Patrick Patrick Patrick Patrick Shamrock Shamrock

… but no snake.

Thomas Cahill - How the Irish Saved CivilizationIn his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill – despite a pro-Catholic bias that often leads him into callousness and distortion – nevertheless allows himself (perhaps because his Irish bias here counters his Catholic one) to make a strong case for the superiority of the Celtic Church to the Catholic Church (prior to the former’s incorporation into the latter). Four of his main contrasts are:

a) The Celtic Church was decentralised while the Catholic Church was hierarchical and authoritarian.

b) The Celtic Church respected women while the Catholic Church regarded them as vessels of temptation.

c) The Celtic Church was celebrating the beauty of the natural world while the Catholics were condemning it as fallen.

d) The Celtic Church was devoting most of its energy to denouncing the sin of slavery while the Catholic Church was devoting most of its energy to denouncing sins of sexuality.

Saint PadraicPoints (b) and (c) are said to explain why Irish monks were willing to preserve and copy pagan literature during the “Dark Ages” when throughout mainland Europe it was being discarded. And point (d) might well be explained by the fact that St. Patrick – who, although he didn’t “bring” Christianity to Ireland, was one of the chief founders of the Celtic Church there – was himself an escaped slave. (As a boy, Padraic/Patricius had been kidnapped by Irish slavers from his native Wales – that’s the right, the patron saint of Irish Catholicism was neither Irish nor Catholic – and upon his escape decided to return to the site of his enslavement to promote the Christian message of not treating other people like crap so much.)

Mind you, St. Paddy was no libertarian – he famously went around knocking down statues of other people’s gods (most notably Crom Crúaich – yes, Conan’s god), which is at least rude. Moreover, he seems to have attempted, unsuccessfully, to impose a diocesan system on Ireland and so deserves no great credit for point (a). And Cahill may be overstating the virtues of the Celtic Church vis-à-vis the Catholic when it’s a matter of Irish versus others, just as he tends to overstate the virtues of the Catholic Church when it’s a matter of Catholics versus non-Irish others. (I’m reminded of the medieval historian Gerald of Wales, who cheers on the Anglo-Norman conquest of that awful Ireland but suddenly loses enthusiasm when discussing the Anglo-Norman conquest of his own homeland Wales.) Still, it sounds like the Celtic Church’s eventual subjection to Rome was overall a loss, so let’s drink a toast to the early years of the movement symbolized, rightly or wrongly, by the wayward Welshman.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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5 Responses to Patrick Patrick Patrick Patrick Shamrock Shamrock

  1. Bob Kaercher March 17, 2009 at 4:22 pm #

    I remember reading this book about 10 years ago (it’s still on my shelf), but never got around to following up on its claims. Thanks for unintentionally doing that for me.

  2. Ray Mangum March 17, 2009 at 4:24 pm #

    Since I took my first art history class I have been fascinated with early medieval illuminated manuscripts like the book of Kells coming from Irish monasticism and the Celtic church, and the Insular or Hiberno-Saxon style more generally. Some of this stuff actually looks Muslim-influenced. What is it about the Irish that tends toward intricacy and elaborateness of design, whether in visual arts or literature (Joyce, Flann O’Brien, etc.)? Anyway, I’m pleased to hear the more libertarian tendencies of the Celtic church.

  3. Soviet Onion March 17, 2009 at 11:27 pm #

    This has to be longest, most elaborate and most backhanded toast I’ve ever encountered. Somebody get this guy a medal.

    Incidentally, I decided to commemorate the day by formatting Joseph Peden’s “Property Rights in Celtic Irish Law” into pamphlet form, which is now up at Invisible Molotov ( It too has quite a lot to say about the Irish Church during this time.

    • Ray Mangum March 18, 2009 at 5:01 pm #

      Are you referring to Cahill’s book or the post or comment or what?

      • Soviet Onion March 19, 2009 at 9:47 pm #

        Who’s making the toast? Cahill or Rod?

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