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.

No comments:

Post a Comment