Sunday, August 21, 2011

How the Irish Saved Civilization


How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. by Thomas Cahill Doubleday, New York. 

My father's parents were both Irish, and he spent a good part of his childhood living with his parents on family farms in Armagh and Ardglass, so goodness knows – I am biased when it comes to bragging about the Irish. 

As part of his sense of being Irish, my father used to brag about the day that his mother achieved no small amount of fame in Cranbrook sometime between 1912 and 1919 when she served Mrs. Fingal-Smith, the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Society, liberal ponies of home-made tonic--a concoction of dandelion wine fortified with a generous dose of whiskey. Poor Mrs. Fingal Smith, unused as she was to such medicinal doses, was rendered totally indisposed.  

This, of course, is all part and parcel of the irrepressible Irish spirit that Thomas Cahill celebrates in his rollicking history How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Cahill's effortless prose captures what I experience – as a Canadian - as a particularly Irish kind of story-telling and spirituality that is anchored by a profound love of the pleasures of life here on earth. He argues that it was quite possibly the mix of such qualities that was the ground of the success of the Irish missionary efforts at the dawn of the Dark Ages. One of their obsessive pleasures was for the written word.

While the Roman Empire was beginning to contract and then disintegrate, hundreds of Irish scribes in remote hermitages hunkered down and copied out the texts of antiquity. Were it not for their efforts, we might well be bereft of much of classical Latin literature as well as the early vernacular literatures of Europe.

This whole movement to snatch civilization back from the brink started with an unlikely saviour, a poorly schooled man called Patricius  - aka St. Patrick, who had served for seven years as a shepherd slave in Ireland, was converted to Christianity, escaped to England, and then returned as a priest to convert the rest of Ireland.

 Curiously, missionary work hadn't been a hot item for Christians in the first five centuries. Until Patrick came along, there hadn't been any since Paul of Corinth in the first century. As Cahill notes, Patrick's radical decision to become a missionary was as bold as Columbus, and a thousand times more humane.

Patrick's Irish-based Christianity was a far cry from the Roman-based Christianity of Bishop Augustine. Whereas Augustine described women's embraces as sordid, filthy and horrible, Patrick quite delighted in writing about a blessed woman, Irish by birth, noble, extraordinarily beautiful--a true adult--whom I baptised. Beauty in women, for him, was a part of God’s glory, and it was the love of God, love of Creation, and fearlessness in faith that counted most.

It is fortunate, for those of us who cherish reading, that Columbanus and Columcille, appeared in the latter part of the fifth century. Since Patrick had already won over enough of Ireland to maintain the faith, these two men set their sights on establishing monastery footholds in Scotland, England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and even Russia. It was a result of their outreach that thousands of texts, both copied and created by the scribes trained under these two men, were subsequently popcorned all over Europe.

Cahill makes it look easy as he captures all the twists and turns of the development of literacy. When Columcille was charged by Bishop Finian for the crime of copying a psalter that the bishop regarded as his alone, it was probably the first case ever fought over literary copyright. At its conclusion, King Diarmait pronounced, To every cow her calf, to every book its copy -- meaning that the ownership of the offspring  - in this case the copy - of the bishop's property reverted to him. 

The humiliation of this loss chewed away at Columcille. Later, when the King killed one of Columcille's followers, he used the event to avenge himself, waged a war which left three thousand and one dead and only one of them on the princely Columcille's side.

 Writers have never again seen such a fierce fight over copyright, but Columcille experienced the outcome of this battle as a spiritual dilemma. As a man of Christian faith, he felt himself duty-bound to save as many souls as perished in the battle he precipitated

The way he went about this would not be obvious to us in the Twenty-First century, but it has served us well. He went on a manic binge of creating new monasteries, and making sure that thousands of texts were copied, and recopied.  These actions reawakened the skills of literacy that had been lost in the Dark Ages.

The tale is timely. Rome's demise came about, in some measure as a result of its inequitable taxation systems, the disappearance of its middle class, and the growth of greed. Surely, this has resonance with respect to the events of our time. 

Tis how it is, my Irish grandmother would say, A people who are after getting too big for their boots, be time they'll be walking without them.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Summer Meal

Since I can’t cook for all my friends, especially since they live all over the world, I can at least share recipes and pictures. These are from a meal I prepared last Tuesday with Kathleen & Stacia as part of our monthly volunteer cooking for Roberts Creek Cohousing. Close to fifty people showed up – whew! That was a lot of one heck of a lot of chopping, deseeding and such, but we made it through – in spite of those killer Margaritas that Kathleen served us.

In keeping with the frequent theme of this blog site, the grill is a JACKSON barbeque – made on Vancouver Island.

I have written out this recipe and posted it in the previous piece in my blog.
This is so easy to do, no recipe is required. Just marinate chicken thighs for several hours in a mix of fresh rosemary and olive oil, lemon juice & salt & pepper. Don’t stint.


This tofu looked pretty darned toothsome when we set it out, but I wasn’t thrilled with the end result. Even though the marinade was totally kick ass – and could be used for other things - I think it would have worked better if I had sliced the tofu into thinner pieces, and also had marinated it overnight rather than just for a few hours. Live and learn. Even so, the marinade it worth passing on:

2 lbs    Extra firm tofu
½ c      Olive oil
8 lg      Garlic cloves
1tsp     Cumin – ground (best if roasted first
1/3 c.   Lime juice
1/3 c.   Orange juice
1 ½ tsp  Salt
½ tsp   Black pepper
½ tsp   Ground oregano
¼ c.     Fresh mint
1  Orange for garnish – use a zester to make long strands of peel to toss on top after cooking.

We are lucky to have gardeners who grow lots of what goes into the salad. We just riff on what we have. Stacia is our salad dressing maestro.


Stacia also taught me a new potato trick – toss them in olive oil & salt and pepper them before baking. It makes the skins crispy and the inside moist. When cooking for the multitudes, we have learned that it is best to start on the early side. If the potatoes are ready too soon, they will keep, but there is nothing worse than an underdone spud.

QUEEN ELIZABETH CAKE. The funny thing is that even though I have made this cake a number of times, I don’t have a picture of it. Since I don't have that, at least I can share the recipe.We did wonder how the cake got its name, and I found a site that solved the mystery.  Apparently, it is a cake that the actual Queen Elizabeth bakes herself – and it is the only one that she ever does cook. Hmmm. I hope this is true, but it does sound like a stretch. Apparently, it is supposed to be sold – accompanied with a clipping of the recipe – for the sole purpose of making money for the Church of England. I guess I will just have to get myself invited to Buckingham Palace to check this out. Inquiring minds need to know. I will add it to my to do list, for sure.

Queen Elizabeth Cake

This version is based on recipe from Thistledown House, North Vancouver.A similar version is also at

Cake Ingredients
Method Notes – details beneath
3 c
1 c
boiling water

3 c
1 c
dates, pitted and chopped
Soak dates in boiling water
¾  c
¼ c
butter, softened

3 c
1 c
Blend sugar & butter

Add egg & Vanilla to sugar/butter
4 ½ c
1 ½ c

3 tsp
1 tsp
baking soda

3 tsp
1 tsp
baking powder

1 ½ tsp
½ tsp
Sift dry ingredients and add alternately to wet.

Topping Ingredients

1 ½  c
½ c
chopped walnuts

3 c
1 c
flaked coconut

6 c
2 c
packed brown sugar

1 c
6 T

¾  c
¼ c

Cake Prep.
  • Pour boiling water over dates in a small bowl and let stand until cool.
  • Measure flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nuts into a small bowl. Stir to mix.
  • Cream ¼ cup butter and white sugar together in a mixing bowl; beat in egg and vanilla.  Add flour mixture to creamed mixture in three parts alternating with date mixture (beginning and ending with dry mixture).  Spread batter into a greased 9 X 13 inch pan.
  • Bake at 350F for 30 to 40 minutes, or until an inserted wooden toothpick comes out clean (do not over bake..).

  • Mix coconut, brown sugar, 6 tbsp butter and ¼ cup cream in a small saucepan over medium heat. Boil for three minutes or until blended.
  • Take a toothpick or knitting needle and make small holes all over the cake, pushing down all the way without damaging the base, 
  • Spread the topping mixture over the warm cake and brown under broiler, watching closely as this takes only a few minutes. It should be bubbly & slightly dark golden in colour. WATCH OUT- it happens fast.

Grilled Pepper Salad

INGREDIENTS (using 4 times the recipe worked for 50 people)

12 people
Red bell peppers
Yellow bell peppers
Orange bell peppers
Garlic clove chopped
½ tsp
Coarse salt
Balsamic vinegar
Lemon juice
Extra virgin olive oil
Slivered fresh basil
Toasted pine nuts

  •  Direct grill peppers until they are charred on all sides and soft. Keep turning with tongs to achieve desired effect.
  • Transfer to a baking dish & cover with plastic.. NOTE when doing large amounts, a pot with a lid works well, or a couple of wet dish towels.
  • When cooked, skin peppers, and cut each pepper into four pieces, or eight depending on how you want to arrange them for eye-candy effect. Alternate colours.
  •  Mash garlic & salt together into a paste, add vinegar & lemon juice & whisk in oil, basil & pine nuts.
  • Spoon dressing over arranged peppers, and let sit for a few hours to enable flavours to blend.
  • Dress with nasturtium flowers and a chiffonade of fresh basil.