Thomas Cahill: Popular Writer of Ireland’s History

From a New York Times obit by Clay Risen headlined “Thomas Cahill, Popular Writer of Ireland’s History, Dies at 82”:

Thomas Cahill, a multilingual scholar who wrote a surprise 1995 best seller demonstrating to the world how a small band of Irish monks collected and protected the jewels of Western civilization after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, died at his home in Manhattan. His wife, Susan Cahill, said the cause was a heart attack.

“How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe” was not Mr. Cahill’s first book. But it immediately established his reputation as one of the country’s great writers of popular history.

In the book, he argued that even though the Romans never conquered remote, rural Ireland, Christianity did — and that as the continent descended into darkness and anarchy after the last Western Roman emperor was deposed in 476, its isolation became its advantage.

Living in relative peace, Irish scholars transcribed countless pagan and Christian texts, maintained a semblance of literary culture and, perhaps most important, developed a lively, life-affirming Christianity that later seeded the revival of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe.

Five publishers rejected Mr. Cahill’s proposal before the editor Nan A. Talese, at Doubleday, snapped it up in 1991. To many would-be publishers, the title sounded like a bunch of blarney — even in the early 1990s, many people still considered Ireland a conservative backwater and a cultural appendage to Britain.

That image changed rapidly in subsequent years. Ireland’s economy began to boom, the violent conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles was settling down, and Irish culture was suddenly everywhere. The near-simultaneous appearance of “How the Irish Saved Civilization” and “Angela’s Ashes,” a 1996 memoir about growing up Irish American by Mr. Cahill’s friend Frank McCourt, was a coincidence, but their immediate and lasting popularity certainly was not.

“How the Irish Saved Civilization” spent nearly two years on The New York Times’s best-seller list and sold some two million copies.

Mr. Cahill’s success was about more than good timing. He was multilingual (he knew Latin, ancient Greek, French, German and Italian) and had a firm mastery of both primary sources and the academic scholarship around them. He was also a fluid, engaging writer, able to bring entertainment as well as erudition to the page.

“That’s such a hard thing to do, to bring scholarship alive to the general reader,” Terry Golway, a historian, said. “There are people who write popular history and there are people who write academic history, and he was able to do both in ways that were extraordinary.”

Mr. Cahill intended for the book to be the first in a seven-part series about critical moments in Western European civilization, what he called the “Hinges of History.” He wrote six before his death; many of the others also achieved critical and commercial success.

As part of the research for his second installment, “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels” (1998), Mr. Cahill learned to read Hebrew as a visiting scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

He approached his subjects with exuberance, and looked for stories that affirmed what he believed was the steady progression of civilization from the Classical era to the present.

“We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage — almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence,” he wrote in his most recent book, the sixth in his series, “Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World” (2013).

But there was a different way to read history, he wrote, one that highlights the “narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift.”

Though some critics inevitably disdained Mr. Cahill’s books as middlebrow, many others, including eminent scholars, praised his gift for bringing arcane topics to life.

“Cahill loves to spin out a yarn as palpably as an old Irish bard by the peat fire, or the old Greek, Hesiod, at his blacksmith’s forge, and his personal asides seem to add to this intimate, old-time atmosphere,” Ingrid Rowland, a classics scholar at the University of Notre Dame, wrote of “Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World” (2006), the fifth book in the series.

Thomas Quinn Cahill was born in the Bronx. He attended Catholic schools, where he developed a love for Latin and ancient Greek, and he later pursued that interest at Fordham University. He received a degree in classical literature and medieval philosophy in 1964, and a master’s in fine arts from Columbia University in 1968.

He also studied to become a Jesuit priest, and though he ultimately changed his mind, he did enough work to receive a pontifical degree in philosophy from the Roman Catholic Church in 1965.

Mr. Cahill went on to teach at several institutions in the New York area, including Queens College and Seton Hall University, though between teaching jobs he and his wife spent 18 months living in Ireland to research a guidebook. His experience, especially his encounter with the remnants of what he felt was an ebullient Catholicism very different from his own, seeded the idea of someday writing a book about the island.

That book would have to wait. Back in the United States, he continued to teach, he and his wife opened a mail-order book company, and he worked as the advertising director at The New York Review of Books.

In 1990 he became director of religious publishing at Doubleday. His first major title, an English translation of “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church,” by the German scholar Uta Ranke-Heinemann, was a frank look at sexuality and the church. It brought heavy criticism from Cardinal John O’Connor, then the archbishop of New York, who called Doubleday “a purveyor of hatred and scandal and malice and libel and calumny.”

Though he was a practicing Catholic, Mr. Cahill cared very little about the archbishop’s opprobrium. He had long been a faithful skeptic of the church hierarchy, especially under the conservative Pope John Paul II. Besides, Cardinal O’Connor’s harsh words ensured bigger sales numbers.

“Here in America, we are distressed with Cardinal O’Connor’s comments,” he said in 1991. “It is an unfair attack, and one that seems to have an opposite effect. A religious spokesman can make a pronouncement, but then someone else will think, ‘That’s what you say, Buster, so where can I buy the book?’”

He began pitching the “Hinges of History” series, and “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” around the same time. At a sales conference, he mentioned the idea to Ms. Talese. She bought the entire series immediately.

The success of “How the Irish Saved Civilization” allowed Mr. Cahill to leave his job, write full time and buy a home in Rome, where he and his wife lived for part of the year.

The series took up most of the remainder of his career, though he took time off in 2002 to publish a short biography of Pope John XXIII, whom he greatly admired for his reformist tendencies, and also wrote “A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green” (2009), about a man who was convicted of murder — wrongly, Mr. Cahill believed — and later executed.

For several years, even after becoming a global literary phenomenon, Mr. Cahill ran a small prayer group that met on the West Side of Manhattan. Among its charity works was reading to H.I.V.-positive children at a nursing home in Washington Heights, an experience that he wrote about for The New York Times.

And while there are striking differences between writing about Greek poets and reading to terminally ill children, Mr. Cahill found a through line, one that cast his role not as a scholar but as something approaching an artist.

“When people address me as a historian, I always look around to see if it’s really me they’re talking to,” he said in 1998. “Often, because the language is difficult, events are sealed in envelopes and not examined. Revealing these events is like peeling an onion, one layer after another after another. And that’s my job: to peel the onion, to ask how we can put history into something we understand without destroying it.”

Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey.”

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