Thomas Cahill seems to think so.* I am far from saying he is wrong. And before you correct my Latin, that is about the kind of faults these saviours of Latin made in it. O for A or A for O according to following vowel. AR for ER. And, last not least, uocaminor for uocamini. They just could not leave the R alone in passive. I do think they distinguished AE from E on the other hand. In Old Irish they are different, unlike in Late Latin/Presumed Very Old French.
Let us first correct some of the first cavillers. One of them might have been a Jew** and wrote on NYT :
"Is Mr. Cahill's theory correct? One senses a touch of hyperbole when he says that the Irish "singlehandedly re-founded European civilization throughout the continent." There is a good deal of speculation in much of this. How, for example, do we really know if Patrick slept well or badly, especially since, as Mr. Cahill notes, we know very little about Patrick at all? There is also certain vagueness about the central assertion Mr. Cahill makes about the extent of the Irish contribution."[Richard Berrnstein: The New York Times April 5, 1995] ***
Let us take this one item by one :
« How, for example, do we really know if Patrick slept well or badly, especially since, as Mr. Cahill notes, we know very little about Patrick at all? » - We do know a lot of St Patrick, unless we start out with incredulity about the sources for his life. We know among other things that insomnia was no problem for him, he deliberately deprived himself of sleep, shortening night sleep so as to as much as possible make it deep sleep and avoid REM sleep. We know that because doing that is possible but difficult and because people do not get reputations for doing things that are possible but difficult and admired unless they do them. Nor do they succeed in leaving an example to others that way. A fatty may well leave an example in love of letters, but hardly in love of physical exercise. And therefore if Mr Kano Jigoro founded the discipline of Judo, we could even in absence of photos conclude he was no fatty. And a slovenly St Patrick would certainly not have left the example of so much waking (i e deliberate sleep autodeprivation) to the next few hundreds of years of Irish Monks. They were notorious for it. They were contrasted with Benedictines for it – and these do not exactly sleep nine hours per night either !
« There is also certain vagueness about the central assertion Mr. Cahill makes about the extent of the Irish contribution. » – Possibly a vagueness in that reader, certainly not in the facts. Up to Alcuin of York (Anglo-Saxon, not Irish, but clearly not continental), the Latin of Spain, France, Italy, Portugal was still deemed to be the formalised written form of the spoken Romance language. Without Alcuin, Latin would have been like Katharevousa under the Turks – a kind of written relict of former literary language but always drifting into Dhimotiki, the real spoken language no longer identical to the literary one. The Latin Dhimotiki traits in writers like Gregory and Fredegar of Tours or in Jordanus were really notable. Latin as originally spoken and written was saved by monasteries in Irish and Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, German Saxon and Alemannic-Bavarian world. And first among them were the Irish. Not best, as far as grammatical correctitude was concerned, but first. Monasteries in Switzerland and Austria were founded by the Irish. When Wales was cut off from Rome, Wales reoriented on Ireland. England got a mission from Rome – as well as one from Ireland. And Alcuin of York – the refounder of Latin language studies and use under Charlemagne – came closer to the Irish of Iona than to the Romans of Canterbury, though since Witby synod England was under Roman rule. So, no, there is no doubt about the central thesis. Only a Jew who is as ignorant about early Christian history as we are about « late Jewish » (Jewish after they rejected Our Lord Jesus Christ) could make those doubts.
But the funny thing is that the saving of Latin was a game to Irish monks. I am not sure if Thomas Cahill got that point, but I do. In my Classics Instutute of Lund (now moved to general language pole of Lund) I leafed some older printed publications, one of which was Latin Grammarians of Ireland. One of them had written that there are twelve kinds of Latin. Ordinary Latin, the next on which « man » spells « giber » (wonder if this is where « gibberish » comes from) and a few more, and some elaborate codes, close to young Tolkien’s and his relatives’ Animalic. Latin was not treated as a real language, it was treated as a game. It was as if the monks who were playful about chosing their penances but very serious about applying them so as to expel any playfulness from their lives took a kind of revenge by playing with Holy Things. Like the Bernardine monks being very musical, very aesthetic about song, so the Irish ones were very playful about Latin grammar. It was the carelessness about the exact vowel and the fancy with which conjugation was remade. I am not sure I have not even found there a synthetic passive perfect system – which Irish has (although passive is only one impersonal person) and Latin as correctly written has not.
It illustrates the thesis of Chesterton : if something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing badly. Not that I think Irish Latin « bad », but it is not « good Latin » as in correct one. They made such glaring mistakes – unless they were deliberate « mistakes » – that no Academy would have hired them for Professors. And yet it was they who saved Latin. And saving Latin, saved Church Law. And saving Church Law saved the City of God.
Mantes / BiJ
Feast of Mary Mediator of All Grace
PS: I think the condition under which Irish Monks made their Latin Grammars remind a bit of the conditions under which Counterstrikers, also deliberately selfdeprived of sleep, make their fight-nights. Very un-serious by modern scholarly standards - and it was they who saved it all.
PS 2: I wonder if Richard Bernstein or Berrnstein as wikipedia had him when I checked, is really talking about any doubt on whether Irish saved sound scholarship in Latin or rather on whether Latin or Arabic Medicine did most for Civilisation. That is a question for quite another essay. For now, I stand by Law and Latin, and the peoples whose intellectuals are called "medicine men" tend to be badly off when it comes to intellect and civilisation - just a little better than Atheists./HGL
*How the Irish Saved Civilisation
**And Cahill has since written a book about their contributions … unless he meant the contributions of their OT forefathers. Their and those of Christian Palestinians. Update, Nativity of Our Lady: I checked, it is about Old Testament Hebrews
***Cited after Wikipedia, hoping there are no degradations. Is it Berrnstein or Bernstein, b t w ?