I always look forward to reading the latest edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture, but I’m always disappointed that I can’t join in. I have no Irish ancestry, and I haven’t had time to research my friends’ Irish genealogies or my niece’s Irish genes. So I’m thrilled that the latest topic for the Carnival is the Summer Reading Challenge! I love learning about cultures and what makes them tick, and reading about Irish culture was especially enlightening.
My choice for the reading challenge was Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. As book one of Cahill’s “Hinges of History” series, he focuses on “the untold story of Ireland’s heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of medieval Europe”. Cahill’s histories do not focus on one static event of history, but rather the “hinges” of history as the world moves from one static period to another. Before Cahill can explain how the Irish saved civilization, he explains exactly what civilization was almost lost. The first third of the book isn’t centered on Ireland at all, but on the world of the Roman Empire and how that Empire crumbled.
The second third introduces a legendary Irish figure – none other than St. Patrick himself! This section focuses on Irish pagan culture, and what Patrick brought to Ireland and Irish culture. Here Cahill introduces a very interesting thought — that the Christianity that Patrick introduces to Ireland is, in effect, the first “de-Romanized Christianity in human history.” He explains that even though Rome formally received Christianity in the year 313 AD, Christianity didn’t really receive Rome. In Ireland, however, a brand new Christian culture emerged that changed Irish thought. Things that were a part of Irish culture, like slavery and human sacrifice, became unthinkable after Christianity was accepted. But, the Irish managed to maintain their “physchological identity”. Irish culture became a part of Irish Christianity.
Of course, how the Irish saved civilization is through the works of Irish monks preserving the Roman world’s literature, and native Irish literature, and later passed it back to the rest of Europe through education. What sounds quite simple become utterly fascinating in the way Cahill describes history. If it wasn’t for the work of these Irish monks, most of what we know today of the ancient world would have been lost. The end of the book deals with how Irish civilization itself fell.
One quote from the book really struck me. In a 9th Century manuscript, a monk living far from his native Ireland cites a favorite quote from the Roman Horace: “They change their sky but not their soul who cross the ocean.” How true is this quote of our immigrant ancestors? Whether Irish or another nationality, they left their native lands but kept a part of their homeland inside.
If you enjoy history, you’ll enjoy this book. I’ve also read the next two books in Cahill’s series: “The Gifts of the Jews”, which focuses on the cultural and religious legacy left to the world from the Jewish people, and “Desire of the Everlasting Hills”, which focuses on who Jesus was in His time as well as His impact on the world at large. I have not yet read two others in the “Hinges of History” series: “Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea” about the Greeks, and “Mysteries of the Middle Ages” about, obviously, the Middle Ages!
I thought I would also have a fiction book that qualified for this summer reading challenge, but the book as a whole didn’t stay focused on Ireland. Still, I highly recommend Pete Hamill’s Forever for an insightful look into Ireland’s past. Forever focuses on Cormac O’Connor, an 18th Century Irishman. The first third of this novel is set in Ireland and beautifully recounts Cormac’s family life and the Irish culture. While Cormac himself is not Catholic, it also details the dreadful Penal Laws and their consequences. After his father’s death as a result of these laws, Cormac immigrates to America to seek revenge. He befriends an African slave, who later saves his life in a fantastical way. The slave is actually a shaman, and he restores Carmac’s life – forever. As long as he stays on the island of Manhattan, he will not die. The novel moves forward throughout Cormac’s long life all the way through to 2001. Some readers will find it too unbelievable, but isn’t that the beauty of fiction? The novel is beautifully written. I had hoped that Cormac’s love for Ireland would remain more closely integrated to the rest of the novel, but he becomes less of an Irishman and more of a New Yorker as the years of his long life move along. But, the beginning offers a very detailed, beautiful, and historically accurate glimpse of Ireland in the late 1700’s.
[Written for the 7th Edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage & Culture: Summer Reading Challenge]