FR PAT CONLAN, OFM, tells of the origin of the famous ‘Annals of the Four Masters’.
The name of Saint Anthony’s College in Louvain is immediately associated with Irish history. Two Irish friars, Hugh Ward and Patrick Fleming, met in Paris in 1623 and discussed working on past events in Ireland. Ward headed for Louvain where he had been appointed a lecturer. He was promoted to Guardian in 1625. This enabled him to gather the resources needed for research and publication on Irish history. Given the events of the Reformation, he was particularly interested in matters relating to the Church and the lives of Irish saints. Hugh Ward went to meet his Maker in 1635. Fr John Colgan took over leadership of the Louvain School. He had joined the Order in Louvain in 1620 and lectured for a while in Germany before returning to Louvain by 1634. He had done some research on Irish documents in Germany. It was natural that he took up the challenge of writing the lives of the Irish saints. The Bollandists were a group of researchers based near Brussels who were systematically publishing the lives of the saints. Following their example, Colgan planned to publish lives of the Irish saints in Latin in the chronological order found in the liturgical calendar. The first volume of the Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae [The doings of the Saints of Ireland], covering the months of January, February and March, was published in 1645. The next volume, Triadis thaumaturgae [The Three Miracle- workers], with the lives of Saints Patrick, Brigid and Columba, appeared in 1647. The third volume for April, May and June, was ready in 1649 but, due to the changed situation in Ireland, no patron could be found to finance its publication. Colgan’s health also failed and he died in 1658. The Louvain School died with him.
A Son of Donegal
Br Micheál Ó Cléirigh was a member of the community in Louvain and an acknowledged expert on Irish history when Hugh Ward arrived. Ward knew that someone would have to undertake research in Ireland. He sent Br Micheál there in 1626. His family was from Clare but had migrated to South Donegal. He was one of four sons of Donnchadh Ó Cléirigh and Honora Ultach probably living near Kilbarron west of Ballyshannon. His brother, Maolmhuire, was born around 1589 and received the name Bernardine when he joined the Franciscans at Louvain in 1616. He later returned to minister in Donegal and was Guardian of the friary there for much of the time that Br Michael was in the community. His young brother, Tadhg an tSléibhe, received the name Micheál when he joined the friars, also at Louvain, soon after his brother’s ordination in 1619. The Ó Cléirighs were traditional chroniclers and historians. Br Micheál had received some training in Irish learning even before he joined the Franciscans. Fleming and Ward knew of his understanding and knowledge before Micheál Ó Cléirigh was sent back to Ireland in 1626. His life in Ireland followed the same pattern every year. He spent winter with the Donegal friars at the banks of the river Drowes. As the days lengthened he set off through different parts of Ireland working on manuscripts. He returned to Drowes later in the year to edit and annotate what he had transcribed.
Br Micheál worked in Dublin, Drogheda and Kildare during the summer and autumn of 1627. He transcribed the rules of Columcille, Ailbe and Comgall as well as working on the Martyrology of Tallagh and possibly the Book of Leinster. In 1628 he began in the Midlands around Athlone and Multyfarnham before heading to Dublin and thence into Carlow, Kilkenny and Cashel. Among the books he used were the Cogadh Gael is Gall, a book describing the wars between the Irish and the Normans, and the Book of the Dun Cow. In 1629 it was the turn of Cork, including Timoleague, Limerick, where the Provincial Chapter took place, and Clonmel before making his way back north. He stopped for a while at Kilnalahan near Loughrea. He worked on the Book of Lismore, the Leabhar Breac and lives of Saint Finbar. 1630-33 was given over to writing in Donegal, at Killinure north of Athlone and at Lisgoole near Enniskillen. He spent the summer of 1634 around Ennis. Then it was a matter of finishing various writings and heading back to Louvain.
The Four Masters
Br Micheál gathered a team of laymen around him. They became known as the Four Masters after a commentary of 1241 on the Franciscan Rule known as the Expositio Quatuor Magistrorum [Commentary of the Four Masters]. In addition to Br Micheál, the others were Fearfeasa Ó Maolchonaire, a poet and historian from Roscommon, Cúcoigcríche (Peregrine) Ó Dubhgennáin of Leitrim and Cúcoigcríche Ó Cléirigh, a distant cousin. Two others helped for shorter periods, Conaire Ó Cléirigh and Muiris Ó Maolchonaire.
During the winter of 1629-30, Br Micheál compiled Félire na naomh nEireannach [Calendar of the Saints of Ireland], otherwise The Martyrology of Donegal, at Drowes. The Four Masters came together for the first time in the autumn of 1630 to compile the Réim ríoghraidhe na hÉireann agus senchas a naomh [Stories of the kings and saints of Ireland] at Killinure near Athlone. They were working at the friary of Lisgoole on the banks of Upper Lough Erne in the autumn of 1631.
The masters had returned to Drowes by 22nd January 1632 when they officially began work on Annála ríoghachta Éireann, the Annals of the Four Masters. It was a history of Ireland from the earliest possible date going year by year. It incorporated parts of many annals that have since been lost. Today it allows researchers to reconstruct parts of these lost works. The work took over four and a half years. It was finished on 10th August 1636.
A Complete History
This complete history of Ireland from its recorded beginnings required the approval of experts. Br Micheál approached two such people, Flann Mac Aedhagain at Baile Mac Aedhagain in North Tipperary and Conor Mac Brody at Cill Chaoide in North Mayo. Br Micheál then went to the Catholic authorities: Bishop Malachy O’Queely of Tuam, Bishop Boetius Mac Egan, OFM, of Elphin, Bishop Ross Mageoghegan, OP, of Kildare and Bishop Thomas Fleming, OFM, of Dublin. Finally, two censors appointed by the Irish Franciscan Provincial examined the book in Carrickfergus in July 1637 and gave their approval. Br Micheál then set off for Louvain with his priceless manuscript. It appears that he died there in the summer of 1643. Several of his manuscripts remained unpublished until researchers discovered them during the nineteenth century. The noted antiquarian John O’Donovan published the Annals in 1851. It was a work of beauty with a lovely Irish type. Unfortunately it was not a critical edition in the modern sense. We now know, for example, that some of the years are slightly out. A full critical edition has yet to appear.
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