The most extensive of all the compilations of the ancient annals of Ireland. They commence, nominally at least, at A.M. 2242 and are continued down to A.D. 1616. The entries which are bare and meagre during the earlier period grow less so as the "Annals" progress, and towards the end they become in parts almost like a history in their diffuseness. The principal compiler of these "Annals" was Michael O'Clery, a native of Donegal, who had been by profession a trained antiquary and poet, but who afterwards joined the Franciscan Order, and went to their Irish house in Louvain. Thence he was sent back to Ireland by his famous compatriot, Father John Colgan, to collect the lives of Irish saints. Many of these lives which he copied upon that visit, out of the old vellum books of Ireland, are now in the Burgundian Library at Brussels. Afterwards, under the patronage of Fergal O'Gara, Lord of Moy Gara and Coolavin, in the County Sligo, he conceived the pious idea of collecting and redacting all the ancient vellum books of annals which he could find throughout Ireland, and of combining them into one continuous whole. "I thought", says O'Clery, in his dedication to O'Gara, "that I could get the assistance of the chroniclers for whom I had most esteem, in writing a book of annals in which these matters might be put on record, for that should the writing of them be neglected at present, they would not again be found to be put on record even to the end of the world. All the best and most copious books of annals that I could find throughout all Ireland were collected by me--though it was difficult for me to collect them--into one place to write this book." It was to the secluded convent of Donegal that the learned friar retired while engaged upon this work which was commenced by himself and his fellow labourers on the 22nd of January, 1632, and concluded on the 10th of August, 1636. His forebodings as to the fate of the material that he worked from were prophetic. Scarcely one of the ancient books which he brought together with such pains has survived to the present day--they probably perished in the cataclysm of the Cromwellian and Williamite wars.
It was Father Colgan, the celebrated author of the "Trias Thaumaturga" and the "Acta sanctorum Hiberniae", who, in the preface to this latter work, first conferred the title by which they are now always known, "The Annals of the Four Masters", upon these annals of O'Clery. "As in the three works before mentioned", writes Colgan, "so in this fourth one, three (helpers of O'Clery) are eminently to be praised, namely Farfassa O'Mulconry, Peregrine O'Clery, and Peregrine O'Duignan, men of consummate learning in the antiquities of their country, and to these were subsequently added the co-operation of other distinguished antiquarians, as Maurice O'Mulconry who for one month and Conary O'Clery who for many months laboured in its promotion. But since those 'Annals' which we shall very frequently have occasion to quote, have been collected and compiled by the assistance and separate study of so many authors, neither the desire of brevity would permit us always to quote them individually, nor would justice permit us to attribute the labour of many to one, hence it sometimes seemed best to call them the 'Annals of Donegal', for in our convent of Donegal they were commenced and concluded. But afterwards, for other reasons, chiefly for the sake of the compilers themselves, who were four most learned masters in antiquarian lore, we have been led to call them the 'Annals of the Four Masters'."
These "Annals", written in a very archaic language, difficult to be understood, even then, except by the learned, give us the reigns, deaths, genealogies, etc., not only of the high-kings of Ireland, but also of the provincial kings, chiefs, and heads of distinguished families, men of science, historians, poets, etc., with their respective dates given as accurately as the Masters are able to give them. They record the demise and succession of saints, abbots, bishops, and ecclesiastical dignitaries. They tell of the foundation and occasionally the overthrow of countless churches, castles, abbeys, convents, and religious institutions. They give meagre details of battles, murders, tribal wars, wars with the foreigners, battles with Norsemen, Normans, and English, and political changes. Sometimes they quote ancient verses in corroboration of the facts they mention, but no such verses are quoted prior to the third century. We have here the condensed pith and substance of the old vellum books of Ireland which were then in existence, but most of which, as the Four Masters foresaw, have long since perished. Their facts and dates are not their own facts and dates. From confused masses of very ancient matter, they, with labour and much sifting, drew forth their dates, and as far as possible synchronized their facts. It is not too much to say that there is no event in the whole of Irish history from the birth of Christ down to the beginning of the seventeenth century that the first enquiry of the student about it must not be: "What do the Four Masters say of this?"
These "Annals" have been published, at least in part, three times, but are now always read in the edition of the great Irish scholar, John O'Donovan. In this splendid work the Irish text is given with a translation into English and a mass of the most valuable notes, topographical, genealogical, and historical, the whole contained in seven great quarto volumes. So long as Irish history exists the "Annals of the Four Masters" will be read in O'Donovan's translation, and the name of O'Donovan be inseparably connected with that of the O'Clerys.
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