The titular question of Thomas Cahill’s first Hinges of History book is one that gets people interested in picking it up. Yet the length of How the Irish Saved Civilization brings into question on if Cahill adequately answers his own question with such a slender book that promoted becoming a bestseller.
Cahill’s focus is on the end of the Western Roman Empire and how the literary tradition, in fact literacy itself survived the end of the Roman era and begin in the new Germanic aftermath of the fall of Rome. The survival of literacy in Europe is thanks to the efforts of the newly Christianized Irish, the people not considered worth the conquest by Rome that keeps the legacy of Rome alive in Western Europe. The Irish through the missionary effort of the future St. Patrick turn from a non-literate oral society into a literate and learning center in less than a century. The proud warrior-centered culture became “warriors” for learning that attracted scholars all over Europe to learn and read at the many monasteries, but then the Irish started spread away from their island home first across the Irish Sea to Great Britain than all across Europe founding monasteries as they went to continued their tradition.
Cahill attempts to create portraits of the Irish before and after their conversion to display how their culture changed, but also how it stayed the same and influenced the Celtic Christian tradition of the British Isles. In contrast, Cahill portrayed the Roman worldview and culture including how it influenced Roman Christianity. Although both these attempts were somewhat successful, the result in the book came off as a little disjointed in cohesion. The lack of firm historical data or sources for some of Cahill’s depiction of St. Patrick, acknowledged in the book’s bibliographic sources hurts of the quality of the overall work as well.
How the Irish Saved Civilization is a nice history for the general reader, however unlike later installments of the Hinges of History series it is lacking in a quality connected structure and solid sources. Cahill should be praised in giving readers understanding in how the society of Western Europe both changed and stayed the same with the fall of Rome and the beginning of the early Middle Ages, however the quality of the book is only so-so.