Tom Cahill's "Heretics and Heroes" book examines how the past shaped the present


History is usually written by a man with a pen, after the man with the sword has done his job.

The evidence is inarguable. Most of European history was written in blood long before it was recorded in ink after all.

Usually those who found themselves on the business end of colonialism and successive waves of religious persecution and enforced poverty have seen their stories written out of history by the victorious side. Having lost they were expected to stay silent while the winners staged their commemorative bonfires year after year.

You don’t need to tell the Irish this. We live in history in a way that’s utterly unique in Europe. Our past is ever present in how we live, where we worship (or don’t), what we give our allegiance to and even in how we speak.

The Reformation is unfinished business in parts of Ireland, despite having ended during the Enlightenment everywhere else. That makes our story terrific training for a budding historian.

Bestselling author Thomas Cahill, author of the just published "Heroes and Heretics," knows all about it. His own background is a classic Irish American tale, with his four immigrant grandparents arriving from Ireland to New York around 1900.

“They came from the midlands, Galway and Kerry,” Cahill tells the Irish Voice. “One of them was still an Irish speaker. Growing up I remember hearing them over and over at family gatherings insisting that no Catholic could ever be president.”

That blunt assurance fascinated Cahill, even after it came to an end in 1960 with John F. Kennedy’s election. What made them so sure they would always be defeated?

“I grew up being dimly aware that we were second class citizens. If we couldn’t be president there was something wrong,” Cahill said.

“That fact shaped my world-view and made me root for underdogs, which is what I’m often doing in my books in one way or another. I root for the people who are on the receiving end of other people’s caricatures.”

It’s the most Irish of impulses, to stand up for the marginalized, having been marginalized for centuries yourself. Cahill is in no doubt about the seismic event that disrupted Irish history and damaged their sense of themselves more than any other – the Great Hunger.

“So much was lost in that period. The Irish sense of themselves was lost to a large extent. They just became a poor and victimized and oppressed people, which is not at all what they had been previously.”

In 1970, when he had just turned 30, Cahill had a contract to write a book for Scribner’s titled "A Literary Guide to Ireland." What he noticed during his research trip there was that at the time there was very little public awareness of the achievements of great Irish writers. Systemic generational poverty had ensured that.

The further he traveled, the less people were aware of their own wider inheritance he says.

“Eventually we ended up at the sea in the west, at a Gaeltacht, where people could speak English well but they had to think about it to do it. We discovered we were in a completely different society,” Cahill says.

“These were cyclical people who lived with the seasons, with birth, copulation and death over and over again. They were not really part of the western world. So I began to ask myself the question, how did we become the people that we are in the west? Why do we think and feel the way we do, since these people seem so at one with a much older civilization?”

It was out of that that the "Hinges of History" ("Heretics and Heroes" is latest chapter in the series) emerged.

The Irish saved western civilization once only to see themselves almost written out, in fact driven near to extinction, later on. But Cahill knew he had found a great subject and his scholarship alerted millions to a story they had not known

“How the Irish Saved Civilization" (his celebrated study on the subject) was about this great moment in history that virtually no one knew about. We almost lost the literature of the western world except for the efforts of these strange people at the edge of Europe, who had just learned to read and write, because they took up the task of copying the books,” Cahill said.

“We’ve lost a lot of the books of the classical world but what we have is thanks largely to the Irish. They were working at the edge of the ancient world and the beginning of the modern world.”

Cahill freely admits his latest book "Heroes and Heretics" has been the hardest book to write by far of the series.

“What was difficult was that I realized no one writes about the Renaissance and the Reformation together. Everyone writes about one or the other,” he offers.

“But they occur around the same time and they arise from the same sources, which is the rediscovery of classical literature and culture. Up to that point for up to 1,000 years no one in the new world had read the New Testament in Greek. Nobody knew Greek in Europe. Everything was in Latin and that was it.”