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The Annals of the Four Masters: Irish History, Kingship and Society in the Early Seventeenth Century.

Bernadette Cunningham, The Annals of the Four Masters: Irish History, Kingship and Society in the Early Seventeenth Century (Four Courts Press, 2010, 349 pp., [euro]50 hardback)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Annals of the Four Masters is the huge difference between their cult status and actual engagement with the text. In a telling comment on the Franciscan enthusiasm for the Annals, Bernadette Cunningham notes that in over four hundred items listed in the bibliography of works by the members of the Franciscan House of Studies in Killiney, only one deals with the Four Masters. Cunningham's work is a labour of love that deploys the best resources of professional scholarship and personal enthusiasm to redress this imbalance.

Not intended for bedside reading, this volume demands sustained and intense concentration, but the effort is more than well repaid. Nevertheless, it is sprinkled with gems throughout that lighten the burden and wonderfully illuminate the point. Cunningham deftly illustrates the passion for history and the writing of histories that flourished throughout Europe at the time of the Reformation. In providing a necessary background for the interest in history that simultaneously came to the fore in Ireland, Cunningham builds on the insights of the late Breandan O Buachalla who was the first to provide this kind of contextualisation. She contrasts the approaches of Ceitinn and Micheal O Cleirigh, one a diocesan priest, the other a mendicant friar. While superficially preoccupied with the re-organisation of the Irish church into dioceses in the twelfth century, Ceitinn's prime concern was the Tridentine re-organisation of the seventeenth-century Irish church. This was not a preoccupation of the mendicant friar, however. In his account of a reforming synod in Drogheda in 1152, O Cleirigh notes that one of the clauses forbade clergy to demand money for religious services such as baptisms and anointings. But he also adds that if people voluntarily wish to make an offering that is quite fine: ni maith gan a dtabhairt, note the present tense, the annalist coyly making use of a double negative just so that his willingness to accept does not appear too strident. This little throwaway line shows O Cleirigh like Ceitinn to have been much more preoccupied with the needs of his own day than with the events of the twelfth century, but with a totally different perspective. And this is one of the many examples Cunningham uses to explain that writing history is never simply about the past but how to accommodate the past to the needs of the present.

The author traces the origins of the Annals of the Four Masters to a letter written by Patrick Fleming in Rome to Hugh Ward in Louvain in 1624 stating the need for a secular history of the kingdom of Ireland to complement the hagiographical project already undertaken, a project that would also bring Ireland into line with other nations. Fleming urged Ward to make use of the professional skill of Micheal O Cleirigh, a member of the Irish Franciscan community at Louvain, and send him to Ireland to conduct research. It bears noting that, while the idea originated on the continent, it was carried out in Ireland. While it was brought to fruition in a Franciscan ambience, Micheal O Cleirigh's collaborators were laymen, though it was John Colgan, Franciscan friar and hagiographer, who gave the team the memorable title of the four masters. Furthermore, it was due to the skills and contacts previously acquired in Ireland that O Cleirigh was able to carry out his mission.

Scholars have taken it for granted over the years that the copy of the Annals taken by O Cleirigh to Louvain in 1636 was destined for publication, but without producing supporting evidence. Cunningham, however quotes from a poem writen by one of the Four Masters, Fearfeasa O Maoil Chonaire, refuting certain criticisms of O Cleirigh's accuracy in particular and the overall accuracy of the Annals. The objector, a confrere of O Cleirigh's and a kinsman of O Maoil Chonaire, actually managed to get the matter placed on the agenda of three successive provincal chapters, thus contributing in no small way to undermining the project to publish the Annals. Fearfeasa's poem contains the following lines:
  A chonnmhail o chlo Labhan
  Mairg nos iarr ar uachtaran
  [Woe to the man who asked his superior to withhold
  it from print in Louvain]

The evidence could not be clearer. Though Fearfeasa's poem has been in print since 1967, Cunningham is the first scholar to peruse it in detail.

To continue with the Louvain copy of the Annals - even after its completion, this particular autograph copy was subjected to further revision in the light of new evidence. The original entry saying that Patrick came to Ireland in 431 was changed to 432 in the light of the evidence contained in Caesare Baronio's work, Annales Ecclesiastici, published in twelve volumes between 1588 and 1607. Baronio is the doyen of Counter-Reformation historians and the preoccupation of the Four Masters in revising their material to make it conform to his standards is a very interesting comment on their professionalism, and equally on Cunningham's professionalism in bringing this to light. Cunningham feels that this change occurred back in Louvain rather than in Ireland and that the hagiographer John Colgan was the person behind the decision to amend the text. There is much more to this than replacing one date with another; it betokens a new attitude to evidence and the willingness of a professional scribe from within the native tradition to accept the standards of Counter-Reformation historiography. The unusual decision to cite Baronio by name, may indeed owe something to the objections raised in Ireland.

Another fascinating aspect of the Annals concerns the networks that were involved. Starting with the Franciscans themselves, the various convents throughout the country greatly facilitated Micheal O Cleirigh's work and gave him access to manuscripts available in the precincts and the hinterland of each foundation. Secondly one should mention O Cleirigh's contacts with the Gaelic learned families of south-west Ulster and north Connacht, the O Maoil Chonaires and the O Duibhgeannains, not forgetting the O Cleirighs themselves. Most fascinating of all were O Cleirigh's links with James Ussher, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and the government official Sir James Ware. Indeed, it is possible that O Cleirigh stayed with Ussher rather than in the Drogheda friary when transcribing manuscripts located in Ussher's library in that town. Ussher had already been in contact with scholarly Franciscans such as Francis O'Mahony the provincial and Thomas Strange, guardian of Dublin and cousin of Luke Wadding. It was doubtless men like O'Mahony and Strange that facilitated O Cleirigh's contacts with Ussher. Strange as this ability to transcend the confessional and polemical divide may appear, it can also be considered as part of an established tradition where historians from Gaelic learned families, including the O Cleirighs, worked for Anglo-Norman patrons.

While O Cleirigh scrupulously adhered to faithful transcription of the hagiographical material he copied in his travels, often citing the vow of obedience to excuse material he thought was less than edifying, he had no such scruples when it came to compiling the Annals. Indeed, the Four Masters deliberately manipulated the content and vocabulary of their sources in such a way as to enhance the status and antiquity of the kingdom of Ireland and the five provincial kingdoms. Hence the proper title of their work, the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Annala Rioghachta Eireann). This was achieved by using regnal years as the basis of their chronology and by relegating all the petty kings (ri) to the status of lord (tighearna). As Cunningham neatly describes the process: their selection from the available sources was made with a view to remoulding that past so as to provide a blueprint from the future (p. 135).

In a review of The Irish Franciscans 1534-1990, Hugh Fenning found Cunningham's essay on the Annals of the Four Masters to have been written 'with unrivalled authority'. That was only an 'hors d'oevure' of eleven pages to be read as an appetiser before proceeding to the main course. We can but concur with the confident assertion of the selection panel who awarded the 2011 Irish Historical Research Prize to Bernadette Cunningham for the work under review: in its understanding of the sheer central importance of its subject, this masterly book is unique.

Micheal Mac Craith OFM Collegio S. Isidoro, Roma
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Author:Craith, Micheal Mac
Publication:Irish Economic and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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