O’Donnell histories: Donegal and the Annals of the Four Masters

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

O’Donnell histories: Donegal and the Annals of the Four Masters
Bernadette Cunningham
(Rathmullan & District Historical Society, E12)
ISBN 97809540888423

This new account of the compilers, compilation and concepts that shaped the Annals of the Four Masters (or, to give the collection its proper Anglicised title, The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland) sees Bernadette Cunningham, the foremost scholar of the influence of the Counter-Reformation on the writing of Irish history in the seventeenth century, once more considering that process from the perspective of the Gaelic Irish. For in some ways this study can be read as an extension of her earlier published work on the culture and ideology of Irish Franciscan historians at Louvain. It is more directly the distillation of some of the insights from her recently completed PhD dissertation, ‘The making of the Annals of the Four Masters’ (UCD, 2005). Prima facie this study’s title suggests a very narrow focus, but it is clear that this is ‘. . . because the story of the O’Donnells of Tír Conaill was central to their [the annalists’] version of the Irish past’ (p. vii). Cunningham transcends the generalisation of contemporary historians that the Annals were too O’Donnell-centric ‘by listening to what the annalists chose to say about the past’ and by using that to ‘comprehend their [wider] world’ (p. 18). In the process she traces, often superbly, the means by which the Four Masters produced a major history worthy of the name of ‘the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland’ (p. 2). In this regard, much of the focus in this volume, as in the Annals, centres on the politico-military qualities best befitting an Irish lord because, as Cunningham rightly observes, ‘for them, the subject matter of history comprised the lives of great men’.
The work is less satisfying when it comes to the political implications of the cataclysm that had necessitated the construction of these annals in the first instance. It has always seemed to the present reviewer that the political thinking of the Annals of the Four Masters has not, despite its unquestioned importance, been properly considered. Regrettably, Dr Cunningham, as she implicitly admits, has here come no closer to an explication than earlier scholars (p. 48). In fact, in her claim that the annalists did not attempt a systematic politicisation of the detail of their earlier narratives in the light of the new ‘faith and fatherland’ vision of Ireland, she de-politicises their work. While the annalists were scrupulously careful to avoid any explicitly anti-establishment statements, this is somewhat misrepresentative of the thrust of their writing, especially on the period after the institution of the Irish Reformation (which accounts for a disproportionate amount of ink). Her argument that they ‘appear to have lacked any sense of structured opposition between rival “English” and “Irish” power structures into which to fit their account of Sir Henry Sidney’s exploits’ (pp 39–40) jars with their distaste for Dermot MacMurrough and their delighted description of the terrible fate he met for introducing the Normans into Ireland (pp 16–17).
Moreover, the significance of the annalists’ decision to end their work in 1616, with an obsequious obituary of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, who died a proclaimed traitor to the king, read alongside their endorsement of Red Hugh O’Donnell as a pseudo-High King (pp 59–61), suggests, at least to this reader, that the annalists were concerned with matters political and religious. Legitimisation of these men as ‘defenders’ of their religion and their patrimonies and their mode of lordship beg questions of the annalists’ attitudes to the current ruling dispensation. For as Cunningham herself demonstrates, the annalists believed that in a well-regulated commonwealth, such as Ireland used to be (as the analysis of sixteenth-century Tír Conaill reveals), there was a contract between ruler and people: rulers governed ‘with the permission and by the advice of the nobles of Tír Conaill, both lay and ecclesiastical’ (p. 32). This observation cannot be considered in isolation from the reordering of the Irish commonwealth which, when the annalists were compiling their work, was proceeding without reference to the wishes of either of these groups.
Returning to the strengths of this study, Cunningham’s demonstration of the close links between ecclesiastical scholars (both at home and overseas), lay scholars and lay patrons shows the interconnectedness of the exile and home communities and the ability of the Irish colleges to influence events in Ireland, a point with obvious transference for the wider aims of the Counter-Reformation movement. Yet this volume, given her earlier research, might have reckoned more closely with the fact that this work, involving clergy and laity from both of Ireland’s historic communities, was part of a much wider project, not only to record Ireland’s history but also to forge an Irish Catholic identity anchored in Ireland’s historic past and open to all who professed Catholicism, through the integrative model of the Leabhar Gabhála (on which Ó Cléirigh also worked). But perhaps this is unduly harsh criticism for such a focused volume.
In what is otherwise essentially a work of synthesis, it only supersedes the earlier studies of Brendan Jennings and Paul Walsh in Chapter 2 (pp 19–43). Here Cunningham clearly demonstrates that the Annals were intended as a new history of Ireland, a point ably supported by her close reading of the process of evidence selection, which reveals that ‘accuracy was all important’ in the construction of the entries (p. 15). This is the most satisfying and novel contribution made because it reveals at close quarters the interface between the traditional mode of history in which these men were trained and the new practices of humanistic history to which they were exposed on the Continent. All things considered, if this volume offers a flavour of her PhD dissertation, then the sooner that the latter is available in print the better for all those seeking to explain more fully the impact of the Counter-Reformation on the writing of Irish history, as well as the use of that history in the construction of communal identity in the seventeenth century and thereafter.

David Finnegan has completed a PhD on early modern Irish Catholic political thinking at Cambridge University and is an Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences fellow at Trinity College, Dublin.


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