Fifteen years ago in March 1995, historian and author Thomas Cahill published How The Irish Saved Civilization, the first of his seven-volume Hinges of History series. A national phenomenon, the book appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly two years and changed the public’s understanding of the Irish people’s role in preserving Western civilization during the fall of the Roman Empire. Kara Rota spoke to Cahill about his book’s legacy.
In How the Irish Saved Civilization, you make a comparison between Rome and the current Western world as “the empire.” Recently, there’s been much discussion of whether our empire is on the verge of falling. Do you think that comparison holds up, fifteen years after the book’s initial publication?
I don’t believe in enormous predictions. What we do know is that there are certain patterns that seem invariable, and one of them is that all empires fall sooner or later. Rome’s empire lasted twelve centuries, which is longer by far than any other historical empire known to us. The United States of America has only been around a couple hundred years. So is it about to slip into third place or something like that? I think it’s hard to know. But what I do believe is that sooner or later our time in the sun will have come and gone.
The external one has to do with the barbarians.The barbarians of the Roman Empire eventually, along with the injustices within the empire, brought down the empire. The barbarians were not really the wild marauding screwballs that we tend to think of them as. They were poor people who wanted in. They were immigrants. And we are doing a terrible job right now with immigration. We are trying to close down our doors, which I think is one of the worst things we can do.
If the Romans had looked at the problem rationally, they would’ve said, the best thing that we can do is try to figure out how we can integrate these people into the society. They didn’t do that. We can’t afford to do the same thing. We must answer the question, how can we integrate these people? All this nonsense that’s going on right now politically across the country, with people saying that we must build higher walls between Arizona and Mexico, is just silly. There’s no wall that we could make that would be high enough and strong enough to keep them all out. And of course no one should know that better than Irish Americans who almost all have some relationship to immigration – either directly or because of ancestors who came here at the turn of the 19th or 20th century – otherwise they wouldn’t be here. And that’s true of almost all Americans with some Irish identity. So we of all people should be in the forefront of protecting immigrants and welcoming them.
I love the section in How The Irish Saved Civilization on scribes adding their own footnotes and commentary as they copy manuscripts —
Part of it was that although they did know the alphabet and they could read and write, they weren’t sophisticated people. You and I might find it rather boring to copy texts in languages that we didn’t understand very well, like Greek, or, even if we did understand the language, the thoughts were so different from anything that would have been spoken by Irishmen in that period. The scribes were copying very difficult texts, and they entertained themselves by making little pictures in the margins and putting in little comments on the texts or on other scribes’ work. At times they put in these beautiful little poems and that’s how we have what we have left of early Irish poetry. It all started off as oral poetry, but it was written down by the monks and that’s why we still have it. Maybe while they were copying out some particularly ponderous section of Plato, they would put in a little four-line poem about finding a girl in the medieval forest.
It’s almost like there’s a conversation going on between the authors and the scribes. I’m tempted to link this idea of intertexuality to Web media, open-source projects and the blogosphere where media is an ongoing conversation. Is that a link that you see?
I do, and one of the great pioneers of this intertextuality was James Joyce; Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are reflections of that. In Ulysses he is in some ways in a dialogue with Homer. And Finnegans Wake is a dialogue with everything [laughs]; he tries to get everything in there one way or another. Whether it’s from an opera or prose from the past that [Joyce] particularly admires; all of that is thrown into Finnegans Wake. So this is long before the Internet, but in some ways he really embodies that.
There are some solid female characters in How the Irish – particularly Medb and Brigid, but I’m hesitant to idealize what women’s experiences were. Did they really have rights that were significantly different than women in other cultures at the time?
We can’t make them into modern feminists or anything like that; it is a very different culture. At the same time, I think all of Celtic culture was much more egalitarian – not democratic, but much more egalitarian, sexually, than the Greco-Roman world ever had been. There were many more important female figures in the Irish past than there were ever in ancient Rome. Medb is the perfect example of that, but she’s not the only one. The famous Celtic queen Boudica who fought the Romans and really fought them to a standstill – neither one of those figures, one of them literary, Medb, and the other one historical, no one could ever imagine a female figure among the Greeks or Romans with that kind of importance and centrality to the culture. So it was different and remained different for a long time. The medieval Irish retained a lot of that, which is why you can have – there’s no female figure on the continent that has as much importance as Brigid. They finally become a part of the larger European world, and then women become less important.
For me the whole point of the book is about literacy and the power that literacy gives people, and specifically that the Irish saw no value in censorship.
What the Irish understood – they did understand the value of literacy, that’s probably the main reason why it had become such a big deal to them so early. But what they also understood was the value of pleasure in reading. They became the great anthologists of the early Middle Ages because they were willing to look at anything. They were not censorious. They did not think that there were things that had to be left out. Certainly many of the church fathers felt and many non-Irish felt that censorship, school censorship and state censorship, was very important. And [the Irish] actually never bought that – of course, they did in the 20th century, unfortunately, but that’s after many terrible things had happened to them and their own essential culture had been so demolished and debased. They’d become the tools of an extremely regressive and life-denying form of Christianity.
I think the disinterest in censorship is linked to the idea of the tolerance of sin, and the acceptance of the cycle of sin and repentance that became the confession, which became the autobiography and then became fiction. I think there’s really a link between the kind of Christianity that Catholicism became to the Irish and the power of literacy there.
Yes. Well, literacy gave them the world and they embraced it.
And now a lot of Catholics are struggling with their relationship with the church.
I think they’re doing more than struggling with their relationship with the church at this point. I think a lot of them want to just close the door on it, and for very good reason. There’s very little hope there, unfortunately. I think that the last two popes have pretty much destroyed the church that Pope John XXIII tried to build in the early 1960s, and I don’t see any chance of its coming back. I think you end up with a very dry and puritanical form of Christianity.
Do you think that that opens the door for a different, more personal kind of Christianity to emerge?
I’d like to think so. I’m not sure that it will. I think it’s hanging by a thread in a way. In Ireland and in the United States, the scandal of – not so much just the pedophilia but the cover-up of the pedophilia, which went on for generations, and was completely supported by the bishops, has left everybody feeling that they’re unable to continue. It’s pretty much coming to an end and there’s nothing to replace it. You can go elsewhere, you can go to a different kind of church, you can interiorize or internalize, but you’re not going to find a countrywide or culture-wide influence anymore, it’s just not there. I don’t see any way of it being brought back.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on Volume Six of the Hinges of History series, which will be about the Renaissance and Reformation.
Thank you, Thomas.