The Annals of the Four Masters Irish history, kingship and society in the early seventeenth century

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2(March/April 2011), Reviews, Volume 19

The Annals of the Four Masters: Irish history, kingship and society in the early seventeenth centuryBernadette Cunningham (Four Courts Press, Ä45) ISBN 9781846822032

The Annals of the Four Masters: Irish history, kingship and society in the early seventeenth century
Bernadette Cunningham
(Four Courts Press, Ä45)
ISBN 9781846822032

‘The Four Masters’—what does that name bring to mind? A GAA club from Donegal, perhaps, but more likely the compilers of the seventeenth-century Gaelic history of Ireland. I’ve often felt that the somewhat eulogistic title of that band of authors in itself ensured for them a place in the canon of Gaelic literature, evoking, as it traditionally does, teamwork against all the odds, in a redoubt on the banks of the Drowes River near Bundoran, to produce the monumental history of Ireland from the year AM 2242 right up until AD 1616 (a mere twenty years before their own work was completed), all in an effort to preserve for posterity the deeds and renown of Gaelic Ireland. The name of the authors stuck indelibly to the Annals of the Four Masters, obscuring their own title, ‘The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland’.

Early twentieth-century scholarship on the Annals and their authors helped paint this picture, and the Four Masters were to become pin-up boys of the new Irish national movement—their principal, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, even being depicted on a stamp in 1944 to commemorate the tercentenary of his death. The image of the painstaking assembly of the deeds of the great men of an Ireland under threat of oblivion, undertaken in the shadow of danger and persecution, was one that sat well with the ideals of sacrifice upon which independent Ireland was founded.

The early seventeenth century has since undergone serious reassessment by literary historians, and the work at hand by Bernadette Cunningham represents only the latest addition to the reading list on the literary history of the period, which has been greatly augmented and enhanced in the last fifteen years or so—not least in the context of commemorative activity marking 400 years since the foundation of St Anthony’s College, Louvain, and the simultaneous remembrance of the departure of the Ulster earls from Rathmullan in 1607. Having been placed greatly in her debt after her expert treatment of Geoffrey Keating in The world of Geoffrey Keating: history, myth and religion in seventeenth-century Ireland, we now have revealed to us the findings of her many years of investigation into the milieu and motivations of Ó Cléirigh and his collaborators.

Her work, like that of Breandán Ó Buachalla, Mícheál Mac Craith and others, demands a radical rethink of the traditional view of the Four Masters as consciously writing the epitaph of an obsolescent people. Here she shows us something rather different, a group of historians confidently setting down for the record the history of their nation, making a case for its parity with any nation in Europe. They wrote their history in the Gaelic annalistic style, sought the approbation of Gaelic historians and Irish Catholic clergy, and sent it to Louvain for translation into Latin and eventual publication, the goal being to provide a documentary foundation and justification for a Catholic restoration in Ireland.

It is one of the great advantages of this book that it deals with the primary manuscript sources, with the version of the annals that sat on the desk of the scribes themselves; two distinct sets of autograph manuscripts were prepared and are now housed in various archives, having been scattered over time. Using close textual analysis and comparison with earlier primary material that the Four Masters drew on as sources, Cunningham introduces us to an ecology of annals, sources and scribes informing and illustrating each other as history was recorded, re-recorded and passed on in the manuscript tradition. A picture emerges of the Four Masters’ role as editors as much as faithful transcribers of the source material, ordering and prioritising the information they wished to present, and omitting that which did not suit their purpose. Cunningham traces the omissions, additions and emendments in search of coherent patterns. One striking one that emerges is the nomenclature bestowed on various potentates. In an effort to emphasise and exalt the high kingship of Ireland as a powerful and continuous rule of Ireland, the term rí (king) is used largely only in reference to holders of that office; where it is unwittingly used in their sources referring to lesser rulers, the Four Masters employ the lesser tighearna (lord, chief) in their account. Other examples of such ‘spinning’ emerge from Cunningham’s analysis: where earlier annals give fulsome accounts of the miraculous deeds of Irish saints, the Four Masters prefer to record only obit and a much abbreviated account of their deeds. Our analyst concludes that such accounts did not serve the function of the Franciscan historians and, as a matter of editorial policy, were deemed unsuitable for inclusion by them.

This theme of the functionality and purpose of the Annals of the Four Masters is crucial in Cunningham’s book, and it is one to which she returns in most of her chapter conclusions, most especially in the chapters that constitute case-studies of the annalists’ treatment of two distinct strata of material: the military deeds of various Gaelic notables, and the recording of lives of holy men. It is in these chapters, the author having been freed from the meticulous detective work and from the presentation of the conclusion of the in-depth comparison between sources, that her narrative is given leave to soar. She traces for us, for example, the presentation of the Ó Domhnaill lords over the course of the sixteenth century. The Ó Cléirigh family were hereditary historians to the Ó Domhnaill lords, and the latent loyalty of the writers of the Annals of the Four Masters shows through without any doubt, although Cunningham’s more nuanced reading of the century’s entries shows shifting political emphases over time, and indeed illustrates the power of the historical record in Gaelic Ireland as a quasi-legal document. The obituary of Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill (d. 1505) outlines the principal deeds of the deceased, but also lists his conquests and provides an inventory of areas from which he received tribute, thereby showing the extent of the lordship at that time of succession and attendant transition. The next Ó Domhnaill obituary in 1537 shows these boundaries to have changed, reflecting and recording the newer political reality.

The treatment of ecclesiastical material in the Annals likewise bears the sophisticated scrutiny given to it here. The Counter-Reformation dimension of all the Franciscan writings of the period cannot be ignored, and indeed Cunningham describes the production of the Annals as the provision of a weapon in the armoury of Catholic Irish scholarly contributors to the debate over the true church. Whereas earlier accounts of the sixteenth century dwell on the destructive bent of the reformed faith, the Four Masters are more interpretive on the matter, speaking of the heresy and error born of pride, vainglory, avarice, lust and many strange sciences. Again we see the presentation of history to service a contemporary need, as Cunningham puts it: ‘the creation of a comprehensive record of the past appropriate to a Catholic kingdom’ (p. 240). It is strange that, in making such a compelling argument for the motivations of the Four Masters being the definition and perpetuation of Ireland as a Catholic kingdom, Cunningham does not dwell further on the title of the work at its inception, Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland), a title occluded through the deferential renaming of the text after its four principal authors.

The pure historians of early modern Gaelic Ireland will be truly fascinated by the chapter here on the scholarly networks and their patronage in north-eastern Ireland, networks that served as Gaelic universities, based on the hereditary model of all the Gaelic professions. We are provided with an insight into the background, the education and the training of the compilers of the Annals, which contextualisation only serves to further cement the zeal and veracity with which they undertook their task. This contextualisation grounds Cunningham’s work perfectly, and indeed challenges traditional notions of the Four Masters working under constant threat of persecution. Conversely, it shows them collaborating with, and gaining access to the libraries of, such figures as James Ussher. Furthermore, rather than religious zealots, the author deems the Ó Cléirigh outfit and other scholar-friars of the time to have entered the order to avail of the framework it allowed them to pursue their studies, given the relative dearth of Gaelic lords able to supply patronage in the traditional mode.

The structure of Bernadette Cunningham’s book serves its purposes well, as it enables her to make her solid case at first, and to latterly present firm conclusions based on it. Of great help, however, would be a stricter application of subtitles in the chapters; at present they interrupt the narrative rather than elucidate it, especially in the earlier chapters where detailed and complicated material is being presented. The case-studies are fascinating and represent what will be of most interest to the general reader, along with the description of the scholarly fraternities which conceived of the Annals and nurtured them to fruition. It is a thoroughly and deeply illuminating book; one waits excitedly to see what Bernadette Cunningham will turn her attention to next. This present work serves as a fitting tribute to the meticulous and patriotic scholarship of its subject, and will enable a new generation to engage with the Annals on the terms in which they were originally written.  HI

Charles Dillon lectures in Irish and Celtic Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast.
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