How the Irish Saved Civilization
by Thomas Cahill
Anchor Books, A Division of Random House
With little foreshadowing of the emergence of the Irish, the first two very long chapters of this slim book focus on the fall of the Roman Empire and the sacking of Rome by Alaric the Goth. Eventually, there are meaningful references to the heroes of Tain, Augustine of Hippo, the bishop Patrick, the Book of Kells, and the Celtic phenomenon of shapeshifting.
The book straddles between historical narrative and pop culture nonfiction, and ends up becoming neither. The writing is uneven, at times brilliant, but more often not. Long passages of poetry and incantations, unnecessarily double-spaced and center-margined, take up too much white space.
The author digresses from “The Irish” to assert mere opinions. For example, a long discourse on human sacrifice somehow ends up mentioning Bosnia, Rwanda, the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and the toddler James Bulger, who was savagely killed by two older children in Liverpool. In another example, the author describes the last meal of sacrificial victims as a “stomach-turning, prehistoric granola,” a “disgusting potpourri” of mixed grains…. Disgusting to whom?
When the author finally gets around to explaining how the Irish saved civilization, he quotes Sigmund Freud “That the Irish were the only people who could not be helped by psychotherapy…” and furthermore, “That the Irish will never change.”
I did enjoy learning that as late as the twelfth century, Gerladus Cambrenis was forced to conclude that the Book of Kells was “the work of an angel, not of a man.” It was also wonderful to read about the concept of Ahnamhara, which dates back to Pagan times. “One looked for an anamchara, (Ahnamhara) a soul-friend, someone to be trusted over a whole lifetime.”
The book is chock full of interesting information, if only the reader could easily grasp it. The writing is competent but unnecessarily complex, convoluted, and confusing. There are great gems in this book, but it takes hard work, mining and excavation, to separate what is precious from the dreck.