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How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe Paperback – Deckle Edge, February 15, 1995

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In this delightful and illuminating look into a crucial but little-known "hinge" of history, Thomas Cahill takes us to the "island of saints and scholars," the Ireland of St. Patrick and the Book of Kells. Here, far from the barbarian despoliation of the continent, monks and scribes laboriously, lovingly, even playfully preserved the West's written treasury. When stability returned in Europe, these Irish scholars were instrumental in spreading learning, becoming not only the conservators of civilization, but also the shapers of the medieval mind, putting their unique stamp on Western culture. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, Ireland, according to the author, "had one moment of unblemished glory"-when Irish monks copied almost all of Western classical poetry, history, oratory, philosophy and commentary. But this book is more than the story of monks preserving manuscripts; it is an irreverent look back at how Ireland came to be. Celts who had traversed Europe, Irish warriors and their women were primitive and blatantly sexual. Next came a taming of the land with the help of St. Patrick, who hated slavery and loved scholarship. Patrick was followed by St. Columcille, a great lover of books who became embroiled in a war and, as penance, exiled himself to the island of Iona, off Scotland. It was here that Ireland became "Europe's publisher," as other warrior-monks followed Columcille's example and began to colonize barbarized Europe. They put Ireland in the vanguard of intellectual leadership, a position the Irish would not surrender until the Viking invasion of the 11th century. Cahill (A Literary Guide to Ireland) has written a scholarly, yet cheeky, book that will have strong appeal to Celtophiles. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 246 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1st edition (February 15, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385418485
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385418485
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (492 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #187,800 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Thomas Cahill, former director of religious publishing at Doubleday, is the bestselling author of the Hinges of History series.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 1, 1998
Format: Paperback
This was not as compelling or thoughtful as this subject deserved. It seems to be written (or transscribed) with the audiotape in mind. Cahill's statement in the preface that this subject (How the Irish Saved...) has not been addressed before is wrong. I recommend James Charles Roy's Islands of Storm. This is an earlier book and does a far better job of explaining this subject. In addition it adds far more Irish geography and meanderings about Irish religious development and influences. At 280 pages a far more worthwhile and enjoyable read. In fact after reading Cahill's, I immediately re-read Roy's.
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227 of 267 people found the following review helpful By John B. Maggiore on April 13, 2001
Format: Audio Cassette
The title of this book is misleading, though not inaccurate. For some reason I assumed the title to be tongue-in-cheek. Some vague kind of Irish humor. I also assumed that the Irish in question were the contemporary Irish, perhaps even Irish Americans. I was pleasantly surprised to be completely wrong. I usually listen to tapes of books that I am mildly interested in and don't want to spend the time and effort to read. This one far exceeded my initial casual interest. It was a joy to listen to and worth sitting down with in print form. The book is a piece of serious history. It focuses on the transition in Europe between the fall of Rome and the early Middle Ages. The story is literally how Irish clerics saved the books and teachings of classical Western civilization, then re-introduced them to Europe after the fall. This is not only a period in history that I am not especially familiar with - I genuinely don't think there's much writing on it (at least not popular historical writing, like this book). The author makes a point that this particular story - of how, well, the Irish saved civilization, is especially downplayed or ignored in part due to who writes most of the history books (such as the English). So I learned quite a bit. Cahill is a great storyteller. I imagine that this will be enjoyable even for people without a particular attraction to history, and certainly to people with no particular interest in Irish history. Again, this is a book worth getting and reading in print form, however the audio version has one advantage - the narration by Donal Donnelly. His rich voice and well-timed delivery was a joy to listen to and kept me driving the long way home so I could hear more of the tape.
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65 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Susan Gill on January 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
Thomas Cahill's "How the Irish Saved Civilization..." is the kind of written history that was born in the oral tradition. This is a book not only scholarly in content, but eminently readable by all. Certainly, it has become a monument to the Irish monks who one can see painstakingly copying the ancient books of the Greeks for posterity. Cahill's recounting of Patrick, Ireland's patron saint, brings this Roman slave's life to the people without compromising his inherent holiness. Thomas Cahill does great honor to his ancestors with his book, a must read for anyone interested in the history of Western Civilization.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Michael E. Bass on May 29, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The eyebrow-raising title pretty well says it all for this book, which presents, in a popular format, the rich heritage and influence of Irish Christianity upon the whole of Western Europe in the early Middle Ages. (Although the citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire would have laughed at the notion that their civilization was in any sense "saved" by the Irish!). The author does a creditable job of casting light on a part of Western history that often gets short shrift in the history books: how the Irish monks of the 6th and 7th centuries "jump-started" literacy and learning during the darkest part of the Dark Ages. A very informative and enjoyable read!
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55 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Dabney on February 28, 2000
Format: Audio Cassette
I won't weigh in on the merits of the work itself--it is fine for my taste, though not to others. But you ought to be warned that the narration for the unabridged edition, by Donal Donnelly, is deplorable. He reads with almost comically exaggerated vocal inflections. He often pauses after ever few words (sometimes after every single word) so that you can hardly follow the flow of the ideas. I found it so annoying that I had to stop listening, though I was engaged by the book itself. This criticism does not apply to Liam Neeson's reading of the abridged edition--I haven't heard it, but it seems to get good reviews. This is the rare instance when I wish I had bought the shorter version.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By "mikilynn" on October 19, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book is a fascinating and very readable account of an important piece of history. Not only is it information that is omitted in the standard text books, but it is presented in a way that makes you personally involved in the lives and contributions of such men as Saint Patrick. These are living, breathing pages which give dignity and value to a people and a culture that has long been characatured or dismissed. I literally laughed and sighed aloud. This is a must-read for anyone of Irish descent and a very enjoyable look at western culture for anyone else.
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235 of 291 people found the following review helpful By G M on May 1, 2006
Format: Paperback
I might as well state it plainly: this book is the stupidest scholarly work I have ever read. I gave it up halfway through, and thus read twice as much as I should have.

As a kid growing up in Ireland I remember our primary school teacher telling us about the important work carried out by Irish monks beginning in the sixth century, where they preserved and copied many important works of the ancient Western canon and slowly helped to re-illuminate Europe during the Dark Ages. Since then I've always preserved a certain curiosity about the story at the back of my mind. As a colonized people, Ireland's indigenous culture was suppressed for centuries, so could it be true that in a pre-colonial period the Irish had helped to save Western civilisation? When I saw this book on the shelf I bought it straight away.

In fairness, I should have been more circumspect. The reviews on the back cover used phrases like "shamelessly engaging, effortlessly scholarly" [Thomas Keneally]; "lyrical, playful ... entirely engaging" [NY Times]; "entertainingly told" [Sunday Telegraph] which should have rung all sorts of warning bells. Keneally (who should know better) is accidentally correct when he uses the term "effortlessly scholarly" since it's plain as day that no scholarly effort at all went into this researchless mess. I have not the space here to describe the crazed prose flowing from Cahill's out-of-control pen, nor the arm-chancing shallowness of his unbearable pseduo-intellectualism. With little of any substance to comment on, much of the book's intellectual pedigree can be can be judged from the prose style alone. Cahill plainly takes himself quite seriously as a scholar, but the mask just keeps slipping. The following are some examples.
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