indigozeal (indigozeal) wrote in 50bookchallenge,

#44: How St. Patrick saved the glorious Roman civilization, no thanks to those no-good Irish

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.
Tags: ireland, religion, rome, unimpressed

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