Giving bishops apoplexy for breakfast

When American author Tom Cahill was brought in to revive the flagging fortunes of Doubleday's religious publishing section, it…

When American author Tom Cahill was brought in to revive the flagging fortunes of Doubleday's religious publishing section, it was something of a last-ditch attempt to save the department. Coming from a marketing background, Cahill knew a thing or two about publicity. A book on women, sexuality and the church was his first project and he immediately discarded its rather gloomy dustjacket, headed for the art department and said: "Give me something that'll give a bishop apoplexy at breakfast."

The art department obliged and Cahill drew down the wrath of not just any old bishop but of New York's most influential cleric. The book considerably riled the redoubtable Cardinal John O'Connor and in the process got itself a raft of publicity. That Cahill has since gone on to become a bestselling author of popular religious history written in a breezy, in-your-face style seems somehow a fitting legacy of his days in publishing. With grandparents from the four corners of Ireland on both sides of his family, it is not entirely surprising that his first bestseller was How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.

Cahill recalls listening to his mother in particular: "Their people had been farmers. I grew up listening to all these songs and stories. Most of it was rural. She had all these sayings like `when you have harrowed as much as I've ploughed'." Cahill attributes his subsequent interest in words and cultures to these early references by his own parents (children of immigrants) to the places their parents had to leave.

The seeds for the Irish book, which was published in 1995, were sown in the early 1970s when Cahill and his wife came here for a year to research a literary guide to Ireland, which they co-authored. "Now there are lots of books like that, but when we were doing it, there just weren't any," says Cahill. At that time, Ireland was still caught in another timeframe, pre-Celtic Tiger, and Cahill saw vestiges of an ancient civilisation. "I've been researching these books really for the last 30 years. With all of the books, I've been making notes, testing out my ideas. Ultimately, it has become a larger quest for, and exploration of, Western civilisation."


The runaway success of the Irish book - two million copies sold and still rising - has enabled Cahill to write full-time and extend remit into a five-part series to explore, and explode, myths of Western civilisation. Although using scholarly research, Cahill is unashamedly populist, looking for the big picture, not academic minutiae. Certain ideas which came to him during the research for the Irish book led him to ancient Jewish civilisation and the Torah, which became his latest book, The Gifts of the Jews - How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. As with his Irish book, Cahill makes various audacious claims and arguments that a reader may or may not find convincing. Cahill credits the ancient Jews as the first proponents of the concept of individuality as well as the slightly more trivial notion that they invented "the weekend, and the idea of leisure".

His researches always throw up surprises. For the Irish book, he says the greatest revelation was the personality of St Patrick - or Patrick as he calls him. "He was really interesting, a tough little nut. He wrote the worst Latin imaginable." Cahill is interested in the general: "I'm not really interested in the externals: what year did he go where; did he exist? I'm interested in the evolution of Western civilisation.

"For instance, there's a big dispute about whether or not Abraham existed or was concocted as such. I'm not going to get involved in that." What preoccupies Cahill are the values evident in religious or cultural texts he's examining. He's just completed a book on Jesus, which was "the most difficult book so far". Ancient Greek civilisation is the subject of his next volume. In the US, Cahill is a publishing phenomenon with those millions of sales and the Gift of the Jews selling close to half a million copies since its publication over there. He has received hardly any attention this side of the Atlantic, maybe because the popular, general book is regarded with more suspicion by the Irish and English literary establishments or because the breathless enthusiasm of his can-do prose is considered so American.

It could even be that a vast project focusing on Western values nowadays seems a tad old-fashioned when we know so much about the negative side of Western civilisation. Still, whether he's annoying academics or giving bishops apoplexy, Cahill is going to continue giving his readers what they want.

The Gifts of the Jews - How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, by Thomas Cahill, is published by Lion Books, £16.99 in UK