Thomas Cahill: Civilizations Then and Now


There are some solid female characters in How the Irish – particularly Medb and Brigid, but I’m hesitant to idealize what women’s experiences were. Did they really have rights that were significantly different than women in other cultures at the time?
We can’t make them into modern feminists or anything like that; it is a very different culture. At the same time, I think all of Celtic culture was much more egalitarian – not democratic, but much more egalitarian, sexually, than the Greco-Roman world ever had been. There were many more important female figures in the Irish past than there were ever in ancient Rome. Medb is the perfect example of that, but she’s not the only one. The famous Celtic queen Boudica who fought the Romans and really fought them to a standstill – neither one of those figures, one of them literary, Medb, and the other one historical, no one could ever imagine a female figure among the Greeks or Romans with that kind of importance and centrality to the culture. So it was different and remained different for a long time. The medieval Irish retained a lot of that, which is why you can have – there’s no female figure on the continent that has as much importance as Brigid. They finally become a part of the larger European world, and then women become less important.

For me the whole point of the book is about literacy and the power that literacy gives people, and specifically that the Irish saw no value in censorship.

What the Irish understood – they did understand the value of literacy, that’s probably the main reason why it had become such a big deal to them so early. But what they also understood was the value of pleasure in reading. They became the great anthologists of the early Middle Ages because they were willing to look at anything. They were not censorious. They did not think that there were things that had to be left out. Certainly many of the church fathers felt and many non-Irish felt that censorship, school censorship and state censorship, was very important. And [the Irish] actually never bought that – of course, they did in the 20th century, unfortunately, but that’s after many terrible things had happened to them and their own essential culture had been so demolished and debased. They’d become the tools of an extremely regressive and life-denying form of Christianity.

I think the disinterest in censorship is linked to the idea of the tolerance of sin, and the acceptance of the cycle of sin and repentance that became the confession, which became the autobiography and then became fiction. I think there’s really a link between the kind of Christianity that Catholicism became to the Irish and the power of literacy there.
Yes. Well, literacy gave them the world and they embraced it.

And now a lot of Catholics are struggling with their relationship with the church.

I think they’re doing more than struggling with their relationship with the church at this point. I think a lot of them want to just close the door on it, and for very good reason. There’s very little hope there, unfortunately. I think that the last two popes have pretty much destroyed the church that Pope John XXIII tried to build in the early 1960s, and I don’t see any chance of its coming back. I think you end up with a very dry and puritanical form of Christianity.

Do you think that that opens the door for a different, more personal kind of Christianity to emerge?

I’d like to think so. I’m not sure that it will. I think it’s hanging by a thread in a way. In Ireland and in the United States, the scandal of – not so much just the pedophilia but the cover-up of the pedophilia, which went on for generations, and was completely supported by the bishops, has left everybody feeling that they’re unable to continue. It’s pretty much coming to an end and there’s nothing to replace it. You can go elsewhere, you can go to a different kind of church, you can interiorize or internalize, but you’re not going to find a countrywide or culture-wide influence anymore, it’s just not there. I don’t see any way of it being brought back.

What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on Volume Six of the Hinges of History series, which will be about the Renaissance and Reformation.