The Irish did save civilization; then civilization ground them down

Potato Famine Memorial in Dublin, Ireland

For 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

Leave it to Chesterton to trumpet the English party line, stereotyping those capricious Irish drunkards as half barbarian, half poet and completely mad. Like most Englishmen he omits to mention it was primarily his nation which turned Ireland into a melodramatic funny farm.

Now Irish author Thomas Cahill fires back at the British in his riveting book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. Chesterton wrote flippantly when describing the Irish, Cahill observes, but he was downright kind when compared with other opinions.

Victorian English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli put it more energetically and in a way with which the average Briton of that time would agree:

“This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain, and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their idea of human felicity is an alteration of clannish broils and coarse idolatry (Catholicism). Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”

“Dear old Dizzy,” as  Queen Victoria called him, might well have been describing an Ireland before the fall of the Roman Empire. It was certainly a rough place then, a land ruled by  some 51 “kings,” a mystical nation without cities and ministered to spiritually by Celtic Druids. Human and animal sacrifice were in vogue, and there wasn’t a single god or goddess in the Celtic pantheon who would not give a child nightmares. War and raiding were two of the Island’s more enjoyable pastimes. Irish freebooters in boats combed the English coast for slaves. Ireland’s national hero was a mythical super-warrior named Cuchulainn (pronounced koo-hool-n), a fighter in the mold of Achilles, Hector, David and Lancelot, all rolled into one mighty lump of muscle  — but with a more earthy, randy personality.

Saint Patrick

All this began to change with remarkable speed on 401 A.D. when an Irish raiding party captured a Romanized Briton named Patricius and brought him back to serve as a shepherd slave under a local “king” named Miliucc. In the cold and hunger of the rugged Antrim hills, the 16-year-old Patricius forsook the tepid faith of his parents, prayed fervently and became a religious visionary. Six years later when he escaped to England he found himself unable to forget his experiences. A dream compelled him to return to Ireland, which he did after brushing up his education and getting himself ordained a bishop.

The time and place were indeed opportune. On the continent, the Roman Empire was imploding. Vast swarms of barbarians ravaged the land, destroying libraries, palaces, homes and monasteries, the very foundations of civilization. England was under siege from the Germanized Angles and Saxons. Only Ireland stood safely out of time and space like the mythical Scottish town of Brigadoon, ripe for civilizing. But even with this advantage, it wasn’t an easy job. In old age Patricius admitted: “every day I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved — whatever may come my way.”

Fortunately he possessed not only an impossible mission but also a message tailor-made for the Irish, one quite different from the ascetic, doctrinaire philosophy of Roman Catholicism. Not surprisingly Patrick, as the Irish called him, thundered against slavery, centuries before Western nations followed suit. He stood up for the rights of women, declaring: “But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most — and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.”

He inveighed against violence in all its forms. He cleverly avoided trying to reform Ireland’s free-wheeling sexual mores, instead setting himself, his priests and his nuns up as examples of abstinence. Like Jesus, he had an affinity for society’s misfits and outcasts, which suited Irishmen right down to the ground. They had more than their share of ascetics and Mad Hatters. Patrick also endeared himself to his countrymen as a fighter, skirmishing verbally with Druidic priests, murderous warlords, or insufferable English and Roman Christians. Most importantly, he preached education and scholarship to a nation of illiterates.

“In his last years,” writes Cahill, “he could probably look out over an Ireland transformed by his teaching. According to tradition, at least, he established bishops throughout northern, central and eastern Ireland.” Lacking cities as a base, Patrick placed his bishoprics next door to local kings, for he hoped to keep an eye on the most powerful raiders and rustlers to limit their depredations. Within his lifetime, or shortly after his death, the Irish slave trade halted. Murder and tribal warfare declined.

Within a single generation Ireland went from illiteracy to scholarship and its monasteries became centers of learning outstripping anything on the devastated continent. Unlike orthodox Christian clerics, Irish monks eagerly soaked up pagan science and classics, unaware that many of their continental churchly brethren believed a reading of Cicero could condemn one to Hell. In time Irish missionary monks traveled to the continent, establishing a great swath of monastic learning centers from Ghent in Belgium to Taranto south of Rome. They penetrated eastward as far as Kiev. Worthy successors to Patrick were found in men such as Columcille, poet and warrior-monk, who converted the rugged Scots and scary Picts to Christianity. Another was Columbanus, who in 25 years established no fewer than 60 monasteries across a territory which would become in time, France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

In that benighted era,  each monastery established became another light for civilization, as monks strove to preserve the literature, history, and science of the dying ancient world.

The Irish influence on Europe’s royal courts was no better typified than on Christmas Day 800 A.D. when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. His imperial majesty, unable to write though he could read a tad, was puzzled by the mystery of solar eclipses. Dungal, an Irish recluse at St. Denis, instructed the emperor in this abstruse matter. Another resident at the Frankish court was the Irishman Dicuil, the first medieval geographer, who kept Charlemagne posted on the world about him. Still another Irish courtier was Sedulius Scotus, who advised the emperor on statecraft.

“Europe would have hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down,” Cahill writes. “Beyond that, there would have perished in the west not only literacy, but all the habits of mind that encourage thought. And when Islam began its medieval expansion, it would have encountered scant resistance to its plans — just scattered tribes of animists, ready for a new identity.”

And that is how the Irish saved civilization.

But by the time Charlemagne’s successor, Charles the Bald, was being instructed by yet another Irishman, John Scotus Eriugena, Ireland itself was under siege. Viking raiders were striking all along the Emerald Isle’s coasts, attacking monasteries which had by now waxed rich and were staffed by monks grown sleek and too civilized to fight back. On the Ides of June, 793 A.D., Vikings swarmed into the crown jewel of Patrick’s education empire, the monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumberland.  Monks were stripped and tortured; and the raiders came again in 801 to set the buildings afire. In 806 they killed scores of clerics, and in 867 they burned the rebuilt abbey. By 875 the survivors had had enough; they departed the premises for good.

One by one the great centers of learning dissolved into ashes. Viking conquerors did give Ireland its first real cities, places like Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Wexford and Waterford. But in the process they destroyed Irish cultural leadership of Europe forever.

When the Norsemen were finally ousted, Ireland experienced a relatively benevolent invasion of Normans, followed by a more severe incursion of Elizabethan English in the 16th century. These soldiers of Elizabeth I cut down the forests to get at Irishmen fighting them guerrilla-style,  and in frustration contemplated inflicting genocide on the locals. The Calvinist troopers of Oliver Cromwell almost achieved that goal when they ravished the land in the 17th century.

In the 18th century the English struck again with the spirit-crushing Penal Laws which denied Catholics the rights of citizens. But it took the famines of the 19th century, the Great Hunger, to finish Ireland off. The Penal Laws had driven out the last remnant of the country’s nobility. Now it was the common people’s turn. As Her Majesty’s government sat on its hands, one million died of hunger and another million started a great migration to America and Australia. By 1914 another four million had fled the country, reducing Ireland’s population by a third.

Cahill notes “It would take the Irish cultural and political movements of the 20th century to give back to this devastated population a semblance of its self-respect.”

And that, Chesterton, is why “all their songs are sad.”

Cahill has an amusing and thoughtful writing style which is a pleasure to read but is the very devil to review. He wanders the glens and heaths of European history like an Irish piper, sure in his art, scattering a melody of hilarious anecdotes, unpronounceable Gaelic names and factual history in his wake, oblivious of us drudges fighting to keep up and make sense of his journey. Nevertheless, we’re glad we came along for the ride.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Irish did save civilization; then civilization ground them down

  1. Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking your feeds too now, Thanks.

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