As we approach the biggest day of the year for Irish Catholics (and Irish protestants too) it’s good to give the monks of the Emerald Isle credit for saving Catholic and secular civilization way back in the sixth century. For a detailed description of these events, Thomas Cahill‘s excellent book, How the Irish Saved Civilization is a wonderful resource. This post only skims the surface.
The early Irish were fascinated with letters. Since they were poor people, they would often borrow great books and then painstakingly copy them, letter by letter; word by word. They would combine Greek and Roman alphabets with their own Ogham alphabet to create books that were also works of art. Any visit to Dublin should include a trip to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells, a hand-copied book of Scriptures, created around 800.
Monks living in monasteries all over Ireland, as well as several on islands off the Irish shore spent their days copying the great works of European literature.
As the barbarians overran continental Europe, the Irish monks were minding their own business, copying everything they could get their hands on. In the process of conquering the Continent, the barbarians destroyed the literature of the past. The past was obliterated, except on that tiny island in the North Sea.
To make a long story short, the barbarians couldn’t be bothered conquering a small, desolate island like Ireland, so the literature of Greece and Rome lived on in the monk’s libraries. While the continent suffered through the “Dark Ages”, the Irish were keeping the candle lit and would bring the light back to the Continent, possibly flavored with a little Irish wit and humor.
The “White Martyrs”, so named because they sailed off into the white horizon never to return, would replant the seeds of ancient civilization in the many monasteries they founded all over Europe, even as far south as present-day Italy. So, when we read the ancient works of the great Greek and Roman writers, we have to assume that the Irish monks copied them exactly as written. But who knows, since they all passed through Irish hands, there might be just a little bit of blarney here and there.
It’s cool the the Irish Catholic monks of the Emerald Isle kept this great literature alive, especially if you happen to be a descendant of the Auld Sod yourself. And this weekend, who isn’t?
Tomorrow: What do you think?