Why should we celebrate the Irish?
No doubt, several reasons could be proffered. But for me one answer stands out. Long, long ago the Irish pulled off a remarkable feat: They saved the books of the Western world and left them as gifts for all humanity.
True enough, the Irish were unlikely candidates for the job. Upon their entrance into Western history in the fifth century, they were the most barbaric of barbarians, practitioners of human sacrifice, cattle rustlers, traders in human beings (the children they captured along the Atlantic edge of Europe), insane warriors who entered battle stark naked. And yet it was the Irish who were around to pick up the pieces when the Roman Empire collapsed in the West under the increasing assaults of Germanic tribes.
It is hard to overstate the momentousness of that collapse. By the early sixth century, Western Europe had become largely illiterate, its teachers dead, its students on the run, its libraries turned into kindling. Ireland, however, had just settled down, thanks to a tough old bird named Patrick, a Roman citizen raised in the province of Britain who had been grabbed by Irish slavers when he was a teenager. It was after his escape that Patrick resolved to seek priestly ordination and return to Ireland to preach the Gospel.
The glories of Christianity — particularly its books — fascinated the Irish. They came to love the Roman alphabet that Patrick and his successors taught them, as well the precious illuminated manuscripts that he presented to them. There was indeed nothing in their intellectual heritage to block their receptivity to the Christian faith.
There was also nothing in their heritage to draw them to master the intricacies of the Greco-Roman tradition. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, for the ancient Irish never embraced classical cynicism or the gloomy Greco-Roman sense of fatedness.
Instead, they remained in many ways remarkably unjaded, full of wonder at the unexpectedness of human life. “Well, the heart’s a wonder,” says Pegeen Mike in John Millington Synge’s comedy “The Playboy of the Western World.” It was a sentiment first articulated by Patrick’s converts, who put down their weapons and took up their pens. They copied out the great Greco-Roman books, many of which they didn’t really understand, thus saving in its purest form most of the classical library.
The Irish fanned out across Europe, salvaging books wherever they could, making copies, reassembling libraries and teaching the newly settled barbarians of the continent to read and write.
But they did more than this: they managed to infuse the emerging medieval world with a playfulness previously unknown. In the margins of the books they copied, the Irish scribes drew little pictures, thickets of plants, flowers, birds and animals. Human faces occasionally peek through the tangle, faces of childlike delight and awe. If you were a scribe copying out some especially ponderous philosophical Greek, the margin in which you could reflect on your own world served as a source of “refreshment, light and peace,” to quote the ancient Latin liturgy. These scribal doodles eventually became elaborate design elements, leading the way to Irish masterpieces like the Book of Kells.
The scribes also contributed jokes, poems and commentary to the works they replicated, saving for us a world of fresh insights. One scribe, tortured by the difficult Greek he was copying, wrote: “There’s an end to that — and seven curses with it!” Another complained of a previous scribe’s sloppiness: “It is easy to spot Gabrial’s work here.” A third, at the bottom of a tear-stained page, tells us how upset he was by the death of Hector on the Plain of Troy. In these comments, sharp and sweet by turns, we come in contact with the sources of Irish literary humor and hear uncanny echoes of Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett.
One scribe leaves us a charming poem about his cat, who hunts mice through the night while the scribe hunts words. Another, presumably a female scribe, describes a young man in four brief lines:
He’s a heart,
He’s an acorn from an oak tree,
A third scribe (for they were not all monks and nuns) wonders who will sleep tonight with “blond Aideen.” (It’s quite certain someone will.)
The quotations above are English translations from the Irish, the first vernacular language of Europe to be written down. In this way, the Irish initiated what would eventually become the great torrent of European national literatures.
We have many reasons to be grateful to St. Patrick and his fierce and playful Irishmen and Irishwomen. So on this St. Patrick’s Day, remember them as they would wish to be remembered. Read a book.
Thomas Cahill, the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization.