The Man Who Saved the World

Hoist a glass of green beer to St. Patrick, the man who preserved Western civilization.


David Talbott
March 10, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

According to author Thomas Cahill, St. Patrick's Day should be more than just an occasion for drinking until we pass out. After all, it was the venerated missionary who brought faith and literacy to the wild and wooly Irish race in the fifth century. And it was these same Irish converts to the beauty of the written word who lovingly copied the classic works and sacred texts that were rapidly disappearing as the Dark Ages descended upon continental Europe. Without Patrick, argues Cahill in his entertaining and eye-opening "How the Irish Saved Civilization," there would have been no record of Plato, Ovid, and Homer.

After Patrick, the brave Irish missionaries he had inspired completed the circle of learning. These "White Martyrs," as they called themselves, journeyed to the continent, establishing monasteries and scriptoria among the fearsome Germanic tribes who held sway there, and teaching them how to read and make books.

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The success of his book, which just climbed onto the New York Times Paperback Bestseller List, has prompted Cahill to leave his job as director of religious publishing at Doubleday to devote himself fulltime to completing an ambitious seven-part series on the major turning points in Western civilization -- what he calls "the hinges of history." The second book in the series will recount how the Jews established monotheism.

We spoke to Cahill about the extraordinary life of Patrick, why the Irish embraced him, and how his image today is wildly different from the real man.

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What were the forces that shaped Patrick in his youth?

Patrick was a Roman citizen, the scion of a landed family in the province of Britain. At the age of 16 he was abducted by Irish pirates and sold into slavery, a woeful, horrible, six-year experience that turned him into a very different person than he otherwise would have become.

During that period, he became a holy man, a saint, if you like. But a very unusual saint, a rough, tough character who endured many extreme experiences -- he was a slave, a fugitive, and then a wanderer for a very long time before he finally returned home to Britain. By the time he got home, he couldn't settle down, he no longer fit in the same society. He was a kind of permanent refugee. His parents still loved him, apparently, but it doesn't seem as if he was ever comfortable again in that setting.

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Which is understandable -- the Romans were snobs at best. Here was a young man who had missed a lot of his schooling and who had been toughened by experiences he couldn't really explain to people. Finally he went off to a monastery, and after studying for a time, was ordained a priest and bishop. And then in middle age, in his 40s, he went back to Ireland.

A very brave thing to do, given what he knew of the Irish.

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Yes, the Irish were a fierce and horrible people, who practiced human sacrifice and were the great slave traders of their day. They warred constantly and stole one another's cattle. They just weren't the kind of people you would want to sit down and have a cup of tea with. So it did take an enormous amount of courage for Patrick to return there. He knew what he was facing, he had no illusions about that.

But he was extremely insightful and in many ways ahead of his time. He was the first missionary to go to barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law -- and this was five centuries into the Christian era. More than that, in going to them, he had to figure out how he was going to, in the words of today, enculturate the values of the Gospel into this alien society. What he does is jettison all the folderol of the Greco-Roman world, all of its social norms and mores, and just gives them what he believes to be the values of the Gospel -- peace and love and human kindness.

How did he win over such a barbarian race?

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I think because Patrick himself was so impressive. He wasn't afraid of them -- and they had never met anyone like that before. He didn't have a sword. He shocked them completely by being so different from them but at the same time embodying their most important virtue -- courage. If there was any other virtue that came close to courage for them, it was generosity. And that he had in abundance. It soon became clear to them that he was going to stay there, that he was going to give them his life. In fact, they rolled over quickly and accepted Christianity into their lives. It was the first country where Christianity was introduced without bloodshed. Given how bloody the Irish were, that is extraordinary.

Why do you think Patrick's brand of Christianity fit so well into Ireland?

The Romans and the Greeks were a very rational people and very pessimistic, about the world, about life, about matter, about the human body. They were basically Platonists who thought this world was evil, and there might be one that would be better.
The Irish, on the other hand, were mystics. They believed that the world was magical, they also thought that it was frightening. Patrick's Christianity largely took the fear out of their world, took away the gods who demanded human sacrifice and turned them into far less frightening gargoyles -- demons who were no longer of any great account. But Patrick kept the sense of the world being magical, stressed it, and encouraged the Irish to think of the world as God's creation -- not something frightening or full of temptations, as his older contemporary St. Augustine would have seen it.

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So it was a very vibrant form of Christianity and a very hopeful one -- it almost hops off the pages of the early Irish literature, it's so celebratory and so full of light and joy. And it was quite unlike anything the world had seen up to that point. This Irish ingredient makes for the real difference between the classical age and the medieval one. When you put the two ages against one another, you see how formal and stately and almost brittle the classical age is compared to the medieval one, which has an awful lot more jokes in it, for one thing. There are the jesters and the gargoyles and the Feast of Fools, there's a much more playful spirit.

You write that you can see this Irish playfulness in the way they used language and the way that Irish monks would copy the great texts.

Yes, they got a big kick out of words, even before they knew how to write them down. They were a childlike people. To use our modern jargon, the Irish thought that texts should be interactive. They shouldn't just lie there on the page. They would try to put between the covers of a book not just one text, but many texts. In fact, many of these books are a smorgasbord of every kind of literature known to the scribe -- they throw together a poem by Horace and maybe an ancient medical treatise, something by Aristotle on ethics, some natural history, some love poetry by Catullus and some mythology from Ovid. The Irish also decorated these books with visual ideas, new ways of looking at these things. Then they begin to make their own comments in the margins; often these comments are quite elaborate and sometimes have nothing to do whatsoever with the text. The scribe has decided to stick in a little verse, and that's the beginnings of Irish literature. Very often this marginalia is full of wit, they're so sprightly, they reflect a kind of springtime of literature and this whole new spirit of early Irish Christianity.

Separate myth from fact about Patrick. For instance, how did the myth about Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland arise?

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That's a typical example of what anthropologists call "retrojection" -- "What do you know, Seamus, there don't seem to be any snakes here, why is that?" And then they leap to the conclusion that well, it must have been good St. Patrick, who in the end had everything attributed to him. The truth is that Ireland, like Australia, has its own geographical peculiarities because it was unlinked from the continent at an early stage of geographical evolution, so that not all of the flora and fauna of the continent or even of Britain appear in Ireland. And that's why there are no snakes.

What we do know for sure about Patrick is that he was an extremely large moral figure. He is the first person in history to condemn slavery as unequivocally immoral. No one had ever thought that before -- slavery was simply accepted. Both Peter and Paul, in fact, in their letters in the New Testament, urge slaves to be obedient to their masters.

Part of it, of course, has to do with Patrick's own experience as a slave. But no one does that again, condemns slavery as he does, until the Anabaptists toward the end of the 17th century. In Ireland,
either within his lifetime or very shortly after, the slave trade comes to an end, human sacrifice is abolished. And though the Irish never stop warring on each other, that inter-tribal violence is greatly reduced.

You write that one of Patrick's greatest moments came when he made an impassioned plea on behalf of Irish people who had been kidnapped by a rogue English monarch.

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Yes, his own converts, which he says in the thousands, had been captured by the soldiers of an opportunistic British princeling by the name of Coroticus. Patrick sent off a delegation of priests to the court of Coroticus to ask for the prisoners back but they were simply laughed to scorn. So Patrick created this letter which was like Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from Birmingham jail, with a real urgency and passion in it. He was trying to embarass the British bishops into excommunicating Coroticus. Because then he would be isolated and shunned and eventually have to give in.

In the letter, he's particularly tender toward the women who have been victimized, which again sets him apart from people like Augustine, who think of women as vessels of great iniquity -- sewers in fact, as several fathers of the Church called them. Patrick dwells on how the women taken in slavery suffer more than men, yet often prove to be the most courageous. It's hard to think of any other Greco-Roman figure saying something like that. That spirit goes on in the Irish Catholic Church in the period after Patrick, women in the Irish Church become extremely important, much more so than they ever were in the European Church of the first five centuries. More important, in fact than they would ever be again.

Does Patrick still resonate as a major force in today's Ireland?

I think he's been lost sight of, there's been such an overlay of pious drivel that you can't see the man. You see a kind of stern-looking bishop cursing snakes or something like that, wearing his miter and all the vestments of a high medieval bishop. Patrick didn't look anything like that. He was a tough character, he didn't go waltzing around in a miter. If you had seen him, you might have thought he was a dockworker. Both his toughness and his tenderness have been lost. The Irish don't really have any idea of who he was, he's just become another plaster of Paris saint.

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Has St. Patrick's Day become thoroughly secularized in Ireland, as it has in the U.S.? Is it just a day for drinking?

Well, every day is a day for drinking in Ireland, so there's nothing special about that. No, St. Patrick's Day in Ireland is a holy day, so it's quieter actually than most days. People get the day off and spend it at home. It's not a great bacchanalian feast. It's not the same as it is here, where it has been secularized and largely taken over by teenagers, who've turned it into a big frat party. Not the most attractive type of gathering, at least if you're past that age.

But maybe in keeping with the spirit of the early pre-Christian Irish, in their wild and naked savagery.

Perhaps.


David Talbott

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