How Did The Irish Save Civilization? (Pt.4)

Derek Ouellette —  March 18, 2010

Intro . Part 1 . Part 2 . Part 3

What is “Civilized?”

The power, the prestige, the glory of ancient Rome was uncontested for nearly eight hundred years! Rome, that mighty Eternal City, defined “civilized”. She had technology. She had beauty. And perhaps most importantly, she had literature! Imagine a world without Plato or Aristotle or Homer; or if you prefer, imagine a world without Moses or Isaiah or Paul. Where would we be without the writings of our past? Without Luther or Galileo or, for that matter, without Guttenberg’s Printing Press (there would be no need)?

Imagine a world where an ancient Egyptian or Semitic did not creatively draw his first “picture” to communicate a thought? We would probably still be “there”, still be in the same era or age as that ancient Egyptian or Semitic who first experiment with “writing”. We would, in other words, be uncivilized.

And that is where the Irish were in the fifth century of the Common Era before they met Patrick. They were uncivilized. They had no literature, and they cherished their poets almost more than their kings, because their poets transmitted the oral story of the Irish past. The Roman Empire, however, were the epitome of civilization. And as such, like every civilized people have done to the uncivilized throughout the ages, they sneered at them. They looked down their long and pointed noses at them. They had no time for them.

But to Rome’s north was a hodgepodge of “uncivilized” warriors who lusted after Roman’s prestige. They were the Goths. An ancient Goth once wrote: “An able Goth wants to be like a Roman; only a poor Roman would want to be like a Goth”.

But unbeknownst to Rome, things were about to change. Thomas Cahill writes in one of my favorite pieces of literature:

The citizens of the City of Rome, therefore, could not believe it when toward the end of the first decade of the fifth century, they would find Alaric, king of the Visigoths, and all his forces parked at their gates. He might as well have been the king of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, or any other of the inconsequential outlanders that civilized people have looked down their noses at throughout history. It was preposterous. They dispatched a pair of envoys to conduct the tiresome negotiations and send him away. The envoys began with empty threats: any attack on Rome was doomed, for it would be met by invincible strength and innumerable ranks of warriors. Alaric was a sharp man, and in his rough fashion a just one. He also had a sense of humor.

“The thicker the grass, the more easily scythed,” he replied evenly.

The envoys quickly recognized that their man was no fool. All right, then, what was the price of his departure? Alaric told them: his men would sweep through the city, taking all gold, all silver, and everything of value that could be moved. They would also round up and cart off every barbarian slave.

But, protested the hysterical envoys, what will that leave us?

Alaric paused, “Your lives.”

In that pause, Roman security died and a new world was conceived.[1]

A Dark Age

The barbaric Goths had moved into Roman territory, usually progressively and sometimes abruptly (as in the case when Alaric sacked Rome in 410). Between that time and 476 with the death of the last Roman emperor, the Empire began to break apart. Every region, every city, every state became “every man for himself.” There was no time for schools, for grammaticus, for books. What’s more, the Goths liked it that way. The last remnants of “civilized” Romans could no longer look down on these new residents if they were equally as barbaric. Equally as illiterate.

The twenty-eight huge libraries established throughout the Empire had vanished, as one ancient writer puts it: “The libraries, like tombs, were closed forever”. Professional copyists were no more. Any literature that did survive were copied by the few remaining noble literates and placed in their small personal libraries.

The Dark Ages had begun.

A Light in Irish Green Martyrdom

Want to hear a great irony? The Irish had warrior blood running through their veins. If death they must die, they would do it in battle. It was an honor to die a bloody death for a just cause. But here is the irony (praise God): “Ireland is unique in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed. There were no Irish martyrs.” [p. 151]

Can you image? Of all the people who would want to be martyred for the cause of Christ it would be the Irish! And this lack of martyrdom troubled the Irish to whom a glorious death presented such an exciting finale. Do you think God knew what he was doing by saving this people, at this point in time, and then doing so without allowing them the glorious violent martyrdom they so earnestly desired?

The Irish came up with an alternative to Red Martyrdom by blood which they called “Green Martyrdom”. They would martyr or sacrifice their lustful flesh with its passion by leave the pleasures of society. They would climb a hill, find a cave, build a hut and venture off into no-man’s land, and there they would devote their selves to their new-found hobby (introduced by Patrick). They would read about God. And they loved it. Patrick had introduced Christian literature to the Irish and they ate it up, scribbling down every word, every letter, over and over again. They made books and more books. They sacrificed their lives to copying literature! Mostly Christian literature, but not only Christian literature.

But Green Martyrdom, it seems, had failed: the Irish never left Ireland and Ireland was too lush of a land to truly be called a “martyrdom”. But an Irish priest named Columcille (who loved books) took up arms when one of his followers was murdered. After the battle he was excommunicated from Ireland (the typical punishment for a priest who took up arms). The blessed result is what came to be called “White Martyrdom” – for truly for an Irishman to leave Ireland was the greatest sacrifice of all, more so than death. Cahill writes: “Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe’s publisher” [p. 183]

While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland. Columcille provided that step. [Ibid]

How did the Irish save civilization? They became Christian at just that point when Europe would slip into the Dark Ages. They became literate at just that point when Europe’s libraries would “be closed forever”. And finally, they became missionaries (White Martyr’s) at just that point when civilization would need a missionary the most. I’ll close off this series with one last quote by Thomas Cahill:

Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.

And that is how the Irish saved civilization. [p. 196]

Do you think God knew what he was doing?

[1] Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p.30-31

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • TaZmAn

    This is my first visit here, but I will be back soon, because I really like the way you are writing, it is so simple and honest

  • Derek Ouellette

    Thanks Tazman

  • Kerry Hagan

    I’m sure there were other elements in the safe-guarding of civilisation. I’m quite certain the Arabic world had a (right) hand in it as well.
    I loved Cahill’s discovery of the Irish Celtic pre-war ritual of slapping their naked genitals vigorously in the face of the enemy. Maybe the Irish Rugby team could adopt this as their ‘Haka’. It might take the sting out of the All Blacks.