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The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

by Thomas Cahill

Pub Date: March 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-385-41848-5
Publisher: Doubleday

 Scholarship, humor, and a keen understanding of human nature combine in this history of Ireland and her rarely acknowledged contribution to European culture. As the Roman Empire imploded and barbarians descended upon the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great task of copying all the literature they could find and, by their wanderings to the court of Charlemagne and throughout Europe, assured the continuity of civilization through the Dark Ages. Cahill (director of religious publishing at Doubleday and coauthor with his wife, Susan, of A Literary Guide to Ireland, 1973) introduces us to saints and scholars: the warrior-monk Columcille, for example, who, exiled to Iona, defended poetry and the bards and baptized Scotland; and Columbanus, who died in Lombardy after having founded more than 60 monasteries en route from Ireland. Somewhat whimsically, Cahill devotes only his final 50 pages to the crucial period between the seventh and ninth centuries, spending three- quarters of his book on a very vivid mise-en-scäne. Beginning with the decline of Rome, he guides us through classical literature and its impact on Augustine before he takes us further back in time to the origins of Ireland and the Celts. His central figure is the fifth-century Bishop (later Saint) Patrick, whose greatest gift to Ireland, Cahill believes, was a de-Romanized Christianity in which women had some prominence and sexual mores were not over- emphasized. The author claims that Patrick was the first human being in the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery, and he credits Patrick with a deep understanding of the Irish proclivity towards a mysticism of nature. Useful guides to chronology and pronunciation of Irish names are provided. A delightfully written account, full of bold insights into the Irish character and its continuity through the ages.