The Literacy of the Irish

There’s no other way to talk about my other favorite part of How The Irish Saved Civilization than just to quote Thomas Cahill extensively. So here are some the best sentences of the whole book:

“Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act. In a land where the old literate civilizations were sinking fast beneath successive waves of barbarism, the white Gospel page, shining in all the little oratories of Ireland, acted as a pledge: the lonely darkness had been turned into light, and the lonely virtue of courage, sustained through all the centuries, had been transformed into hope (p 164-65).”

And more:

“The Irish received literacy in their own way, as something to play with…Within a generation the Irish had mastered Latin and even Greek and, as best they could, were picking up some Hebrew. All this was fairly straightforward, too straightforward once they’d got the hang of it. They began to make up languages. The members of a far-flung secret society, formed as early as the late fifth century (barely a generation after the Irish had become literate), could write to one another in impenetrably erudite, never-before-spoken patterns of Latin…not unlike the languages J.R.R. Tolkein would one day make up for his hobbits and elves… (p 164)”

It just seems that they loved literacy, words, and writing so much that they couldn’t help themselves but to embellish, creating some of the most famous and beautiful written works of literature. And when I say beautiful, I don’t mean well-structured sentences. I mean beautiful — like decorative. Go look up the famous “Chi-Rho” page in the Book of Kells.

I thoroughly enjoy hearing about these funny, country scholar-monks going about their copy work with such gusto. I wish that I was always as enamored with the written word as they were.