The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland or the Annals of the Four Masters, chronicles of medieval Irish history, are completed on August 10, 1636. The entries span from the Deluge, dated as 2,242 years after creation to 1616 AD.
The annals are mainly a compilation of earlier annals, although there is some original work, and are one of the principal Irish language sources for Irish history up to 1616. They are compiled between 1632 and 1636 at a Franciscan friary near the Drowes River in County Leitrim, on the border with County Donegal and County Sligo. The patron of the project is Fearghal Ó Gadhra, MP, a Gaelic lord in Coolavin, County Sligo. While many of the early chapters are essentially lists of names and dates, the later chapters, dealing with events of which the authors have first-hand accounts, are much more detailed.
The chief compiler of the annals is Brother Mícheál Ó Cléirigh from Ballyshannon, who is assisted by, among others, Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh, Fearfeasa Ó Maol Chonaire and Peregrine Ó Duibhgeannain. Although only one of the authors, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, is a Franciscan friar, they become known as “The Four Friars” or in the original Irish, Na Ceithre Máistrí. The Anglicized version of this is “The Four Masters,” the name that has become associated with the annals themselves.
Due to the criticisms by Irish historian Tuileagna Ó Maol Chonaire, the text is not published during the lifetime of any of the participants. The first substantial English translation (starting at 1171 AD) is published by Owen Connellan in 1846. The Connellan translation includes the annals from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries. The only version to have a four-colour frontispiece, it includes a large folding map showing the location of families in Ireland. This edition, neglected for over 150 years, is republished in the early twenty-first century. The original Connellan translation is followed several years later by a full translation by the historian John O’Donovan. The translation is funded by a government grant of £1,000 obtained by the notable mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton while he is president of the Royal Irish Academy.
The reliability and usefulness of the Annals as a historical source has sometimes been questioned on the grounds that they are limited to accounts of the births, deaths and activities of the Gaelic nobility of Ireland and often ignore wider social trends or events. On the other hand, the Annals, as one of the few prose sources in Irish from this period, also provide a valuable insight into events such as the Desmond Rebellions and the Nine Years’ War from a Gaelic Irish perspective.
The early part of this work is based upon the Lebor Gabála Érenn. Today, most scholars regard the Lebor Gabála Érenn as primarily myth rather than history. It appears to be mostly based on medieval Christian pseudo-histories, but it also incorporates some of Ireland’s native pagan mythology. Scholars believe the goal of its writers was to provide an epic history for Ireland that could compare to that of the Israelites or the Romans, and which reconciled native myth with the Christian view of history.
(Pictured: Illustration of “the four masters” by B. H. Holbrooke, 1846)