No sooner did I say that I might not be able to finish a book than I picked this up and decided to read it. And then I couldn't put it down. I carried it around with me for a day and a half, reading at every opportunity. I even stood there at the ballet rehearsals, while the director shouted at the girls who were out of line, blissfully reading this delightful book. I should mention that this is one of my favorite books of all time, largely I think because I didn't expect to like it as much as I did. I think I expected it to be a dry tome, or a painfully dull account of Irish history. Happily, it's neither of those things. I'm going to cheat a little bit and quote someone else's review here, because I like it:
"How the Irish Saved Civilization is a shamelessly engaging, effortlessly scholarly, utterly refreshing history of the origins of the Irish soul and its contribution to Western culture." (from Thomas Keneally, who wrote Schindler's List)
I couldn't have (and obviously didn't) say it better. What I like about this quote is that it brings up a couple of things I have to agree with. For one, this book is incredily easy to read, without sacrificing anything in the way of scholarship or research. Both times I have read it, I completed it in under two days. It's not a tough read. But that doesn't mean it's simplistic. Cahill covers quite a bit; he just doesn't spend endless time droning on about unnecessary details. In fact, I think he gives his reader the benefit of intelligence in understanding what he is trying to say, rather than saying the same thing again and again, or (even worse) using the elevated language of academia just to give his book a more high-brow tone. And he throws in delightful little personal notes along the way, which may not be the most scholarly thing to do, but it certainly adds to the enjoyment.
In addition to being easy to read, this book is refreshing, which makes it refreshingly appropriate for its description of the Irish people. Again and again, Cahill tries to make clear the Irish love of story and laughter, of song and mirth. This is not a dour group of people, and his style of writing seems to represent that perfectly. Even though the Irish have experienced some enormous tragedies in their history, they always seem to survive by finding the bright side of things. I'll admit I could only giggle when I read a brief poem written by ninth century Irishman John Scotus Eriugena to describe the passing of Hincmar, who was archbishop of Rheims and not a fan of the Irish during his lifetime:
Here lies Hincmar, crook. But savage greed aside,
He did one truly noble thing: he died. (Cahill's translation)
This is a good representation of the Irish in their dry humor, their clever wit (when asked once at dinner what separated an Irishman from a fool, Eriugena responded quickly, "Only the table."), and their ability to never take anything too seriously. That's a gift, I think, and one I haven't inherited from my Irish side of the family. It's also something that everyone could stand to cultivate a little.
So, what is this book about? Cahill's subtitle is "The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe." In a nutshell, Cahill explains how the recently converted and very enthusiastic Christian Irish men and women saved Western Civilization by copying down for posterity the disappearing literature of ancient Greece and Rome and by infecting all of Europe with their contagious joy as they spread out in missionary work. Of course, Cahill starts the story at the very beginning by explaining the fall of Rome, the rise of early Christianity, the influence of St Augustine (and the contrast between him and the later St Patrick), and the pre-Christian lifestyle of the Irish. While many early churchmen looked askance at reading and perpetuating the pagan classics, the Irish merely saw fascinating stories--not unlike their own mythology--and eagerly copied them down. Occasionally, they would even make notes in the margin of their copying, recording their thoughts as they worked. For example, one scribe commented on his own sadness on copying down Hector's death at the hand of Achilles. This would be like someone writing, "I like what Jefferson put here," on the Declaration of Independence. Today, we gasp in astonishment at the very thought of such sacrilege, but the Irish didn't see it that way. They didn't consider their opinions any less valuable, so they didn't see anything wrong with making notes about them.
I like the book. I recommend it. Enough said. I also like Cahill's other books, although I don't think any of them has quite the lighthearted quality of this one. The Gifts of the Jews is a bit slower and more serious; Desire of the Everlasting Hills approaches pure lyricism in the way it is written; and Sailing the Wine Dark Seas is just as complex as the Greeks themselves. All of Cahill's book are very well written, but I think How the Irish Saved Civilization will always hold a special place in my heart. Just like the Irish.