (Furthermore, I'm under the impression - and please correct me if I'm wrong here - that St. Patrick's legacy in Ireland is not looked upon as unilaterally beneficial nowadays, considering the bits of ancient Celtic religion his Christianity displaced; if so, Cahill completely elides any such complexity.)

Though How the Irish is short, I'm kind of surprised the Wireless crowd has the patience for it - it's poorly paced and doesn't get around to its main subject until the next-to-last chapter, which takes a very brief look at the inner workings of monasteries and how they actually went about preserving literature and artworks. I found this material quite interesting, but it wasn't long before Cahill moved on. This subject cries out for a more skilled author, yet I fear that this volume has become the definitive - if far from the most informative - treatment of the subject.


( 6 pithy comments — Say something pithy! )
Dec. 31st, 2012 06:36 am (UTC)
What is it about Ireland that you want to read about? A general history, or????

I've only read a smattering of Irish-related books, and I thought I had read one by Cahill that I liked, but I think I was thinking of The Great Shame by Thomas Keneally, which isn't horrible, from what I remember. I'm pretty sure I have that Cahill book (I went through an Irish fangirl period about a decade ago), but I don't think I ever got around to reading it. I tended to focus more or the music and art side than literature.

I think it's gonna be hard to find a book that encompasses *everything* about Ireland. I don't know if there's a widely recced history, sorta like Zinn's People's History of the US, but Ireland is a bit more complex since it was constantly being invaded, colonized and having their identity changed (sorta like you mentioned in regards to St. Patrick). Although, speaking of which, I visited a church on the Rock of Cashel that basically had statues of pagan gods in their chapel in order to cover all the bases. XD (I think the Irish form of Christianity at the beginning was not a rejection of all of the old gods, if that chapel is any indication.)
Dec. 31st, 2012 04:11 pm (UTC)
I think it's gonna be hard to find a book that encompasses *everything* about Ireland

Oh, I was never looking for anything like that; I was just hoping that these two books I read would cover their own limited objectives well - which was not to be the case, alas. I do have a bit of an interest in Ireland, so if you have any recommendations on music & art books, I'm ready to hear 'em.

The Celtic ways survived St. Patrick's Christianity, but they were, to my understanding, greatly suppressed. I mean, Patrick smashed statues of Crom! Conan's god! If that ain't throwin' down the gauntlet, then I dunno what is.
Dec. 31st, 2012 04:34 pm (UTC)
I wasn't familiar with Crom, but since he may have been worshipped with some human sacrifice (ala bog bodies?) "according" to ye ole wikipedia, I guess I don't totally mind that god not being worshipped as fully as he once was... XD But to be fair, Christianity pretty much co-opted most pagan worship (even with the Romans!) in some form or another.

I'll have to do some thinking and get back to ya on Irish books/subjects, but I found James Joyce's short stories fairly accessible. (Ulysses frightens me.) If you want to be depressed, be sure to read Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. XD 'Tis (also by McCourt) might be more cheerful, but as I haven't read it, I can't really comment on that one. I think his brother, Paddy?, is a bit more light-hearted with his fiction.
Jan. 14th, 2013 03:49 pm (UTC)
I realized I never got back to you with Irish books and I woke up today with the cover of this book in my head (the book isn't really about Ireland, but the cover is a picture of Tollund Man):
100 Great Archaeological Discoveries

It's hard for me to rec specific books, b/c I sorta focused on mainly listening to music while in my Ireland phase, but some subjects you might want to check out more are those dealing with archaeology (not even the Vikings/Romans/English could erase what is hidden below the ground, and in some cases they left the above ground stuff alone). Some interesting Irish sites: Newgrange, Hill of Tara and the aformentioned Rock of Cashel (which was ok until Cromwell came along). And I don't know if Cahill's book mentioned The Book of Kells at all, but that's the most famous illustrated Irish gospel, but there are a few others whose names escape me at the moment.

Also, there is a rich tradition of Irish/Celtic fairy tales - I don't know if there's a definitive version of the legends, but you might enjoy reading about Finn McCool, the Tuatha de Danann, and the like.
Jan. 4th, 2013 02:14 am (UTC)
Since I'm obsessed with Irish everything, I must own this book. If only for the awesome title! :)
Jan. 4th, 2013 02:36 am (UTC)
It is indeed an awesome title! The contents don't live up to the billing, sadly.
( 6 pithy comments — Say something pithy! )



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