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St. Patrick’s Day and How the Irish Saved Civilization

March 17, 2013


Though I am a mere 45 minutes from Chicago’s famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade, I did not attend this year. However, to celebrate, I am passing on the green Dr. Seusse hats and green beer and a green river, and instead recalling the great work of history, How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. In 1995, Richard Berstein reviewed it in The New York Times Review of Books. Here is an excellent excerpt of that review:

Patrick slept soundly and soberly,” says Thomas Cahill in this charming and poetic disquisition, which describes what he calls Ireland’s “one moment of unblemished glory” when, according to our author, the Irish saved classical civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire. The phrase, wry and pithy at the same time, is as good a way as any of suggesting Mr. Cahill’s thesis.

The Patrick in question was a former Celtic slave brought to Ireland from Roman-era Britain. His name was originally Patricius, but he came to be known to later generations as St. Patrick. Mr. Cahill’s theory about him goes something like this:

The Ireland of the early fifth century was a brooding, dank island whose inhabitants, while carefree and warlike on the outside, lived in “quaking fear” within, their terror of shape-changing monsters, of sudden death and the insubstantiality of their world so acute that they drank themselves into an insensate stupor in order to sleep.

Patrick, however, provided “a living alternative.” He was a serene man who slept well without drink, a man “in whom the sharp fear of death has been smoothed away.” The Christianity he proposed to the Irish succeeded because it took away the dread from the magical world that was Ireland. And once they were Christianized, the Irish founded the monastic movement, copying the books being destroyed elsewhere by Germanic invaders, eventually bringing them back to the places from which the books had come.

“And that,” Mr. Cahill concludes with typically wry unabashedness, “is how the Irish saved civilization.”

I found it fascinating that despite the bold claims Mr. Cahill makes about this story of Christians saving Western civilization, the only criticism that it receives is being slightly “hyperbolic.”

Among those claims: that the conversion of the Irish to Christianity (due, in large part, to St. Patrick, or Patricius as he was first known) contributed to culture in Ireland that honored women, criticized slavery, and was transformed from a barely-literate society to one that was teaching its children Latin and Greek, and even creating new languages. Oh yes, and preserving the treasured writings of the West for future ages.

If for no other reason, knowing that St. Patrick had a hand in this great work of civilization is enough to celebrate today.

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