This is a fascinating history set at the fall of the Roman empire when barbarian hordes swept through Europe destroying everything before them. As scholars fled the chaos, and priests sought safer land, one of the few places that they could go was Ireland. So, this book begins in Rome, but soon we meet St Patrick and follow him as he grows from Roman Briton as a boy, to be a slave on an Irish sheep farm. We follow him as he runs away from the farm, flees Ireland, trains as a priest and then is compelled by God to return to Ireland.
The book describes the tribal life of Ireland and how even as Christianity grew, it had to fit within a culture where both men and women were warriors, and where druids held mystical power. So, we see in the early Irish church that there were women bishops along with the men, such as St Brigid, and we see the church growing by initially aping the retreats of the druids through an idea of hermitage. However, it wasn’t long until these hermitages became full on monasteries educating both men and women and filled with European exiles.
It is in these monasteries that the Irish saved civilisation. By copying the books they rescued from the Romans, they were able to retain the knowledge of Plato, Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal and all the rest of them. And because they were so far from Rome, they were unconcerned that these ideas might not be terribly Christian. Indeed, Cahill argues that a feature of Irish Christianity was that it was open to a plurality of views. So, as the Roman libraries collapsed, or were looted and destroyed, during the sixth century, the art of copying manuscripts flourished in Ireland.
Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe’s publisher. But the pagan Saxon settlements of Southern England had cut Ireland off from easy commerce with the continent. While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It only needed one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland.
The circle was closed by a monk called Columcille who was exiled from Ireland for some derring do, involving a slight massacre of 3000 people, and went to set up a monastery in Iona. From here they faced an endless stream of visitors coming to learn and take that knowledge home with them and crucially, it was here that Columcille came up with the idea of creating more monasteries when the population at Iona grew too big. By the time of his death there were 60 new monasteries dotted over Scotland.
But more than this, Columcille developed the idea of the nobility of priestly exile which led to hundreds of other warrior monks setting off into the world to share their learning and fight any monsters they were lucky enough to encounter. And they took their books with them, many of them tied their books to their waists in triumph, much as their ancestors would have tied their enemies heads. And so they spread literacy and knowledge which led to the development of new monasteries throughout Europe, now with access to the Roman knowledge. And so the circle was completed and civilisation saved.
Thank goodness for that!
The sad part is that the Irish monasteries then fell prey to the Vikings whose attacks were so brutal and relentless that by the time they were defeated Ireland was no longer the cultural powerhouse it had been. And for the rest of Irish history we will have to find another book.