March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Part 3: Thomas Cahill

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Over at the New York Times, Thomas Cahill (writer of How the Irish Saved Civilization) has a great op-ed today titled "Turning Green with Literacy." He writes about why we should really be celebrating Ireland and St. Patrick, something that is easy to forget here today as people are flooding the streets of New York drunk on Guinness in green sweaters and 'Kiss Me, I'm Irish' hats. I am in no way against these forms of celebration, but I heartily agree with Cahill's closing advice: "So on this St. Patrick’s Day, remember [St. Patrick and his compatrioys] as they would wish to be remembered. Read a book."

Here is an excerpt from the article, in which Cahill is discussing the way the early Irish, by embracing the spread of Christianity, made the creation and saving of books an art form. As he states, some of these early copies serve as forerunners to the illuminated manuscripts that would come centuries later and be a major part of the literary tradition. And as the early doodles prove, even the Irish of the early centuries were still wholly Irish.
"But they did more than this: they managed to infuse the emerging medieval world with a playfulness previously unknown. In the margins of the books they copied, the Irish scribes drew little pictures, thickets of plants, flowers, birds and animals. Human faces occasionally peek through the tangle, faces of childlike delight and awe. If you were a scribe copying out some especially ponderous philosophical Greek, the margin in which you could reflect on your own world served as a source of “refreshment, light and peace,” to quote the ancient Latin liturgy. These scribal doodles eventually became elaborate design elements, leading the way to Irish masterpieces like the Book of Kells."

Now I'm going to go celebrate twofold: by drinking Guinness and reading a book. Slainte!

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