St. Patrick’s Day celebrations around the world showcase the imprint of the Irish, but all that glitter and sparkle can mask the long-lasting contributions to Western civilization that emanated from that small island. The theme of the 62nd anniversary of Chicago’s official parade, “Irish Immigration: A New World of Opportunity,” echoes the chorus of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”: “Immigrants. We get the job done. Look how far I come.” Forty-five pounds of eco-friendly vegetable green dye are poured into the Chicago River.
When Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the prime minister of Ireland, went over to Berlin to collect his European of the Year award in 2012, he reminded the Germans of the role played by Ireland during the Dark Ages when Irish missionaries spread “the light of learning” in Europe. The Taoiseach hinted as to how the Irish had bailed out Germany and that it was time for Chancellor Angela Merkel to reciprocate. He told her that covering the Irish bank debt would be a good place to start and did get her backing for the European Union bailout loans.
It is only when we scroll through the centuries that we discover those Irish torch-bearers who contributed to the cornerstone of learning by founding schools of unspeakable excellence in Europe. The historical record documents that the Irish provided a series of intellectual and cultural leaders who guided the re-emergence of Europe from the Dark Ages after the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century. The scholars and missionaries after St. Patrick’s arrival in the fifth century, especially Columba and Columbanus, embraced learning in all its forms from the classical pagan past to those of their newfound religion. This fueled their mission to establish hundreds of centers of learning in Ireland and England and on the Continent.
In the seventh century, the Irish monks started another revolution: They put spaces between the words on a page for the first time so that all people could learn to read. Reading was no longer a privileged exercise for the trained literati. The monks presented their learning and sacred texts in magnificently illuminated manuscripts and books. Libraries were born. Literacy was made possible.
The sounds of Ireland have been resonating for centuries. The Irish promoted song and music in the rhythms of their daily life and made the gift of music notation possible. The composition of chant neumes by Irish monks in the ninth century would blossom into modern music notation in later centuries in Italy and France.
Although the artifacts from this medieval Hibernian golden age are well preserved in the great libraries of Europe, the Irish legacy of learning is less well known in our digitized world. Nevertheless, every time you read the newspaper or turn the pages of a book or flip through a magazine, and every time you write an email or tweet or when you enjoy the pleasing sounds of a live orchestra playing notes from a music score by a long-dead composer – all of these experiences are made possible because of the inventiveness and creativity of medieval educators with an Irish accent who believed that learning and literacy were vitally important for a society to liberate the human spirit.
Kenneth Clark, the British art historian, summed it up: “By means of the Carolingian Renaissance, Western civilization survived by the skin of its teeth. Without the Irish, it would not have survived at all.”
G.K. Chesterton was wrong when he said: “The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.” The great Gaels of Ireland gave Western civilization something else: the tools to craft words and to read and to tell stories, and to make notes and to sing songs. The imprint and sound of their legacy in learning is something to celebrate and parade about, even to dye a river green.
Robert Lyons of Kennebunkport has taught Irish studies in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute over the past 20 years at the University of Southern Maine, Tufts University, Dartmouth College and, while living in Ireland, at University College Cork.