A book that takes me back: and not in a good way

Cover of "How the Irish Saved Civilizatio...

Cover via Amazon

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

This book is just awful, there is no other way of putting it. But it is also very familiar: reading it reminds me of being in Brother Jennings’s class back at Belfast’s CBS Grammar School in 1978 – it has just that mix of the trite and the fantastic as though Erasmus had never been born. (Brother Jennings was not a bad man, though – but he was trapped in the system).

We have to get half way through the book before we have any serious discussion of the Irish at all, and then we get a lot on the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid at Cooley), the classic epic poem of Irish pre-Christian literature but hardly relevant to the supposed subject matter of the book.

And then there is St Patrick. Well, the accepted consensus amongst historians today is that there were, in fact, two St Patricks. This theory is ignored by the book because it blows the central argument – that Patrick was the world’s first missionary – clean out of the water. Once you grasp that it is impossible to take anything else the book says seriously.

The only way it is interesting is as a yarn – the sort of texts one finds in the “lives of saints” – and reminiscent of a lost age in Ireland: one where the Catholic Church was seen as a credible moral leader.

It’s a great pity, because it would be good to have a serious, credible (and popular) book that did deal with this remarkable era in Irish history. This text was enormously popular but fails on the other two categories.


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