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How the Irish Saved Civilization (The Hinges of History #1)

3.80  ·  Rating Details  ·  26,958 Ratings  ·  1,166 Reviews
From the fall of Rome to the rise of Charlemagne - the "dark ages" - learning, scholarship, and culture disappeared from the European continent. The great heritage of western civilization - from the Greek and Roman classics to Jewish and Christian works - would have been utterly lost were it not for the holy men and women of unconquered Ireland.

In this delightful and illu
...more
Paperback, 246 pages
Published February 1st 1996 by Bantam Doubleday Dell (NYC) (first published January 1st 1995)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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John Wiswell
Mar 11, 2008 John Wiswell rated it did not like it
Mind-numbingly written, building up to a nearly inconsequential conclusion on how Irish monks might have helped preserve some of Europe's classic literature. I'm descended from the Irish and was looking forward to a little nationalist pride, but this failed by underdelivering from its title and being nearly unreadable from the first chapter. It hurts even worse to hear that the claims may have been false.
Amy
Jan 13, 2008 Amy rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Irish, Irish lovers, travelers, historians, dreamers, lovers of literature
Recommended to Amy by: my dear dad
Shelves: past-read
I spent a semester studying on the rugged west coast of Ireland, utterly immersed in the culture.

My college owns a line of houses in a tiny village in Ireland, and for nearly 40 years they've paid the villagers to keep it in good condition for the yearly crop of foreigners who descend on it, like me, for four months every year.

The experience itself was wonderful, but preparing for it and the anticipation were almost MORE fun. I read this book with that spirit in mind. I learned how St. Patrick b
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Mark
Sep 15, 2008 Mark rated it liked it
Though not exactly news to anyone who went to school in Ireland (Cahill seems to have an Irish-American readership as his target audience, particularly given-away by his repeated and annoying generalizations about the 'Irish Spirit' and such like: what does he mean, Jameson or Bushmills?), this nevertheless has lots of good stuff in it and the overall argument is strong.

I particularly liked the early material contrasting the moribund writing of Roman Gallic poet Ausonias with St. Augustine, and
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Jen
Mar 19, 2008 Jen rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
This was awful. Many reviews say things like "charming" and "pleasant," but I thought it was tedious and meandering. Not all history has to be chronological; there's interesting stuff in here but it's too long with details of Roman society. Also, the author writes like a blow-hard, and interjects things like "Alas!" and "Dear Reader" and "It is up to the reader to decide." That kind of stuff irritates me to no end.

Searching for info online, I found references that refute much of what the author
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Wealhtheow
As the Roman Empire crumbled, so too did literacy and libraries suffer. By the seventh century, however, Patrick had converted enough men into being Christians and scribes that many ancient Greek and Roman books were preserved in Ireland, even as the originals crumbled elsewhere. The preservation of ancient texts is a fascinating theme upon which to relate a history, but alas, the majority of the book concerns how awesome Plato is. Seriously, there is a three page quote from Plato, followed by a ...more
Kathleen
Dec 25, 2014 Kathleen rated it liked it
Shelves: history-quasi
Cahill may occasionally engage in exaggeration and speculation, but he increased my interest in history. I have read the first four books in the Hinges of History series, starting book 1 almost 20 years ago, so my memory is not bright. However, the books stuck with me fairly well. Kudos to the author for that. Since then, Cahill wrote two more books, but I have not read them. This is quasi-history told in a fairly accessible narrative style -- if at times meandering. Cahill is not a historian, ...more
Lisa (Harmonybites)
I do get why this book on "How the Irish Saved Civilization" was a bestseller. Not only is it the perfect gift for St Patrick's Day, it is entertaining and readable. But I also found it superficial and not reliable. It may be the contrast with some really fine histories and biographies I've read lately, but several things in this book made it suspect to me. Cahill isn't a historian. The short biography at the end says only that he has a MFA in "Film and Dramatic Literature" and that he has studi ...more
John
Mar 18, 2014 John rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, 2014
This is the kind of book where the title really seems to over-commit to an idea and overstate the reality of history. I went into this book thinking that Cahill was surely using hyperbole to say that the Irish saved civilization. He may be, but this is still a remarkable and relevant history. This is a great, great book that deserves the wide readership it has received.

The book begins with a retelling of the fall of Rome. Cahill does this to show the peril in which Western Civilization was steep
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Kelsea Dawn Hume
Mar 22, 2014 Kelsea Dawn Hume rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
First, let's get this ridiculous title out of the way: challenging a racist assumption (that the Irish are lazy, wild, etc.) by buying into a broader racist assumption (that western civilization is the ONLY civilization) isn't really all that radical. And it's bad history. And it's a very bad start to a rather mediocre book.

It's not that I didn't enjoy anything in this book. Cahill meandered to places I found quite enjoyable -- a good history book should meander a bit, the side trails of histor
...more
Andrew
Aug 05, 2007 Andrew rated it liked it
Here Cahill provides a popular-level history of the early middle ages with mixed success. His greatest asset is a suprisingly strong prose style, which allows him to effortlessly, and even peotically, lead his readers through a complicated and fuzzy period of history. No doubt this is the reason the book was a bestseller. But it also proves to be his downfall in that his efortless sentences ellide the complexity of his subject matter. Perhaps this is the fate of all popularizers, but I found mys ...more
Susan
Jan 02, 2011 Susan rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, audio-book
I've noticed that history books on Goodreads are often given lower star ratings by people who are upset to find that the author was using information to present a cohesive thesis rather than providing an unbiased account. Although it is right to bring up slant in evaluating the truth of a thesis, it's somewhat sad to see these complaints for Cahill's defense of pre-Joycean Irish civilization when one of Cahill's major arguments is that biased English historians prevented any appreciation of Iris ...more
Ramorx
Nov 08, 2007 Ramorx rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Latin and Greek scholars
It seems to me that the basic thesis of this book is absurd. The "Irish" didnt save civilization - a few scholarly monks set to work on preserving the classics, all very noble, but meanwhile the rest of the Irish were cavorting around not being like fucking Romans or Greeks and living a different kind of anti-state and somewhat anti-authoritarian "civilization".

This from wikipedia -
Celtic Ireland (650-1650)
In Celtic Irish society of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, courts and the law we
...more
David A.
Feb 14, 2012 David A. rated it it was amazing
I'm Irish. Don't let my last name (Zimmerman) fool you. I'm the proud son of a guy whose surname unfortunately obscures the fact that my mother (of whom I'm also a proud son) is 100 percent Irish, so assuming my dad has a little Irish in him (who doesn't?) I'm at least 50 percent.

Not sure why that's so important to me, but it is. There's a mystique to Irishness that simply isn't there with other countries of distant origins. Ireland is ever green, it's charmed and charming, thick with thin spac
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Jon Newswanger
Apr 16, 2008 Jon Newswanger rated it it was amazing
In college I took a class entitled "Christianity in History." It turned out to be merely a church history class.

This book is everything I wished that course had been, but wasn't. It does an amazing job in pointing out how Christians have impacted history, summed up best in it's final sentence:

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
...more
Mel
Feb 21, 2014 Mel rated it really liked it
An entertaining little history of Irish scholarship, culture, and monk/saint heroes of antiquity who greatly respected early learning, writing etc. This very much has a catholic bias but still well written and worth reading if you are interested in Irish history.
Ron
Dec 06, 2011 Ron rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
The title may be a slight exaggeration, but it's a good read for students of western history. Lots of good Middle Ages as well as the expected Irish background.

Multiple readings pull out a wealth of details and insights.
M.K. Gilroy
Sep 06, 2012 M.K. Gilroy rated it it was amazing
In 406 A.D the Rhine River froze solid - and the barbarians crossed this temporary bridge to strike one of the final blows to a lazy, corrupt, and aging empire. When Alaric, king of the Visigoths, showed up at Rome's gates in 410 A.D., the citizens still didn't know the end was at hand. Unable to defend themselves - it was a lot of effort after all - they negotiated a "sack" to spare the city from bloodshed:

"So they kept their lives, most of them. But sooner or later they or their progeny lost a
...more
Michael Gerald
Dec 26, 2015 Michael Gerald rated it really liked it
The "Dark Ages". Now, whoever was the idiot who coined that term did not know history.

This book again sets the record straight that the Medieval Period was a time of cultural and technological stagnation. It was actually during the Medieval Period when the seeds of many cultural and intellectual advancements were sown.

If you enjoy reading books, then you have the Medieval Church men and women, like the Irish, who laboriously and lovingly copied the Scriptures and other classics that the world st
...more
Nick
May 08, 2015 Nick rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, own
What a great book! A pleasure to read.
Matt
Jun 25, 2016 Matt rated it liked it
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 fa
...more
George Bradford
(If you’re curious about the life of St. Patrick, this book contains an excellent account.)

Some books have titles so awesome that the text can’t possibly live up to it. Here is a book whose title does just that. Whether “How the Irish Saved Civilization” lives up to its self-imposed challenge is up to the reader. Lovers of all things Irish will buy it and be filled with pride. Skeptical historians will find errors and omissions to criticize and debunk it.

During Europe’s Middle Ages most of the
...more
Brian
Apr 27, 2008 Brian rated it liked it
I hope I'm not the first to tell you that we have more to thank the Irish for than Saint Patrick's Day. During the dark ages of Europe, the holy men and women of Ireland preserved many of Western civilization's classic texts... and in telling the story of how that came to pass, the author takes us on a determined romp through history illuminated by characters from Irish myth, legend, religion and of course, Saint Patrick himself, who is a bit of all those in one!

It's a quick enough read and pack
...more
Todd Stockslager
May 17, 2016 Todd Stockslager rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Review Title: When in Ireland,...

As I have gotten the chance in the last year to see some of the fabulous treasures of Christianity in the British Museum and Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Dublin's Trinity College, and see some of the ruins of 6th to 10th Century England and Ireland, I have often referred to Cahill's only partially tongue in cheek title. I had read the book several years ago before I had started listing and then writing down what I thought about the books I read, w
...more
Nanci McGraw
Apr 04, 2015 Nanci McGraw rated it really liked it
I reached my goal: I read and finished this book in the month of March.
So-ooooooooooooooooo glad. Way too many details for me to remember, recall, and reuse. However, I don't blame the author, ha! I did read everything from front to back and then went backwards to front again. Love the pronunciation guide for Irish names. Appreciate the chronology outline in the appendix. Read the unique chapter by chapter explanatory bibliography. The world has some fantastically dedicated scholars who just lov
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Harman
Jul 27, 2016 Harman rated it liked it
While the overall argument of Cahill's book is compelling and difficult to disprove, much of the detail is questionable and what I presume is his bias surfaces a good deal.
The good:
Again, this serves as a readable and compelling argument of how the Roman Empire fell and how the Irish conversion to Christianity and its consequences served to usher in the medieval era by preserving literacy and 'high' culture. By examining the poetry, prose and art of the late Roman classical period and juxtaposin
...more
Mark Nangle
May 10, 2014 Mark Nangle rated it really liked it
The dramatic title of this book is a bit tongue in cheek is it not? Cahill's attempt at Irish exaggeration and humour is maybe lost on some erstwhile reviewers. Having said that, you do get the sense that Cahill is at least half-serious and would like to be taken at least half as seriously again.

Published in the midst of the 'Celtic Tiger' nineties, Cahill points out in his introduction that he is attempting an untold history of 'transition', rather than stasis, meaning that most histories descr
...more
Ryan Handermann
Dec 27, 2010 Ryan Handermann rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Cahill focuses on Augustine when talking about the dying Western Civilization, and on Patrick, Columba and Columbanus when talking about how the Irish saved Western Civ. Ireland is place removed from Romanized Christianity, and, like the Assyrian Church, or the Copts, it demonstrates the provincial outlook of a Roman Christianity that tries to proclaim itself as "Catholic" and the center of the Christian world.

A few interesting facts:

Irish monks wrote fun and random notes in the margins of their
...more
Mike
Nov 03, 2010 Mike rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone
This is a good and interesting book and although I think it's more a "3.5" than a straight "4", I'm willing to grade it generously.

The author has clearly done a good job on his research and analysis. His writing style is clear and clean; more "popular" than "scholarly" - almost too much so for my tastes. But this is a book written for a widespread and casual audience, so his tone and phrasing is understandably directed to that level.

I, having learned my Greco-Roman history and six years of Latin
...more
Mike Barresi
May 03, 2011 Mike Barresi rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone with a passion for history, Ireland, literature
Shelves: own, non-fiction
I recently wrote somewhere that Cahill is a great writer of popular history. I didn't really qualify that remark. Cahill doesn't write popular history, he writes about history in a way that the most readers possible, could enjoy. How the Irish Saved Civilization is a perfect example of this. His premise is fairly simple; while the Roman world is collapsing and being taken over by 'barbarians' across the continent, Irish monks, beginning with Saint Patrick, create a new civilization of religion a ...more
Douglas
Oct 18, 2014 Douglas rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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It's interesting--and true! 15 105 Jun 20, 2014 01:08AM  
Goodreads Ireland: November Read: How The Irish Save Civilization 17 21 Dec 02, 2011 03:24PM  
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Born in New York City to Irish-American parents and raised in Queens and the Bronx, Cahill was educated by Jesuits and studied ancient Greek and Latin. He continued his study of Greek and Latin literature, as well as medieval philosophy, scripture and theology, at Fordham University, where he completed a B.A. in classical literature and philosophy in 1964, and a pontifical degree in philosophy in ...more
More about Thomas Cahill...

Other Books in the Series

The Hinges of History (6 books)
  • The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels
  • Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus
  • Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter
  • Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe
  • Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World

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“They understood, as few have understood before or since, how fleeting life is and how pointless to try to hold on to things or people. They pursued the wondrous deed, the heroic gesture: fighting, fucking, drinking, art - poetry for intense emotion, the music that accompanied the heroic drinking with which each day ended, bewitching ornament for one's person and possessions.” 6 likes
“In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life…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.” (161)” 5 likes
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