NEW YORK – Thomas Cahill, a scholar of ancient languages and belief systems with a gift for popular storytelling who has engaged history readers with bestsellers such as “How the Irish Saved Civilization” and “The desire for the eternal hills”, died at the age of 82.
Travis Loller, a family friend and Associated Press writer, says Mr. Cahill died in his sleep Oct. 18 at his Manhattan apartment. The cause of death was not immediately known.
Originally from New York, Mr. Cahill attended Jesuit school in his early years and became a devoted student of Latin and ancient Greek, as well as the Bible, philosophy and classical literature. He wrote two books with his wife, Susan Cahill, in the early 1970s. But he gained a large following in the mid-1990s with the million-selling “How the Irish Saved Civilization”, in which he quoted the crucial – and unrecognized – preservation of classical texts from Ireland after the fall of the Roman Empire.
“Mr. Cahill is a scholar himself, and his writing is in the great Irish tradition he describes: lyrical, playful, penetrating and serious, but never too serious,” wrote New York Times critic Richard Bernstein. in 1995. “And even where his conclusions are not entirely convincing – they cling in places to rather thin reeds of evidence – they are still plausible and certainly interesting.
His book on Ireland was part of what he called his “Hinges of History” series, a broad and idiosyncratic review of Western civilization and the moments he saw as turning points, “a narrative of how we have become the people we are,” as he told the AP in a 2006 interview. “Desire of the Everlasting Hills” focused on the New Testament and the life of Jesus, and “Sailing the Wine Dark Sea” celebrated the ancient Greeks. In “Mysteries of the Middle Ages”, he countered popular beliefs that the Middle Ages were just a time of superstition.
“Of course, there was a lot of ignorance, as there is in all eras,” he told the AP in 2006. “But the advances we associate with the Renaissance in the arts, science, education, scholarship, linguistics and even political experimentation began in the Middle Ages.
In addition to writing the story, Mr. Cahill was an education correspondent for The Times of London and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He has taught at Queens College, Fordham University and Seton Hall University, and for several years was director of religious publishing at Doubleday, which has published much of his work, most recently the book of 2013 “Heretics and Heroes”.
Mr. Cahill majored in Classical Literature and Medieval Philosophy at Fordham University and earned an MA in Film and Dramatic Literature at Columbia University. But his approach to his books was shaped in part by his Jesuit background, by the depth of his learning and the monotony of how he learned it. He will later resolve to combine scholarly discipline and a conversational tone.
“What academic writers forget is that everyone on Earth buys books to be entertained or entertained,” he said in 2006. “Yes, they want to learn things, but they don’t want to nor be bored to death while they learn these things.”