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RICHARD EDER

Filling In Civilization's Blank Spot : How western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael on the Irish coast : 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 (Nan Talese/Doubleday; $22.50; 246 pp.)

March 12, 1995|RICHARD EDER

With such a title, you might expect Doubleday to replace the bare price on its jacket-flap with "Only $22.50 If You Order Now." In fact, Thomas Cahill's account of how Irish monks preserved classical culture in the Dark Ages is both less and more than its title.

Less, in that Cahill tugs for attention with a pinch of what you might call Irish Exceptionalism or, in the vernacular, blarney. More, in that his book offers an account which, if not as absolutely untold as the subtitle suggests, is probably as unheard by most of us. Despite some odd ordering and a good deal of ramble, it makes a lovely and engrossing tale. Further, it provides a reminder that if there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to write history and perhaps the cat should get a turn.

There was Rome, Cahill tells us, with its treasure of Latin and, by assimilation, Greek literature and in its last days, the writings of the early church fathers, particularly St. Augustine and his "Confessions." Then, utter collapse in the 5th Century and a kind of blank spot--so the common impression goes--until along around the 9th or 10th Century there were all those splendid monasteries with libraries that would eventually nurture the early universities, the medieval courts and finally the Renaissance, and us.

But who stocked the libraries? Very largely, the Irish; and if that goes against a long stereotype--hardly ever do we couple the term Irish with civilization, Cahill asserts, padding his man with a little straw--he quotes the veritable Adam and Eve of Irish joke-and-comeback. Charles the Bald, heir to Charlemagne, is drinking with his scholar companion, the Irish-born John Scotus. "What separates an Irishman from an ass?" the emperor demands. "Only the table," Scotus replies.

That is for fun. For more scholarly backing, Cahill quotes, among others, Sir Kenneth Clark: "Looking back from the great civilizations of 12th-Century France of 17th-Century Rome, it is hard to believe that for quite a long time--almost a hundred years--western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock 18 miles from the Irish coast, rising 700 feet out of the sea."

Cahill gets his monk-scribes with quills, calf-skins and precious rescued manuscripts, up to the pinnacle, down to such monastic foundations as Kells, Iona and Lindisfarne and, from the 6th Century on, traveling by the hundreds through Europe. They founded monasteries in such places as Auxerre, Luxeuil, Liege, Trier, Regensburg, St. Gall, Fiesole and others; while English and European monks, Irish-trained, filled libraries of their own.

The first quarter of Cahill's book is an overview of the Greek and Latin civilization that was to be preserved. It is the weakest section; written with determined breeziness so that Cicero is by turns the Dale Carnegie and the Will Durant of antiquity; and the heretical theologian Pelagius is the Norman Vincent Peale. He is also "egregiously fat," Cahill tells us, perhaps to increase our comfort level. It's a bit like visiting a third-grade class; we are seated in tiny chairs.

Cahill has an eccentric way with quotes. He gives us Everyone's Favorite Virgil--arms and the man, Greeks bearing gifts, the tears of things--but then he gives us a splendid and difficult four pages of Plato on the soul. It serves to segue into St. Augustine; still, it seems disproportionate, particularly since we are still waiting to see how the author is going to get to the Irish. We may feel that a detour has turned into a highway going somewhere else.

The same rambling method, with pauses for long quotes, works extremely well the moment that Cahill, in the company of St. Patrick, gets to Ireland. Partly it is because the excerpts from Irish poetry are both beautiful and less familiar; partly it is because the author has reached home ground. He is a publisher and a cheerfully humane Irish patriot and his byways are his ways.

He abandons St. Patrick almost at once, though temporarily, to take up the pre-Christian Irish epics, notably the stories of Maeve and Cuchullain. Quoting from Kinsella's beautiful translation of the "Tain" he evokes the curious simultaneity of lightness, humor, pleasure, lament and dreadful fear. The world was infinitely to be enjoyed, and a horror to the point of madness. Time without warning shifted men from the one to the other.

Cahill uses these things to suggest the welcome that St. Patrick, a Celt from Britain, received when he brought Christianity to Ireland. It relieved the horror: death was no longer so awful and time no longer was so dangerously unhinged. At the same time it soon became tinted with the old Irish pleasure in the beauty and passions of the world.

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