What Is It about the Irish? by James R. Coggins

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill is a somewhat older book (published in 1995) that has stayed with me. This is partly because I borrowed it from the local library so often that the library gave it to me when it decided to clear out some older books. But it is also because this is an important, well written, and thought-provoking book.

What Cahill achieved is to draw attention to a part of Christian history that has not received the attention it deserves. Much of central Europe was evangelized in the early Middle Ages by Irish missionaries. They did it by planting monasteries—not small groups of monks hiding out in cloisters but dynamic outposts of Christianity. These monasteries offered rudimentary health care, food distribution, model farms, and other social services. Towns grew up around them. And they were centers for the preservation and copying and even writing of manuscripts, serving as both libraries and schools. They thus preserved “civilization,” the culture and learning of the past.

Cahill’s book begins with the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of classical civilization, a civilization preserved only in small enclaves by the Roman Catholic Church.

Cahill’s story then shifts to Ireland and the man called Saint Patrick. Patrick was a Christian English boy captured by Irish raiders. He eventually escaped Ireland but later returned as a missionary, converting large numbers of Irish. Cahill vividly explains why Patrick was so successful. For one thing, Patrick had no fear of death, being willing to risk his life to preach to the Irish. For another, Patrick offered the Irish a more attractive worldview. Cahill describes the pagan Irish as living an uncertain, purposeless existence, living in fear of cruel and unpredictable shape-shifting gods. In contrast, Patrick described a world ordered by a benevolent God, who, through Jesus, had abolished fear, violence, and death. (It could be noted that in recent centuries, many animist people have converted to Christianity for similar reasons.) The conversion eliminated slavery and greatly reduced violence among the Irish, as well as bringing other social improvements. In subsequent centuries, the Irish exported their more dynamic and natural Christianity to England and then central Europe.

While Cahill’s book brings attention to a much neglected movement in Christian and world history, his book is not without weaknesses. For one thing, Cahill seems to have little knowledge of and no interest in any Christianity beyond Roman Catholicism. Christianity, for him, is defined by Saint Augustine. He says that Patrick was the first missionary to move beyond the safety of Roman Empire/civilized world, which ignores the apostle Thomas, the Arians, and a host of nameless others.

For another thing, Cahill is a secularist, a philosopher who values civilization. He praises the Irish for saving civilization, a tribute that would have puzzled the Irish missionaries. It was not the Irish who saved civilization but Irish Christians, whose goal was not to save civilization but to save the pagan people of Europe. Cahill values the benefits brought by Christianity, not Christianity itself, as if the side benefits can be had without the core. He reduces Roman civilization to a philosophical construct of order and power and Catholicism to a philosophy of creative naturalism. His hope is that as Western civilization crumbles and falls, a new impetus of creative naturalism will arise to restore the world.

Cahill offers some rational explanations for why the Irish accepted Patrick’s Christian preaching, but his thinking does not seem to go any further than that. But what if that preaching happens to be true? What if it is not some vague creative naturalism that saves the world and not even Christianity, but Jesus Christ Himself and faith in Him? What if the world really is ruled by a benevolent God who offers a purpose in life, freedom from the fear of death, and salvation and peace and forgiveness (being made right with God) because of Jesus’ sacrifice?

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is www.coggins.ca
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