CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Illuminations: Annals of the Four Masters

“For the Glory of God and the Honor of Ireland”

The Annals of the Four Masters (also known as the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland) is a comprehensive history of Ireland from the biblical flood until 1616. It is the most extensive compilation of the ancient annals of Ireland. This work influenced the writing of national history from the 17th century onwards. The project was begun and organized by the chief of the Four Masters, Micheál Ó Cléirigh (pron:  mee-haul oh kleer-ee).  His name is anglicized as Michael O’Clery.

Micheál Ó Cléirigh was born about 1575, in County Donegal at Kilbarron Castle, three miles from the present town of Ballyshannon. This was the ancestral home of the Ó Cléirigh family, who were the hereditary historians to the O’Donnell’s of Tír Conaill (Donegal).  He was christened with the first name of Tadhg (pron: tie-guh), meaning “poet.” 

Because of his background, Tadhg was trained in the scholarly tradition of his family. He became proficient as both a historian and as a scribe.

Tadhg left Donegal for Europe sometime before 1621 after his family’s lands had been confiscated by the English. Tadhg arrived in what was then the Spanish Netherlands (present day Belgium and Luxemburg) and was recruited into a company of a Spanish Irish military regiment. He served only a short time and then entered the Franciscan Order in 1623. 

He joined the Franciscans at St. Anthony’s Irish College in Louvain (now in Belgium). The motto of St. Anthony’s College was, “For the Glory of God and the Honor of Ireland.”

For unknown reasons, Tadhg chose to become a lay brother, although he was more than qualified to take up the study for the priesthood. He took the religious name Michéal.

In April 1626, Father Hugh Ward was made the religious superior of the college. Later that year Ward sent Brother Michéal back to Ireland to collect material to put together a work that would document the lives of the Irish Saints.

In Ireland, Brother Michéal traveled the country researching and copying old manuscripts. He first came to the Donegal Franciscan House of Refuge in the spring of 1627. The House was situated on the bank of the Drowes River, near the town of Bundoran, where it forms the county boundary between Donegal and Leitrim.

There, Brother Michéal wrote nine works, including seven lives of the saints. In 1630 he wrote fifteen works at Drowes, completing the Martyrology of Donegal.

But Brother Michéal had in mind a much larger history project. For the project of compiling the Annals, he assembled a team of three other historians to assist in the effort. They comprised the remaining three of the Four Masters.

They were:
Cú Coigcríche Ó Cléirigh: (pron:  koo-kogaree oh clear-ee) Cú Coigcríche was a first name popular with the O’Clery’s and means the “hound of the border.” He was a historian from County Donegal and was a third-cousin to Brother Michéal. His name in English is Cucogry O’Clery.

Fearfeasa Ó Maoil Chonaire: (pron: feer-fassa oh mweel hon-ar)Fearfeasa means “man of knowledge.”  He was a historian, writer, and poet from County Roscommon. His name in English is Fearfassa O’Mulconry.

Cú Coigcríche Ó Duibhgeannáin: (pron:  koo-kogaree oh dig-nan) He was the only other Franciscan brother of the Four Masters. When he joined the Franciscans at Louvain he took the religious name Peregrine.  He came from an area close to Castlefore in County Leitrim. His name in English is Brother Peregrine O’Duigenan.

There were also several other scribes, historians and Franciscans who participated in the Annals that were not considered as one of the Masters, including two older brothers of Brother Michéal. Financial patronage for the project was obtained from Fearghal Ó Gadhra (pron: fear-al oh gara), the lord of Coolavin, County Sligo. It is not entirely clear why Ó Gadhra agreed to sponsor the Annals. He was one of the wealthiest men in County Sligo and may have sympathetic with the aims of the project.

On January 22, 1632, the work of compiling and writing the Annals began. It was finished on August 10, 1636. It is generally accepted that the Annals were written in the Franciscan House at Drowse. It is often incorrectly reported that the work on the Annals was done at Donegal Abbey; however, the Franciscans had been expelled from Donegal Abbey during the Nine Years War in 1601, before work on the Annals began.

The Annals were written in Early Modern Irish with some Latin.The literary form, which was also known as Classical Irish, was used in Ireland from the 13th to the 18th century.

In the dedication, Brother Micheál Ó Cléirigh wrote about his purpose behind the project: “It is a thing general and plain throughout the whole world, in every place where nobility and honor has prevailed in each successful period, that nothing is more glorious, more respectable or more honorable, than to bring to light the knowledge of the antiquity of ancient authors, and a knowledge of the chieftains and nobles that existed in preceding times…”

The Annals cover a significant time period. The timeline begins with the biblical flood, which the Masters’ research dated as 2952 BC. The Annals end with the death of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, in 1616 AD. The Flight of the Earls and the death of O’Neill in Rome are generally regarded as the end of the Irish Gaelic era in Ireland.

The Masters finished their work in 1636 and disbanded. In 1637, Brother Micheál began his journey back to St. Anthony’s Irish College at Louvain.

With the work completed, a manuscript copy of the Annals were given to their patron, Fearghal Ó Gadhra. Another set was taken to Louvain, where the Franciscans planned to publish it.

The Annals of the Four Masters Today
Today, the several manuscript copies of the Annals are held at Trinity College Dublin, the Royal Irish Academy, University College Dublin, and the National Library of Ireland.

The Annals were translated into English by the great Irish scholar, John O’Donovan (1806-1861).  In this splendid work, the Irish text is given with a translation into English and a mass of the valuable notes it contained in seven volumes. They were published between 1848 and 1851. So long as Irish history exists, the Annals of the Four Masters will be read in the O’Donovan translation, and the name of O’Donovan will be connected with that of the Four Masters.


Back at the College in Louvain, Brother Micheál continued to write, publishing a new dictionary/glossary of the Irish Language. He died in Louvain towards the end of the year 1643. He was buried in the grounds of the Franciscan college, though the precise location of the grave was not recorded.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also past Chairman and Life Member of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected]

 

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