Only Ireland, on the outer fringe of Western Europe, was left unconquered by the mighty Roman Empire. The weather was too rough (the Romans referred to the island as “Hibernia, Land of Winter”), and its Celtic warriors too fierce, to make a military expedition there worth it. One saint, however, was braver than the Roman generals; St. Patrick was able to conquer the remote island nation for Christ during his missionary labors there from 432 to 461.
When Patrick was laying the foundations of the Irish Church, no one could have foreseen the vital role it would play shortly after his death in preserving the light of faith and learning in the midst of Europe’s dark age. Thomas Cahill’s 1995 bestselling How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (Nan A. Talese, 1995) tells this little known but remarkable story.
Cahill’s book details what can be considered Ireland’s “Golden Age,” which lasted from the sixth century until the Viking invasions of the ninth century. During that time, 500 recognized saints came from the Emerald Isle, and its many monasteries produced a flourishing of art and learning that missionaries took to a suffering European continent in the wake Rome’s collapse. How the Irish Church came to the rescue of civilization is Patrick’s greatest legacy.
The church founded by Patrick had three distinct characteristics: it was Celtic, monastic, and missionary.
Patrick showed great respect for the native spirituality and traditions of the Irish, which were incorporated into Christian practice. The native Celtic culture was transformed by the Gospel from within without being eradicated. “In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life…,” Cahill writes. “Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination—making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish.”
Patrick’s importing of Christianity brought writing to Ireland. The only alphabet the Irish had previously known was prehistoric Ogham—the twenty characters of its alphabet simply consisted of parallel strokes on either side of or across a continuous line. Within a generation, the Irish would master Latin, Greek and even some Hebrew.
There was a close affinity between the Christian faith and traditional Irish spirituality. The fit was so natural that there were no martyrdoms as Christianity spread throughout the land. Cahill sheds light on this historical anomaly: “Ireland is unique in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed.”
In contrast to the conventional “Red Martyrdom” by blood, the Irish developed a spirituality of the “Green Martyrdom” of asceticism. The Irish Church soon produced an unprecedented number of monks and missionaries.
In Patrick’s time, the Irish Church already developed a monastic spirit. Many of his young converts, including even sons and daughters of kings, were eager to dedicate their lives to God as monks and nuns.
Over the course of the century after Patrick’s death, monasteries were established all over Ireland. Though intended as secluded places of prayer, they soon become objects of the patronage of kings and the wealthy; people were drawn to build settlements around them, and they became centers of economy and learning.
Ireland was unlike the rest of the Western Church, which was organized through bishoprics that mimicked Roman urban administrative units, called dioceses. We are, of course, familiar with this system of organization throughout the Catholic world today. But medieval Ireland had no cities and, as a result, the Irish didn’t quite see the point of bishops whose importance were superseded by abbots.
These monastic city-states became hubs of civilization. Most important were the libraries and scriptoria where the wisdom of the ancient Greco-Roman world was preserved.
The isolated island nation did not suffer the ravages of the empire’s collapse to the barbarian hordes. Patrick brought the best of Roman religion and learning to the island, which continued to thrive in its many monasteries while the rest of Western Europe descended into the Dark Ages.
The Roman Empire was the organizing principal that allowed for the flourishing of art, law, literature, technology, language, and religion in the ancient world. The vast territory in Western Europe became increasingly difficult to control and defend, until it finally fell in 476. A barbarian general named Odoacer invaded Rome and deposed the teenage emperor Romulus Augustusulus, sending him into exile. The imperial insignia were sent by the dejected senate to Emperor Zeno in Constantinople, where the eastern Roman Empire would continue for another thousand years.
On Rome’s fall, Cahill offers this point which serves as a helpful admonition to our own declining civilization:
Rome fell because of inner weakness, either social or spiritual; or Rome fell because of outer pressure—the barbarian hordes. What we can say with confidence is that Rome fell gradually and that Romans for many decades scarcely noticed what was happening.
Even the most secular of modern men takes for granted the historical Christian identity of Europe. It is easy to overlook, however, that after the fall of Rome, Christianity could have easily become extinct on the continent. Rome was a Christian empire that fell to pagan barbarians. If a pagan or heretical Arian tribe was able to consolidate power at this time, Christianity could have very well declined and not become the fixture of Western civilization that it did.
All the great continental libraries had vanished with the fall of the Western Roman Empire just a few years after Patrick’s death. Cahill quotes Ammianus Marcellinus, who was writing at the end of the fourth century: “Bibliotecis sepulcrorum ritu in perpetuum clausis, The libraries, like tombs, were closed forever.” An illiterate Europe of warring tribes emerged. Rather than the pursuit of learning, arts, and culture, those tribes were preoccupied with filling the power vacuum left by the collapsed Roman Empire. In comparison to the “light” of classical antiquity, historians have labeled this early medieval period the “Dark Ages” as the realm of the former empire slid into an economic, intellectual, and cultural decline.
Saintly bishops on the continent like Pope Gregory in Rome and Isidore in Seville, did their part to save civilization by building libraries. But their efforts did little to stem the tide of Western Europe’s decline. Cahill quotes St. Gregory of Tours on the era:
In these times when the practice of letters declines, no, rather perishes in the cities of Gaul, there has been found no scholar trained in ordered composition to present in pros or verse a picture of the things which have fallen.
Back in Ireland, the light of classical civilization was kept alive in its monasteries. Art was flourishing, as typified by the metal work of the Ardagh Chalice, the stone work of the high crosses dotting the landscape of church yards and cemeteries, and the lavish decorations of illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells. Most important were the monastery libraries and scriptoria where the wisdom of old was preserved and expanded.
On the importance of these monastic scribes, Cahill writes:
[A]s the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artefacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of Western literature—everything they could lay their hands on.
Patrick imparted to the Irish Church a missionary impulse. The generation of saints that followed him would not be content in keeping the treasure Christianity and the wisdom of the ancients to themselves.
The first great figure in this era of enormous Irish missionary activity was St. Columcille (521-597), Latinized as “Columba.” He established the famed monastery at Iona off the coast of Scotland and continued on to evangelize the Scots and the Picts on the mainland.
Other great Irish missionary figures who established monasteries in Britain and across northern continental Europe included Saints Aidan, Fridolin, Fursey, Kilian, and Gall. The greatest among them, St. Columbanus (543-615), established monasteries in Belgium, Switzerland, France, and Italy, where he is buried at Bobbio Abbey which later became a renowned center of learning in the early Middle Ages, rivaling St. Benedict’s abbey at Monte Casino. The disciples of Columbanus are credited with establishing more than a hundred more monasteries throughout the continent—each serving as a light that illumined Europe during the darkness.
Europe’s first Renaissance was presided over by Charlemagne (747-814). However, too few remember how the Carolingian Renaissance would not have been possible without the influx of Irish codices on the continent. Charlemagne was said to have “amabat peregrinos, loved the wandering monks” of Ireland.
The outstanding philosopher of the Carolingian era, the man who Bertrand Russell called “the most astonishing person of the ninth century,” was John Scotus “Eriugena, the Irish-born.”
For all of these reasons, Cahill credits the monastic scribes and missionaries of Ireland for saving European civilization in the midst of the Dark Age. It’s a compelling story that should be of interest to more than just the Irish.
But what about Western civilization of the twenty-first century? Our civilization is in terrible decline by just about every measure, so what lesson can we learn from on how the Irish saved civilization all those centuries ago?
It can only be done by faith. Cahill concludes his book:
The twenty-first century, prophesied Malraux, will be spiritual or it will not be. If our civilization is to be saved—forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass ‘in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind’—if we are to be saved, it will not be by the Romans but by saints.
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Cahill is a popular history writer, not a historian, and it shows in his discussion of the role of the bishop in medieval Ireland. In short, his scholarship here is very outdated. Early medieval Ireland was, in fact, episcopal in its government, as was the rest of the Church, though in its own unique way. Every Irish province was governed by a bishop, and the bishop was indispensable for the administration of certain sacraments (ordination, confirmation), but in different regions the bishop’s authority existed alongside that of abbots and other monastic leaders, who had their own distinct prerogatives under local Church law. The Irish Church was never non-episcopal.
As an 82 year old convert of 35+ years I was delighted to read this brief history of the contributions of the Irish to to the spread and preservation of the faith. I proudly bear an Irish surname and am seeking its roots. May God richly bless all Irishmen on this day.
Amen. And good luck finding your Irish ancestors.
My mother’s maidan name was Connor. Her father came from Claremorris in Co.Mayo.
Wow! I had no idea that this happened. Cheers to St. Patrick!
Who and where aree the Irish equivalents who are going to save civlization this time?
Maybe Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX? Isn’t that what Bishop Athanasius Schneider (not of the SSPX) has recently said in an interview with Life Site News, as reported by Catholic World Report?
Some 200years before Columba, Ninian, bishop of Galloway who probably spoke a language related to modern Welsh, was proselytizing south west Scotland, a region which may have been the home of Patrick.
The region was partially Romanized. Being Roman ie Latin Christian was a mark of civilization.
Great article Father Seán! I have zero Irish in my genes – but married an Irish/Swede :). She loves the cold rain here in Oregon. I’ve always been impressed with the Irish personality and humor. I used to think it was from being tortured by the English for centuries – but now I see it goes back further. Please consider writing some (cautious) articles that review the part Islam had in the death of the classical world. Oh, at my wedding I had one of my groomsmen read Lorica to the couple hundred who attended the Mass – and our second son is named Patrick. Saints be praised – particularly Patrick!