When Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization was published in 1996, I enjoyed the consternation of those who had thought Ireland’s contributions to global culture were limited to leprechauns and lamb stew, staffing the New York police force and green beer once a year.
I shuddered into my Guinness at the thought of such things, as I had learned years before how the Dark Ages were really not that dim, thanks to the efforts of Irish monks.
These monks founded monasteries across Europe and kept in manuscript the knowledge of thousands of years that otherwise would have burned to keep the barbarians warm for a night. There was more artistry in a single page of the Book of Kells (that I once was privileged to see at Trinity College in Dublin) than in hundreds of years of stylized medieval paintings.
It was a lesson in history worth remembering – that what really happened can bear little resemblance to what is written down and still less to what people remember.
As “celtic spirituality” made its comeback, after more than thousand years in obscurity, I shuddered once again at how there was a little of the Irish in all of us, how we were all urged “to release our inner Celt.”
For me, it is likely true – with two red-headed children, my mixed ancestry after nearly four hundred years of European family history in North America no doubt included some Celt somewhere. (Some ancestors were on the Mayflower, others greeted its arrival.)
Yet the pop Celtic culture irritates me more than it perhaps it should. Apart from being an excuse for some good music, the Celtic revival turned the mysteries of pre-Roman culture in Ireland into plastic trinkets and pious trivia.