"The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad.
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad."
- G.K. Chesterton
- G.K. Chesterton
I read Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization last month as a pre-St. Patrick's Day holiday read.
I will confess I delighted in the book, which is blatantly biased, unrepentantly pedantic, and just generally exactly the sort of book you would expect to be written by a genial old professor thoroughly immersed in and excited by his studies.
Cahill begins by outlining and theorizing about the fall of the Roman Empire, examining the parallel lives of a now-obscure but then-famous Roman courtier-poet and the great figure of Augustine of Carthage. Cahill then traces out a coherent account of the life of St. Patrick (no mean feat considering the dearth of information on this barely-historical legend), whose proselytizing he credits, essentially, with saving all the texts of Greek and Roman civilization that survive today.
Through it all, we are treated to extensive quotations from various original sources, often in the original language--Cahill speaks (or at least writes) Latin, Greek, Old English, and who knows what else, and lets you know it. This sounds pretentious, but somehow isn't. Usually. Perhaps because he freely admits he knows no Gaelic.
I would not in any way approach this book as an unbiased historical account. This is not to say that I think Cahill is lying, but he takes scant source material (I mean, we're talking about the third to eighth centuries, roughly, here, and a people who for much of that time were illiterate) and extrapolates freely to reach his (not entirely unreasonable) conclusions.
I was not expecting it to be as biased as it was; Cahill managed to be academic without being...is reputable the word I want? At first, this bothered me a little. I hate to read nonfiction books that are compromised in ways I can't exactly define--that is, I don't know enough about this time period to have any idea what Cahill might have stretched or left out--though at least I could recognize that it was biased in this case. The book was apparently extremely controversial (in academic circles anyway) at the time it was released, and I hate to accidentally embroil myself in controversy. ;-)
As we approach St. Patrick's Day, however, I've been contemplating the book and Cahill's passionate advocacy for his Irish ancestors in the light of more contemporary Irish history.
How the Irish Saved Civilization was published in 1996. This was two years before the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998--perhaps not the height of The Troubles, the Irish-Anglo, well, war that lasted from the late 1960s to (officially) the Good Friday Agreement in 1998--though violence continues even today on a smaller scale.
Let's get something straight. The Irish Republican Army (as well as its unionist counterpart, the Ulster Volunteer Force) were terrorists. There is nothing romantic or glamorous about blowing up hotels and London financial districts (this and the Manchester bombing both occurred in 1996, the year Cahill's book was published).
Have you ever listened to the lyrics of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday?" "Broken bottles under children's feet/Bodies strewn across the dead-end street." They're singing about a real massacre that happened in 1972 in which thirteen people died. The Cranberries' song "Zombie" (you know the song, trust me, the lady wailing "Zo-om-BEH, zo-om-BEH") is a also protest song about The Troubles, specifically the 1993 Warrington bombing in which two children died.
Chesterton was right; the Irish sing many a sad song.
We may forget, here in this country and on this holiday celebrating a cartoonish leprechaun-and-whiskey version of the Irish, that discrimination against the Irish, especially the Catholic Irish, has a long history both in England and America. Ireland has a long history of being a shithole plagued by disease, violence, oppression, famine, and poverty. From the Irish Potato Famine at the turn of the last century that sent my own grandparents across the Atlantic to the violence at turn of this century, back and back about as long as there's been people in England and people in Ireland.
One can hardly begrudge an Irish Catholic the writing of a book that so passionately defends the ancient Irish and the country's first Catholics.
Moreover, Cahill demands respect for these ancestors of his (and, by extension, their descendents). He describes them as great warriors and partiers, yes, but also as learned, civilized men and women who loved books as much as beer. Between the IRA, the UVF, and the benign but wild stereotype of the Irish characterized by our St. Patrick's Day celebrations (and less benign, think of movies such as Boondock Saints), the world doesn't exactly have much respect for this particular ethno-religious group.
Cahill assigns perhaps rather more importance to the achievements of the ancient Irish monks than they deserve, but they did achieve much. The Irish, as Cahill shows, are more than America's two-dimensional image of them and they are more than the depressing, desperate violence and poverty that has defined the country since the Middle Ages.
Enjoy your Guinness and Jameson today; I certainly plan to. Wear green and play Pandora's Irish Pub Rock station (which is awesome but, um, not censored). Celebrate the life of a dedicated saint and a country finally enjoying some measure of peace and prosperity for the first time since the triple-digit centuries. Remember that terrible things happen in places we don't expect--and that everyone has something to teach us.