Millions of Americans, many of them descendents of Irish immigrants, celebrate their Irish heritage by observing St. Patrick's Day today. We are indebted to Thomas Cahill and his best-selling book How The Irish Saved Civilization for explaining to us why Patrick's is a life worth commemorating. As improbable as his title may sound, Cahill weaves a fascinating and compelling tale of how the Irish in general, and Patrick and his spiritual heirs in particular, served as a tenuous but crucial cultural bridge from the classical world to the medieval age and, by so doing, made Western civilization possible.
Born a Roman citizen in 390 B.C., Patrick had been kidnapped as a boy of sixteen from his home on the coast of Britain and taken by Irish barbarians to Ireland. There he languished in slavery until he was able to escape six years later. Upon his homecoming he became a Christian, studied for the priesthood, and eventually returned to Ireland where he would spend the rest of his life laboring to persuade the Irish to accept the Gospel and to abolish slavery. Patrick was the first person in history, in fact, to speak out unequivocally against slavery and, according to Cahill, the last person to do so until the 17th century.
Meanwhile, Roman control of Europe had begun to collapse. Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410 A.D. and barbarians were sweeping across the continent, forcing the Romans back to Italy, and plunging Europe into the Dark Ages. Throughout the continent unwashed, illiterate hordes descended on the once grand Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books. Learning ground to a halt and the literary heritage of the classical world was burned or moldered into dust. Almost all of it, Cahill claims, would surely have been lost if not for the Irish.
Having been converted to Christianity through the labors of Patrick, the Irish took with gusto to reading, writing and learning. They delighted in letters and bookmaking and painstakingly created indescribably beautiful Biblical manuscripts such as the Book of Kells which is on display today in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. Aware that the great works of the past were disappearing, they applied themselves assiduously to the daunting task of copying all surviving Western literature - everything they could lay their hands on.
For a century after the fall of Rome, Irish monks sequestered themselves in cold, damp, cramped mud huts called scriptoria, so remote and isolated from the world that they were seldom threatened by the marauding pagans. Here these men spent their entire adult lives reproducing the old manuscripts and preserving literacy and learning for the time when people would be once again ready to receive them.
These scribes and their successors served as the conduits through which the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the benighted tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruin of the civilization they had recently overwhelmed. Around the late 6th century, three generations after Patrick, Irish missionaries with names like Columcille, Aidan, and Columbanus began to venture out from their monasteries and refuges, clutching their precious books to their hearts, sailing to England and the continent, founding their own monasteries and schools among the barbarians and teaching them how to read, write and make books of their own.
Absent the willingness of these courageous men to endure deprivations and hardships of every kind for the sake of the Gospel and learning, Cahill argues, the world that came after them would have been completely different. It would likely have been a world without books. Europe almost certainly would have been illiterate, and it would probably have been unable to resist the Muslim incursions that arrived a few centuries later.
The Europeans, starved for knowledge, soaked up everything the Irish missionaries could give them. From such seeds as these modern Western civilization germinated. From the Greeks the descendents of the Goths and Vandals learned philosophy, from the Romans they learned about law, from the Bible they learned of the worth of the individual who, created and loved by God, is therefore significant and not merely a brutish aggregation of matter.
From the Bible, too, they learned that the universe was created by a rational Mind and was thus not capricious, random, or chaotic. It would yield its secrets to rational investigation. Out of these assumptions, once their implications were finally and fully developed, grew historically unprecedented views of the value of the individual and the flowering of modern science.
Our cultural heritage is thus, in a very important sense, a legacy from the Irish. A legacy from Patrick. It is worth pondering on this St. Patrick's Day what the world would be like today had it not been for those early Irish scribes and missionaries thirteen centuries ago.
Buiochas le Dia ar son na nGaeil (Thank God for the Irish), and I hope you have a great St. Patrick's Day.