NEW YORK (AP) — Thomas Cahill, a scholar of ancient languages and belief systems with a knack for popular storytelling who engaged history readers with bestsellers like How the Irish Saved Civilization and Desire of the Everlasting Hills, has died aged 82.
Travis Loller, a family friend and Associated Press writer, says Cahill died in his sleep on Oct. 18 at his Manhattan home. The cause of death was initially unknown.
Born in New York City, Cahill attended Jesuit school in his early years and became a dedicated student of Latin and ancient Greek, along with the Bible, philosophy, and classical literature. In the early 1970s he wrote two books with his wife Susan Cahill. However, in the mid-1990s he gained a wide audience with the million-selling How the Irish Saved Civilization, in which he cited Ireland’s important – and unappreciated – preservation of classical texts after the fall of the Roman Empire.
“Mr. Cahill is a man of learning himself, and his writing is in the great Irish tradition which he describes: lyrical, playful, penetrating and serious, but never too serious,” wrote New York Times critic Richard Bernstein, in 1995. ” And even when his conclusions aren’t entirely persuasive – they cling in places to rather flimsy evidence – they are always plausible and certainly interesting.”
His book on Ireland was part of his so-called ‘Hinges of History’ series, a broad and idiosyncratic survey of western civilization and what he saw as turning points, ‘a tale of how we came to be the people we are as he told 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 refutes the popular belief that the Middle Ages were merely a time of superstition.
“Of course, as in any age, there was a lot of ignorance,” he told the AP in 2006. “But the advances we associate with the Renaissance in the arts, sciences, education, scholarship, linguistics, and even political experimentation were all initiated in the Middle Ages.”
In addition to writing history, Cahill has been 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 served as Director of Religious Publications at Doubleday, which published much of his work, most recently Heretics and Heroes in 2013.
Cahill studied medieval classical literature and philosophy at Fordham University and received a master’s degree in film and theater from Columbia University. But his approach to his books was shaped in part by his Jesuit background, the depth of his learning, and the tedium with which he learned it. He later settled on a combination of scientific discipline and a conversational tone.
“What academic writers forget is that everyone on Earth buys books for distraction or entertainment,” he said in 2006. “Yes, they want to learn things, but they also don’t want to be bored to death while they’re learning those things.”
The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.