So says Thomas Cahill in his tribute to the Irish in today’s NYT. Technically, that’s true, though what Cahill has in mind is not literature, but isolated phrases written between the lines or in the margins of religious works in Latin. As Wikipedia remarks, “Their language and style, says Kuno Meyer, stand on a high level in comparison with those of the Old High German glosses. ‘We find here,’ he writes, ‘a fully-formed learned prose style which allows even the finest shades of thought to be easily and perfectly expressed, from which we must conclude that there must have been a long previous culture [of the language] going back at the very least to the beginning of the sixth century’” (Kuno Meyer, Kultur der Gegenwart, part I, section xi, p. 80).
What I find interesting is that epigraphic Irish (go here for an overview), the Old Irish glosses just remarked on, and the fabulous bardic tradition in Irish but preserved only in manuscripts from a much later age, are three distinct and compartmentalized phenomena. It is interesting to compare that situation with how things went in other languages such as ancient Aramaic and ancient Hebrew (on the invention of Hebrew, see the recent volume so entitled by Seth Sanders; for discussion: go here and here).
Jared Calloway rips into Cahill for his stereotypes, caricatures, and debatable assumptions – of course, Cahill is a popular writer precisely because he traffics in such rather consistently.
Still, I am left with more questions than answers after reading Calloway’s fisk of Cahill. He debunks Cahill’s conversion narrative from several points of view, but that raises the question anew: how does one narrate change in the history of culture and religion? Once upon a time, the Irish were pagans. Maybe they still are. Somehow they (also) became Christians. What was involved: a conversion, a reversion, an inversion, a contraversion, all of the above? I am tempted to describe Irish culture (and all culture) as a palimpsest.