The Irish and Civilization

It is the thesis of Thomas Cahill’s book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, that if Patricius (also known as Saint Patrick) had not boldly gone into Ireland, the course of the entire world would have been different.

Ireland, a little island at the edge of Europe that has known neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment – in some ways, a Third World country with, as John Betjeman claimed, a Stone Age culture – had one moment of unblemished glory. For, as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature – everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one – a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.*

What a remarkable thought. Imagine a world without the books and knowledge of the great western literature of Rome, Greece, and Israel. Imagine Europe without a knowledge of animal husbandry and breeding, agriculture, viniculture, military strategy, and law. Many of the books and parchments on the main continent of Europe which contained this knowledge were lost in battles, lootings, burnings, and disregard. Cahill makes a very good point. These humble monks who were far enough removed from the turmoil that was happening in the rest of Europe were able to preserve culture and then restart that culture from their little corner of the world. It is astonishing to think of the impact of the life of one person. Patrick, who was once a slave in Ireland, a herder of pigs and sheep, influenced the whole of Europe and the western world. It makes me believe that perhaps God may be calling many more of us to make sacrifices and take risks to make our world a better place. What might happen if we all began to listen to God in a manner similar to the way Patricius listened to God? What might happen if you and I lived a life that was more about our concern for others and less about our concern for our own well-being?

*Cahill, Thomas. How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. New York: Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1995. p. 4.

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