Annals of the Four Masters

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Annals of the Four Masters

The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Annála Ríoghachta Éireann), as the Annals of the Four Masters were originally called, consist of short entries relating to significant personalities and events in Irish history, arranged in chronological order and compiled in the years 1632 to 1636. Together with other earlier annalistic compilations, the Annals of the Four Masters are a major source for the ecclesiastical and secular history of early and medieval Ireland. The earliest entry purports to record an event forty days before the Biblical Deluge (Anno Mundi 2242). The final entry relates to the death of Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, in 1616 c.e. The structure of the chronological framework is provided by the succession of kings, and the length of the reign of individual kings is usually documented.

Many of the entries are in the form of obituaries that record the deaths of kings and local lords, saints, bishops, abbots, and other clergy. The focus throughout the Annals is on the elite of society, both secular and religious. Disputes between rival kin groups are documented. Occasional reference is made to external events and to occurrences in the natural world, such as abnormal weather or the appearance of comets. Within the entry for each individual year personalities and events are mentioned in order of their importance as perceived by the compilers. The annalists left blank spaces throughout the manuscript so that further material could subsequently be inserted at the appropriate place.

The historical material that is now preserved in the Annals of the Four Masters is an amalgam derived from a variety of earlier texts written at various dates between the middle of the sixth century and the early seventeenth century. The precise sources for the entries relating to events that occurred before the twelfth century are unknown, but the entries would originally have been the work of Irish monastic scribes. The late medieval entries are derived from historical compilations made by secular learned Gaelic families. The long narrative entries relating to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries derive from contemporary sources, including Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh's Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill (Life of Red Hugh O'Donnell). Many of the entries relating to the Franciscans were drawn from Francis O'Mahony's Brevis synopsis provinciae Hiberniae FF Minorum, compiled at Louvain in 1617–1618 and subsequently translated into Irish.

The Annals of the Four Masters differ from earlier annalistic compilations in that their focus is on the whole of Ireland. Earlier annals, such as the Annals ofLoch Cé or the Annals of Connacht, had a more local focus. However, the O'Donnell bias of some of the entries in the Annals of the Four Masters reflects the Donegal origins of the compilers.

The initiative that led to the production of these historical annals in the early seventeenth century came from the Irish Franciscan College of Saint Anthony at Louvain in the Spanish Netherlands. There, a number of scholarly men from Irish learned families had joined the Franciscan order and undertook a major research project on the history of Ireland and its saints. A prime objective of the Irish Franciscan scholars at Louvain was to present Ireland in a favorable light to Catholic Europe, building on the image of Ireland as an "island of saints and scholars." The need to counteract Scottish claims that the early saints from "Scotia" might have been Scottish rather than Irish was an important stimulus to research and publish the lives of Irish saints. An ambitious program of research and publication was planned in the 1620s, and much of it was implemented over the following twenty years. While the primary focus was on collecting the lives of Irish saints, special attention was also given to researching the history of early Ireland because genealogical and historical research into the families from which Irish saints emanated was deemed necessary to demonstrate their noble origins. A lay Franciscan brother from Donegal, Micheál Ó Cléirigh, was chosen to return from Louvain to Ireland to undertake research on manuscripts still in the hands of the scholarly community there. Ó Cléirigh prepared the Martyrology of Donegal, a new recension of Leabhar Gabhála Éireann, and assembled a set of genealogies of Irish saints and kings. The compilation of Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland was Ó Cléirigh's major achievement.

The annals were written at Bundrowes, Co. Donegal, between 22 January 1632 and 10 August 1636 from source material collected throughout Ireland. Ó Cléirigh was assisted by other scholars, including Cúchoigríche Ó Cléirigh, Fearfeasa Ó Maolchonaire, and Cúchoigríche Ó Duibhgeannáin. These four were referred to as the "Four Masters" by the Louvain Franciscan John Colgan in the preface to his Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae (1645) in acknowledgment of their scholarship. Conaire Ó Cléirigh, a "fifth master," was also involved. The patronage of Feargal Ó Gadhra of Coolavin, Co. Sligo, provided the necessary financial support for the research work in Ireland. Two sets of the annals were made, one for the patron (now preserved as Royal Irish Academy, MS C iii 3, and Trinity College, Dublin, MS 1301) and one for Saint Anthony's College Louvain, (now Royal Irish Academy, MS 23 P 6–7, and University College, Dublin, FLK MS A13).

After the text was completed in August 1636, approbations of the kind that prefaced printed works were obtained from bishops and hereditary historians. It was probably intended that the annals would be printed at Louvain, but this did not happen. Hugh Ward, who had commissioned the work, died in November 1635, a few months before the annals were completed. The copy of the annals that was taken to Louvain was used extensively by John Colgan in his work on Irish saints' lives. Some passages from the annals were quoted in Latin in Colgan's publications.

Given the concern of Irish Catholic writers in the early seventeenth century to demonstrate that the Catholic Church was the true church, it is no surprise to find that the Annals of the Four Masters presented a version of Irish history that conformed to the ideals of the Counter-Reformation. The annals were part of a major scholarly corpus that emphasized the continuity of the Catholic faith in Ireland and helped to cultivate the idea that loyalty to Catholicism was a defining characteristic of the Irish people.

The text of the Annals of the Four Masters was published in its entirety in 1851 in a scholarly, heavily footnoted seven-volume edition edited and translated by John O'Donovan.

SEE ALSO Education: 1500 to 1690; Irish Colleges Abroad until the French Revolution; Literature: Gaelic Writing from 1607 to 1800; O'Donovan, John; Primary Documents: Accounts of the Siege and Battle of Kinsale (1601)


Jennings, Brendan. Michael Ó Cleirigh, Chief of the Four Masters, and His Associates. 1936.

O'Donovan, John, ed. Annála Ríoghachta Éireann: Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616. 7 vols. 1851. Also available at

Ó Muraíle, Nollaig. "The Autograph Manuscripts of the Annals of the Four Masters." Celtica 19 (1987): 75–95.

Walsh, Paul. The Four Masters and Their Work. 1944.

Bernadette Cunningham

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