How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the boiled beef of the issue: Early Irish literature was essentially Conan the Barbarian with more dick jokes.
Noisiu, Irish warrior and protagonist, is rattling over the bogs when he runs across Derdrui, a certified hottie who is promised to some old king. Even the king’s druid has commented on her thiccness:
“High queens will ache with envy to see those lips of Parthian-red opening on her pearly teeth, and see her pure perfect body”.
Noisiu knows she’s pledged, and cursed, but he can’t help himself, and hits her with the oldest pickup line in the book:
“That’s a fine heifer going by.”
Take note, fellas.
Dedriu, not a swooner, fires back:
“As well it might be. The heifers grow big where there are no bulls.”
You called her a cow and she’s still game! Better seal the deal, Noisiu.
“You have the bull of this province all to yourself — the King of Ulster.”
It’s a bold strategy Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for him.
“Of the two, I’d pick a game young bull like you.”
And then they bang it out, presumably in the middle of the road.
That was the flavor of the early literature. Here’s another go around, featuring Cuchalainn, alleged to be the Irish Achilles, and Emer, the girl he’s come a-courtin’:
“May your road be blessed!” cries Emer on his approach.
“May the apple of your eye see only good,” says Cuchulainn, presumably reciting a wood graving his mom has hanging over the front door. Then, peering down her dress: “I see a sweet country. I could rest my weapon there.”
Z-z-ZAMN! Emer plays hard to get by rattling off a list of obscure, murderous deeds a man would have to perform before winning her sweet country.
“No man will travel this country until he has killed a hundred men at every ford from Scenmenn ford on the river Ailbine, to Banchuing… where the frothy Brea makes Fedelm leap.”
“In that sweet country, I’ll rest my weapon,” says Cuchulainn.
“No man will travel this country until he has done the feat of the salmon-leap carrying twice his weight in gold, and struck down three groups of nine men with a single stroke, leaving the middle man of each nine unharmed.”
“In that sweet country, I’ll rest my weapon.”
“No man will travel this country who hasn’t gone sleepless from Samain (Halloween), when summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc (Candlemass/Groundhog Day), when the ewes are ilked at spring’s beginning; from Imbolc to Beltaine (Mother’s day) at the summer’s beginning and from Beltaine to Bron Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn.”
“It is said and done.”
Remember that old “mayor of tiddy city” sketch? The whole of the Tain cycle can be summarized with: “Long story short — dong on tiddies.”
Fabulous. Now, the Irish were functionally still barbarians at the time of this writing — shocker, I know — but they had a fledgling culture developing, characterized mostly by these outrageous pre-adolescent campfire stories about celtic Hercules (and celtic Xena, considering how many brassy female leads wound up in their stories), along with the Iron Age moral code of “generous, handsome, and brave”. What set them apart from other Iron Age hero-worshipping civilizations from Mesopotamia right up through Greece was the casual brutality and monstrous metamorphosis they loved sticking to their protagonists. Berserkergang’s Irish cousin was called the “Warp-spasm”, and when the battle rage hit the Irish they would full-on mutate into demons. The descriptions played out like something out of Spawn. Let’s have a taste:
The first warp-spasm seized Cuchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from heat to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front … On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked one eye so deep into his head than a wild crane couldn’t probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his longs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.”
That’s the hero of the story. That’s Irish Batman.
From there, the book follows the trajectory of the Roman empire dealing with these and other barbarians, its eventual fall, and what became of classical learning from that point.
Up until the 4th century AD, books were academic third-person affairs, even fiction. Enter our boy Augustine, virtually inventing the concept of written self-disclosure and, functionally, psychotherapeutic journaling:
“I carried inside me a cut and bleeding soul, and how to get rid of it I just didn’t know. I sought every pleasure — the countryside, sports, fooling around, the peace of a garden, friends and good company, sex, reading. My soul floundered in the void — and came back upon me. For where could my heart flee from my heart? Where could I escape from myself?”
Not only did he introduce narrative stream-of-consciousness, he blazed a trail that would be travelled by goth and emo teenagers for millenia to come. His escape would eventually come in the form of God, surprise surprise, but not before he changed the whole landscape of literature.
Meanwhile, another saint, by the name of Patrick, was becoming a particularly prominent figure in the Catholic church. He was yoinked from Britain and enslaved by the Irish for ten years, then escaped, then decided he liked the Irish more and went proselytizing all over the Emerald Isle, adopting them as his people. The Irish went absolutely bananas for this. The BALLS on this guy! Everywhere Patty went, he left a cluster of churches in his wake, with the Irish trading their arbitrary clubfights and whatever for the hoo-rah tough guy mystique of hermitage. The druids transformed seamlessly into the Green Martyrs, since nothing really changed, aside from God being brought into it.
And like every good barbarian hero in fiction, once the Irish learned about books proper, they were hooked. Irish monks in particular could not and would not stop copying every scrap of paper they could find into increasingly complex codices, which they added embellishments to in classically overdramatic Irish fashion.
Meanwhile, the world burned. Rome fell, and with it classic literature. Anything Latin was systematically destroyed, pillaged, and burned. The world screeched to a halt, then tumbled into the Dark Ages, where it stayed until the renaissance. The renaissance, as made evident by its etymology, was “REbirth” because the initial birth had been the classical age. That knowledge had been rediscovered.
It was available for rediscovery because of all the compulsively meticulous Irish monks who copied thousands upon thousands of freehand codices and passed them down through their families. The book wraps up with a report of a farmer in Cork County in the mid 1800s who was reading his own familial codex on the train.
It was an excellent and thorough, if somewhat meandering book. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.
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