Best-selling western explorer Thomas Cahill dies at 82

Combining a fascination with the ancient world with a flair for humor, Thomas Cahill’s vibrant storytelling in bestsellers like How the Irish Saved Civilization sees Ireland as a haven for Western thought. Rome fell and died on October 18 at his Manhattan home. He is 82 years old.

His wife, author Susan Cahill, said the cause was a heart attack. She said Mr Cahill had a heart attack and a stroke in 2017 but had continued to work in recent years.

A Jesuit-trained Mr. Cahill was a devout student of ancient Greek and Latin, and worked in journalism and publishing before becoming a full-time writer. Capitalizing on the astonishing success of “How the Irish Saved Civilization” (1995), which spent nearly two years on the New York Times bestseller list, he wrote five more books on critical moments in the development of Western civilization, drawing on academic Research and primary sources while making books that are both interesting and knowledgeable.

Mr Cahill, who is not a professional historian, has sometimes been criticized for making far-reaching claims without sufficient evidence. However, his work has been praised for transporting readers into the distant past, as he keeps history alive without getting bogged down by outdated details.

He once told the Philadelphia Inquirer that academics “tend to be very rational and go, ‘What is the philosophical structure here, or what is the ideological structure?'” They miss the tears, the laughter, the blood, the sweat, all that makes Something that we really keep in touch with these people from the past. “

Mr Cahill was Doubleday’s religious publishing director when he wrote “How the Irish Saved Civilization”, partly inspired by a trip to Ireland 20 years ago. The book tells a living but little-known story of how 5th-century Irish monks transcribed classical texts onto sheepskins to save literary and philosophical works destroyed by Germanic invaders after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Mr Cahill wrote that it was Ireland’s “moment of impeccable glory”.

With some 2 million copies sold, the book is a joyous affirmation of Irish culture and history, years after Ireland’s role in world affairs was often ridiculed or ignored. As Mr Cahill puts it, the Irish are often considered “a very uncivilized people who saved civilization”.

His book corrects this view, while introducing Augustine the Hippo (“almost the last great classical figure”), St. Patrick (“the first unequivocal anti-slavery in the history of the world”) and Kang Nott’s warrior queen, Queen Medb.

New York Times book reviewer Richard Bernstein wrote: “His work lives up to what he describes as the great Irish tradition: lyrical, playful, profound and serious, but never too serious.” “Even if his conclusions are not entirely Persuasiveness – they do rely in some places on fairly slender evidence – they’re always plausible and certainly interesting.”

Mr Cahill went on to write six volumes in what he called the “Hinges of History” series, a unique survey of Western civilization designed to provide “narratives about how we became who we are”. His follow-up, “The Gift of the Jewish People” (1998), is a light-hearted retelling of biblical history, arguing that Jews — “desert nomads” — pioneered the concept of individuality, not to mention weekends. To study the book, he spent a summer studying Hebrew, studying at the Jewish Seminary in New York, and traveling to the Middle East to visit Old Testament landmarks.

“I’ve been trying to live with biblical people for several years,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Finally, I can see Abraham’s tent in the desert heat.”

Mr. Cahill later explored the life and legacy of Jesus (“The Desire of the Eternal Hill”), the role of art and warfare in ancient Greece (“Voyage to the Black Sea”), the cultural and political progress that took place in history called The Dark Ages (“Medieval Mysteries”) and the rise of modern individualism during the Renaissance and Reformation (“Hereties and Heroes”).

His book is full of lengthy quotes from primary sources, as well as popular narration and comparisons to modern life. A letter from the Middle Ages was “as ironic as the dialogue in an episode of Desperate Housewives,” while the Greek city-state of Sparta was “the Korea of ​​the time.” In ancient Greece, he wrote, “the harder the pectoral muscles and the tighter the bun, the more spirited you are.”

He told The Associated Press in 2006: “What academic writers forget is that everyone on the planet buys books for entertainment or entertainment. Yes, they want to learn something, but they also don’t want to get bored while they study. To die.” Learn those things. “

Thomas Quinn Cahill was born on March 29, 1940 in the Bronx. His parents were the children of Irish immigrants, and he heard songs and stories about life in Ireland from his mother, a housewife. His father was an insurance executive.

Mr. Cahill received a scholarship to Regis High School, an elite Jesuit private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he was exposed to Plato and Augustine at age 14. He went on to major in Classics and Medieval Philosophy at Fordham University, graduating with a BA in 1964, and studied clergy before deciding against it.

He studied film at Columbia University and received his master’s degree in 1968. That was a dead end, too: the filmmaker, he decided, “go starvation or have rich dad and connections.”

Entering journalism and publishing, he worked as advertising director for the New York Review of Books and as an education reporter for The Times of London. He also writes book reviews for the Los Angeles Times and teaches at Seton Hall University, Queens College, and Fordham, among others.

His first book anthology, Big City Stories by Modern American Writers, was published in 1971 with former Susan Neunzig, whom he married in 1966. They later started mail order book catalogues and spent a year researching their work in Ireland. The second book, “A Guide to Irish Literature” (1973).

Mr Cahill kept his idea for an Irish history book in his pocket for decades, pitching it unsuccessfully to five major publishers before meeting editor Nan Talese, who met at a sales meeting in 1990 After signing this project.

At the time, Mr. Cahill was Doubleday’s director of religious publishing, publishing titles including the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary, which became an important resource for his subsequent history books. He also published an English translation of the German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s Eunuch of the Kingdom of Heaven, which deals with women, sex, and the Catholic Church.

Mr Cahill told The Irish Times that when he saw the dull cover art planned for the book, he went to Doubleday’s art department and said: “Give me something to give the bishop a stroke at breakfast.” Eventually The book was published with a sexy illustration showing the silhouette of a woman and was attacked by influential Cardinal John J. O’Connor, who declared Doubleday a “hateful, scandalous, malicious, libelous and purveyors of slander”. (Mr. Cahill said he and other editors felt O’Connor had “slandered” him, but noted that the Cardinal’s comments seemed to have the opposite effect, boosting sales of the book.)

After the success of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Mr Cahill quit his day job with the intention of writing a new book every two years. His later works include “Pope John XXIII” (2002), a short biography of the Penguin Life series, and “Saints on Death Row” (2009), about Dominic Green, a convicted Texan Sri Lankan – wrongly convicted in Mr Cahill’s book. Eyes – fatally shot a man during a robbery outside a convenience store. Green was executed in 2004 after Mr Cahill failed to clear his name.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Cahill’s survivors include their two children, Kristin Cahill-Inigs and Joseph Cahill; three sisters; and four grandchildren.

Mr Cahill is skeptical of institutional religion, saying he finds “the church often gets in the way” of faith. But for years, he led a prayer group in New York, taking time away from writing to read bedtime stories to children living with HIV.

“We’re just a middle-class bunch,” he told The New York Times in 1998. It seems very secondary, but in a way everything is secondary.

“You know Mother Teresa’s famous response when someone asks how she did it? ‘One by one.’ I think that’s always the response.”

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