So I recently found out that I’m Irish. This obviously comes as a bit of a shock to me, since my previous cultural affiliation was Norwegian. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the Norwegians – we are a proud lot. In fact, my father is descended from Viking royalty, and when you meet him, he will insist on being referred to as “The Viking King”. This is much less impressive when you discover that the Vikings changed kings every 20 minutes or so, the result being that almost everyone is descended from someone who once sat on the throne.
The problem isn’t that I was Norwegian, it’s that my particular people came from a part of Norway known as “Minnesota”. Think Prairie Home Companion. Think “Fargo”. Think two old men sitting across the table from each other in a diner, splitting a rhubarb pie, having an entire conversation that consists of monosyllabic interjections. “Well.” “Yup.” “Uh-huh.” They’re good people. There’s just not much of the “get pissed at your brother the King, take off with your friends in a boat, raid the English coast, discover Canada” kind of blood left running in their veins.
On the whole, I think I prefer being Irish. For one thing, I’ve never been an oppressed people before. I’ve taken to it rather well, I think – we Irish have a quick wit and a self-depricating charm that sees us through most hard times. Also, my penchant for whiskey and gambling are starting to make more sense. I’ve found myself walking with more of a swagger, and “pining” for things. Whatever that means.
Having only been Irish for a few weeks, I thought I’d better spend some time boning up on the culture and history of my people. Since I was already in possession of a bottle of Jameson, and a bootleg copy of “Rattle and Hum”, all I needed was a book of Irish history that could be easily digested while sitting in the bathtub.
So, I went on Amazon, and grabbed a book called “How the Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill. I didn’t know much about the subject matter, or the author, but I doubt there has ever been a book title that so fully captures what it is to be one of my people. It’s all there – the swagger, the twinkle in the eye, the pure unadulterated hubris.
If you have recently become Irish, I highly recommned reading Cahill’s book. He writes about how, while Europe was descending into the darkness and ignorance of the middle ages, the Irish were busy copying over the great works of the Greeks and the Romans, and the Patristic Fathers. When that Apostle of Ireland, Patrick, brought the faith of his father to the land of his captors, he neglected to bring with him the Romanism that had infected the church so thoroughly. As a result, Ireland was the first place where the gospel proved itself capable of transcending any one culture. You could be a Christian without being a Roman. You could be Irish, full-blooded and gloriously Celtic, and still be a follower of Christ.
Because of this, Ireland was relatively free of the typical Medieval Roman Catholic disdain for secular literature. With equal fervor, these Irish monks copied the letters of Paul, and Homer’s Illiad. They translated and copied the letters from Polycarp to the church at Phillipi, warning them against materialism, but they also copied the works of Plotinus and Plato. For hundreds of years they copied over these works, while the Roman empire disintegrated into petty fiefdoms, and the church became a political machine. Into the ignorance of the Continent, these Irish monks swept, forming learning communities that later became monasteries, then Universities. They came armed with books, with Greek and Roman and Coptic, and yes even Celtic literature, and they planted the seeds of that glorious rediscovery of the human spirit, the Renaissance. That we know of the name “Plato” today has nearly everything to do with the fact that a nameless scribe sitting in the high tower of Cluain Mhic Nóis copied his works by candlelight.
So, who knows how true this all is. Being Irish, of course, I believe it with every randy bone in my body. Cahill has done some good research, but more importantly to me, at least, he wrote a great book, a book that makes me proud to have unexpectedly become Irish so late in life.