Tuesday 11 December 2012

The Four Masters

Below is a paper on the important 17th-century source known as the Annals of the Four Masters, a compilation of existing Irish records assembled by a team of scholars working at the Franciscan Monastery in Donegal in the 1630s. The author, Archbishop John Healy, is in fine form as he lays out a romantic, noble and patriotic vision of the attempt of Brother Michael O'Clery and his collaborators to preserve what was left of the record of the history of the Irish amid the destruction of the traditional Gaelic order. The paper, published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record of 1894, was adapted from a lecture the Archbishop gave to students at Maynooth College. For all its romanticism, however, the author makes a convincing case for the genuine debt that we owe the Four Masters in preserving the records of this vanishing world. Although by this time the continental religious orders had long since taken over the old native Irish monasteries, I was struck by how the spirit of learning, discipline and asceticism we so associate with earlier Irish monastics, was still very much alive in the person of someone like Brother Michael O'Clery. So, enjoy this swansong of traditional Gaelic learning, with its aristocratic patrons, its ollaves (official, chief bards) and its religious scholars. It's perhaps not always true that people are so self-consciously aware of the passing of their age, these men were and acted to preserve something of it before it was too late. For this we do indeed owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.


THE name of the Four Masters will be always a dear and venerable name in Ireland ; and a sketch of their lives and labours must prove both interesting and instructive to everyone who feels the least interest in the history of his native land. That name was first given to the compilers of the Annals of Donegal by the celebrated John Colgan ; and it was felt to be so appropriate that it has been universally adopted by Irish scholars. It has, indeed, sunk deep into the hearts of the people, and the memory of the Masters is fondly cherished even by those who know little or nothing of their history. As O'Curry has truly said : "It is no easy matter for an Irishman to suppress feelings of deep emotion when speaking of the Four Masters; and especially when he considers the circumstances under which, and the objects for which, their great work was undertaken."

Just a mile to the north of the estuary of the river Erne, on a steep and nearly insulated cliff overhanging the stormy waters of the Bay of Donegal, may still be noticed by a careful observer the grey ruins of an old castle that in the distance can hardly be discerned from the craggy rock on which they stand. That shapeless remnant of a ruin is now all that remains of Kilbarron Castle for some three hundred years the cradle, the home, and the school of the illustrious family of the O'Clerys, from whom three of the Masters sprang. All those who can appreciate scenic beauty, or who feel something of the spiritual power that brings from out the storied past visions of vanished glories to illuminate the present, should not fail to visit Kilbarron Castle. The lock over which it stands is not only steep, but overhanging; and the waves are for ever thundering far below. Before you is the noble Bay of Donegal, the largest and finest in Ireland, flanked as it is on three sides by grand mountain ranges exhibiting every variety of shape and colouring, but open to the west, and therefore to the prevailing winds which carry in the unbroken billows of the Atlantic to the very rocks beneath your feet, Poor D'Arcy Mc Gee, influenced by the grandeur of its surroundings, and doubtless even still more by the associations of the past, has described Kilbarron Castle in a sonnet of much grace and beauty. The opening lines describe the scene: 

"Broad, blue, and deep, the Bay of Donegal,
Spreads north and south and far-a-west before
The beetling cliffs sublime, and shattered wall,
Where the O'Clerys name is heard no more,
Home of a hundred annalists, round thy hearths, alas !
The churlish thistles thrive, and the dull grave-yard grass."

The "home of a hundred annalists" is fast falling into the sea ; but the grey ruin is still lit up with the radiance of an old romantic story that tells how the O'Clerys came to Kilbarron, and how they grew and flourished there. These O'Clerys originally belonged to the southern Hy Fiachrach, or the Hy Fiachragh Aidhnc, whose ancient kingdom was conterminous with the present diocese of Kilmacduagh. But they were driven out by the Burkes in the thirteenth century, and were forced to migrate northwards to their ancient kinsmen on the banks of the river Moy, who were known as the northern Hy Fiachrach. Yet even there they were not allowed to remain in peace, for the Burkes and Barretts followed them, and once more the O'Clerys were compelled to seek new quarters. Tirconnell was still the inviolate home of Irish freedom, and its grand mountains could be seen any day from Tirawley rising up in strength and pride beyond the bay to the north-east. Then it was that a certain Cormac O'Clery, disgusted with his oppressors by the river Moy, put his books in his wallet, and taking his staff in his hand, set out for the inviolate home of freedom in the North. Bound by Sligo he walked, lodging probably at Columcille's abbey of Drumcliff; then keeping between the mountains and the sea he crossed the fords of the Erne, and came into Tirhugh, the demesne lands of the chieftains of Royal Donegal. Now the young man being hungry and footsore betook himself for rest and shelter to the hospice of the great abbey Assaroe, which the children of St. Bernard had founded long before in a pleasant valley on the banks of a small stream that falls into the river Erne a little to the seaward of Ballyshannon. Abbey Assaroe, like most of the foundations of St. Bernard's children in Ireland, was a great and wealthy monastery, and its hospice was always open with a hearty welcome to receive the poor and the stranger. But in Cormac O'Clery the good monks soon discovered that they had more than an ordinary guest ; and we are told that they loved him much " for his education and good morals," and also "for his wisdom and intelligence." This is not to be wondered at, for Cormac O'Clery, besides being an Irish scholar and poet, was, we are expressly told, a learned proficient both in the "Canon and Civil Law." Now you must not think that you have had the Irish monopoly of these things in Maynooth, and that our ancient Celtic scholars knew nothing about them. The Canon and Civil Law were taught, and well taught, far west of the Shannon fifty years before Cormac O'Clery went to Donegal. Under date of A.D. 1328, the Four Masters record the death of Maurice O'Gibellain, " chief professor of the New Law, the Old Law, and the Canon Law." The New Law was the Civil or Roman Law, then recently brought to Ireland from the schools of Bologna ; the Old Law was the Brehon Law ; and, of course, the Canon Law they had in one shape or another from the time of St. Patrick This O'Gibellain is described as a truly learned sage, canon chorister of Tuam, and officialis, or diocesan judge, for nearly all the prelates of the West. O'Cleary, therefore, would be in no want of teachers to instruct him in the Canon and Civil Law.

Now Abbey Assaroe was only about three miles from what was then Kilbarron Castle ; and a frequent visitor at the abbey was its owner at the time, Matthew O'Sgingin, the historical Ollave of O'Donnell, who had many years before come to the banks of the Erne from his native territory near Ardcarne, in the County Roscommon. He was then an old man ; his only son, Giolla Brighde, the hope of his house, and the intended Ollave of Tirconnell, was slain in battle about the year 1382, and now his hearth was very lonely and his house was desolate, for, save one only daughter, he had no child in his castle by the sea ; above all, no son to be heir of his name and of his learning amongst the gallant chiefs of Old Tirconnell. Just then it was the old man met Cormac O'Clery at Abbey Assaroe, a gracious and learned youth, moreover, one of gentle birth, and well skilled in history, although now a friendless and homeless poor scholar. So old Matthew took young Cormac down to Kilbarron; he showed him his castles, his lands, and his daughter let us hope, though last, not least in his estimation ; and he said you can live with me here as my son-in- law, on one condition, that if God blesses your marriage with a son, you shall train him up from his infancy as the intended Ollave of Tirconnell in all the learning necessary for that high office. These terms were not hard; O'Clery accepted them ; and from that auspicious union was derived the illustrious line of scholars that have shed so much lustre on the literary history of their native land.

The great-grandson of this Cormac O'Clery was called Diarmaid of the Three Schools, because he kept in his castle of Kilbarron " a school of literature, a school of history, and a school of poetry." It is worth recording, too, and remembering, that O'Donnell nobly endowed those schools at Kilbarron; for we are expressly told that, in addition to the lands held by his ancestors, he also granted to Diarmaid, for the maintenance of his schools, as well as for a house of general hospitality, the lands of Kildoney and Kilremur, along the winding Erne ; and also the rich pastures between Bundoran and Ballyshannon, lauds which, at the present day, according to John O'Donovan, would produce more than 2,000 a-year. So you see our Celtic princes were no niggard patrons of learning and of learned men. And, oh! such a glorious site for a school. How could a man be weary there roaming through those swelling meadows a hundred feet above the sea, inhaling the bland Atlantic breezes, with the blue of the sky above, and the deeper blue of that ever-glorious sea around him ; beyond rise the giant cliffs of Slieve League, gleaming like fairy palaces in the sunlight, and then far away on the dim horizon's verge, where the billows bathe the clouds, is that golden line of light which, even in the peasant's rude imaginings, leads to the Islands of the Blessed far beyond the western waves. Many a time I have seen it in the sunshine, and, when it is far grander still, in the storm; and I can only say that to my taste, at least, Diarmaid of the Three Schools had a far better site for his college at Kilbarron than could by any possibility be found on the plains of Kildare.

That school at Kilbarron flourished during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries down to the flight of the Earls, in A.D.1607, when, as you know, the old proprietors were all expropriated in Donegal, as well as in five other counties of the North ; and the ample domains of the O'Clerys of Kilbarron became the spoil of the stranger, and that ancient sanctuary of Celtic learning was left a desolate and dismantled ruin. Now this brings us down to the time of the Four Masters ; and we must pass from Kilbarron to Donegal Abbey. It is not a long way, as the bird flies about seven miles over the sand-hills, and down by the sea that far-sounding sea, where the broken billows roar in a fashion that old Homer never heard past the old abbey of Drumhome, where we have good grounds for believing that two Irish scholars, whose names are known throughout all Europe, spent their youth; that is, Adamnan, the biographer of St. Columba ; and the blessed Marianus Scotus, the Commentator. Presently, the bay narrows, and becomes like a broad river flowing between fertile and well-wooded banks, especially on the northern shore ; and then you suddenly come upon the old abbey, standing close to the water's edge at the very head of the bay. Little now remains of the building the eastern gable, with a once beautiful window, from which the mullions have been torn down ; a portion of the stone-roofed store-rooms, and one or two of the cloister arches, with their broken columns that is all that now remains of the celebrated Franciscan Abbey of Donegal. Still, it is a ruin that no Irishman should pass heedless by ; not so much for what he will see, as for what he must feel when standing on that holy ground, so dear to every cultivated and thoughtful mind.

“Many altars are in Banba,
Many chancels hung in white,
Many schools and many abbeys
Glorious in our father's sight ;
Yet ! whene'er I go a pilgrim
Back, dear Holy Isle, to thee,
May my filial footsteps bear me
To that abbey by the sea
To that abbey, roofless, doorless,
Shrineless, monkless, though it be."

It was founded in the year 1474 by the first Hugh Roe O'Donnell and his pious wife, for Franciscans of the Strict Observance. Under the fostering care of the O'Donnells, whose principal castle of Donegal was close at hand, the abbey in a short time grew into a great and nourishing house, and became the religious centre of all Tirconnell, although Abbey Assaroe still survived in almost undiminished splendour on the banks of the Erne. The despoiling edicts of Henry VIII. did not run in Tirhugh. Hence we find that when Sir Henry Sydney, the deputy, visited Donegal, in 1566, he described the abbey as " then unspoiled or unhurt ;" and with a soldier's eye he perceived that it was, "with small cost fortifiable; much accommodated, too, with the nearness of the water, and with fine groves, orchards, and gardens, which are about the same." Close at hand, there was a landing-place, so that when the tide was in, foreign barks, freighted with the wines of Spain and silks of France, might land their cargoes at the convent walls, and carry away in exchange Irish hides, fleeces, flax, linen, and cloth. So we are expressly told by Father Mooney, who must have often seen the foreign ships when he was a boy, and who tells us also, that in the year 1600 there were forty religious in the community, and forty suits of vestments of silk and cloth of gold in the sacristy, with sixteen chalices and two ciboriums. But, in that very year, the traitor Niall Garve O'Donnell seized on the abbey, in the absence of his chief, and held it for the English. By some accident, however, the magazine blew up on Saturday, the 20th of September, at early dawn, and the beautiful fabric was almost entirely destroyed. After the battle of Kinsale, and the flight of the Earls, it passed into Protestant hands, and was partially restored, so that Montgomery, the King's Bishop of Raphoe, proposed to make it a college for the education and perversion of the young men of the north who could not afford to go to Trinity College. This benevolent proposal was not adopted by King James ; but about the beginning of the reign of King Charles, in 1623, when some measure of toleration was granted to the Catholics, the building, probably then derelict, seems to have again been occupied by the Franciscans. This I infer from the express statement of Brother Michael O'Clery himself, as well as from that of the superiors of the convent, who declare that the Annals of the Four Masters "were begun on the 22nd day of the month of January, A.D. 1632, in their convent of Donegal;" and that "they were finished in the same convent of Donegal on the 10th day of August, A.D. 1086, the eleventh of the reign of King Charles." Colgan also distinctly asserts that they " were completed in our convent of Donegal."

Let us now go back to that Tuesday, the 22nd of January, in the year 1632. It was truly a memorable scene, the first session of the Masters in the library of the half-ruined convent of Donegal. We can realize all the details from the statements of the Four Masters themselves, and of the superiors of the Convent of Donegal. Bernardino O'Clery, a brother of Michael O'Clery, was then guardian of the convent, and most generously undertook with the assent of his poor community, to supply the Masters with food and attendance gratuitously during the entire period of their labours. He placed the convent and everything in it at their disposal, so far as was necessary for their comfort and convenience. The library, as Sir James Ware tells us, was well supplied with books ; and there they took their places in due order according to their official rank, for the antiquarians (as now) were then most jealous of their rights and privileges all the more so, perhaps, because they were slipping away from them for ever.

Brother Michael took his seat at the head of the table ; around him on either side were his venerable colleagues each with the parchment books of his family and office which were hardly ever permitted to be taken out of the personal custody of the Ollave, lest they might be in any way injured or mutilated. On his right, we may assume, sat the two Mulconrys, Maurice and Fergus, from Ballymulconry in the County Roscommon, historical ollaves to O'Connor, and the first authorities in all the historical schools. Maurice explains that he himself cannot remain long with them, but that Fergus would remain throughout, and have the custody of the books of Clan-Mulconry. Hence, Colgan does not reckon this Maurice as one of the Four Masters, although he gave them his assistance for one month. On the left of Brother Michael sat Peregrine O'Duigenan from Castlefore, a small village in the County of Leitrim, near Keadue. He was Ollave to the M'Dermotts and O'Rorkes ; and came of the celebrated family known as the O'Duigenans of Kilronan, because they were erenaghs of that church, as well as ollaves to the chiefs of Moylurg and Conmaicne. He had before him the great family record known as the Book of the O'Duigenans of Kilronan. Next to him sat Peregrine O'Clery, son of a celebrated scholar, Lughaidh O'Clery, and at this time the head of the family, and the official chief of the ollaves of Tirconnell. In better days, when he was still a boy, during the glorious years of the chieftaincy of Red Hugh, his father owned Kilbarron Castle, with all its wide domains, and sat amongst the noblest at O'Donnell's board in the Castle of Donegal. But now his castle was dismantled, and his lands were seized by Sir Henry Ffolliott and his followers he had nothing left but his books, which he tells us in his will he valued more than everything else in the world like a true scholar, he would part with everything castle, lands, and honours sooner than part with those beloved books that he had now before him on the table. At the foot of the table sat Conary O'Clery, an excellent scholar and scribe, but still not ranking with the official ollaves present. He seems to have been chosen as secretary and attendant to the official historians, and hence is not reckoned by Colgan amongst the Four Masters properly so called.

And now that the Masters are about to begin their labours, Brother Michael explains in brief and touching words the object and purpose of their labours, which was to collect and arrange and illustrate the Annals of Erin, both sacred and profane, from the very dawn of our Island's history down to their own time.

" For [he said] as you well know, my friends, evil days have come upon us and upon our country ; and if this work is not done now these old books of ours that contain the history of our country of its kings and its warriors, its saints and its scholars may be lost to posterity, or at least may never be brought together again; and thus a great and an irreparable evil would befal our native land. Now we have here collected together the best and most copious books of Annals that we could find throughout all Ireland, which, as you are well aware, was no easy task to accomplish. We must, therefore, begin with the oldest entries in these ancient books; we must examine them carefully, one by one ; we must compare them, and, if need be, correct them; then as every entry is thus examined and approved of by us, it will be entered by you, Conary O'Clery, in those sheets of parchment, and thus preserved to latest posterity for the glory of God and the honour of Erin.

"The good brothers of this convent, poor as they are themselves, have still undertaken to provide us with food and attendance. There is, alas! no O'Donnell now in Donegal to be our patron and protector; but, as you know, the noble Ferrall O'Gara has promised to give you, my friends, a recompense for your labours that will help to maintain your families at home. As for myself a poor brother of St. Francis only needs humble fare, and the plain habit of our holy founder. So now let us set to work hard, late and early, with the blessing of God, and leave the future entirely in His hands."

Yes, let them work for the glory of God and the honour of Erin;

"We can hear them in their musings,
We can see them as we gaze,
Four meek men around the cresset,
With the scrolls of other days
Four unwearied scribes who treasure
Every word and every line,
Saving every ancient sentence
As if writ by hands divine."

Brother Michael in the thread-bare habit at the head of the table, and now nearly sixty years of age, was in his young days known as Teige of the Mountain, and, doubtless, shared the danger and the glory of the dauntless Red Hugh through the battle-smoke of many a desperate day. He went abroad with the exiled earls, in 1607, or very shortly after, and subsequently became a lay-brother in the celebrated Franciscan Convent of St. Anthony in Louvain. Ward and Fleming, members of that community, were just then engaged in collecting materials for the Lives of the Irish Saints those materials afterwards so well employed by Father John Colgan. Brother Michael was an accomplished Irish scholar, and belonged, moreover, to one of those learned families, whose duty it was to make themselves familiar with all the old books of their country. So it was resolved to send him home to collect materials for their work. Brother Michael, of course, obeyed, and spent fifteen years in Ireland collecting those precious materials, without which Colgan could never have accomplished his own immortal work.

During these years of unremitting toil, Brother Michael had a two-fold object in view : first, to collect materials for the lives of the saints as projected by his own superiors in Louvain; and, secondly, to gather at the same time all the books and documents that might prove to be useful in the execution of his own special project, namely, the compilation of the ancient annals of Ireland, both sacred and profane. What I especially wish to call your attention to is the long- continued and unremitting aye, and unrequited, labour which he spent in accomplishing this double purpose. At this time no member of a religious order, and especially no friar from France or the Low Countries, could travel through Ireland without constant and imminent peril of his life, because they were regarded as agents or emissaries of the exiled Irish princes. But Brother Michael, with the most heroic courage, faced every danger in order to accomplish his purpose. Even before the Annals of the Four Masters were begun, he tells us himself that he spent ten long years travelling through all parts of the country, in order to collect his materials. He visited nearly all the religious houses then in existence; he called upon nearly all the Catholic prelates in Ireland at the time, from whom he got valuable assistance and encouragement; he was a welcome and an honoured guest in the great houses of the old Catholic gentry of Ireland, both Celtic and Norman ; he visited the great historical schools kept by the professional ollaves, and being himself one of the craft, he was heartily welcomed in them all. These long journeys he accomplished, so far as we can judge, all on foot, trudging from convent to convent, and from house to house, laden with his old books and manuscripts, which we must assume he carried in his wallet. He had no money to buy books, but he got the loan of several to be afterwards copied at his leisure; many of them he had to copy on the spot, because the owners would not part with them ; for in most cases, as he himself tells us, he had no other resource, seeing that he could neither buy, nor beg, nor borrow the precious treasure. " Before I came to you," he says, " noble Ferrall O'Gara, I spent ten years in transcribing every old material I found concerning the saints of Ireland;" and also, as we know from the introductions prefixed to his work, in compiling certain preparatory treatises before engaging in his last and greatest work, the compilation of the Annals of Erin, both sacred and profane.

In this preparatory labour he was also careful to secure the co-operation of the greatest scholars of his own time, and especially of the official antiquarians, who were afterwards associated with him in compiling the Annals. How unceasingly he laboured during those years we may infer from what we know he accomplished in the two years, from 1630 to 1632, when he began the Annals. The first-fruit of these labours was the work now known as the Martyrology of Donegal, which in its present form was completed in the Convent of Donegal, by Brother Michael, in 1630. In the same year was completed the Succession of the Kings of Erin and the Genealogies of the Saints, a work which was begun at Lisrnoyny, in Westmeath, and completed in the Convent of Athlone in November, 1630. Next year, Brother Michael and his associates met at the Franciscan Convent of Lisgoole, near Enniskillen, under the patronage of Brian Roe M'Guire, and with the help also of his chief chronicler, O'Luinin, they completed the well-known Book of Conquests. O'Clery had previously gone to Lower Ormond to submit his work to Flann Mc Egan, one of the greatest scholars of the day, who gave it his most cordial commendation. From Lower Ormond, Brother Michael set out for Coolavin to secure the patronage of Ferrall O'Gara for his projected work, the Annals of Erin. Fortified with his promise of pecuniary assistance for the chroniclers, he went off with the good news to Ballymulconry, near Elphin, to engage the services of the two Mulconrys ; from Elphin he went to Kilronan to make his final arrangements with O'Duigenan; and thence, laden with his books and manuscripts, and his heart full of hope and courage at the near prospect of successfully accomplishing his great work "for the glory of God and the honour of Erin," Brother Michael trudged home to his own dear old convent down beside the sea. Is it not true, as the poet says, that:

"Never unto green Tirconnell
Came such spoil us Brother Michael
Bore before him on his palfrey.
By the fireside in the winter,
By the seaside in the summer,
When the children are around you,
And your theme is love of country,
Fail not then, my friends I charge you,
To recall the truly noble
Name and works of Brother Michael,
Worthy chief of the Four Masters.
Saviours of our country's Annals."

Of the other Masters, the colleagues of Brother Michael, in nearly all his great works, little need now be said. The Mulconrys were generally recognised as at the head of their profession both in learning and authority. We can trace the family for nearly five hundred years as official ollaves to the O'Connors, the chief kings of Connaught. They resided chiefly at Ballymulconry, which is now known as Cloonahee, near Elphin; and the remains of the ancient rath where they dwelt may still be seen to attest their opulence and power. Many offshoots of the family settled in various parts of the country, and all of them were greatly distinguished for their learning. Of these, perhaps, John Mulconry of the Co. Clare was the most famous ; for Mc Egan of Lower Ormond expressly declares that he had the first historical school in Ireland in his own time. Many of the family also, as might be expected, became distinguished ecclesiastics, one of them being Florence Conry, Archbishop of Tuam, the founder of the great convent of St. Anthony's of Louvain.

The O'Duigenans of Kilronan were also most eminent as historical ollaves, and from numerous references in the Annals of Loch Ce, of which they seem to have been the original compilers, we gather that they were for several centuries the official historians of Moylurg and Conmaicne, and as such held large possessions around Kilronan, in the north-eastern corner of the Co. Roscommon.

Such then were the men, "of consummate learning and approved faith," assembled under the guidance of Michael O'Clery to compile the Annals of their country for God's glory and the honour of Erin. For four years the Masters laboured with unremitting zeal in the execution of their great task, or rather for four years and a-half, from January 1632, to August, 1636.

The work was now completed; but it was of no authority until it was approved approved by historical experts, and sanctioned by the ecclesiastical authorities. It must always be borne in mind that the historian of every tribe, or rather of every righ, or king, was a hereditary official, who alone was authorized to compile and preserve the annals of the tribe or clan. These officials formed amongst themselves a kind of college or corporation of a very exclusive character ; and the approbation of the leading members of this body was deemed essential to give authority to historical records of every kind, whether dealing with the tribe, or the sub-kingdom, or the entire nation. Brother Michael, therefore, by order of his superiors, deemed it necessary to submit the work of himself and his colleagues to the independent judgment and censorship of the two most distinguished members of this learned fraternity. And here again we have an example of the indefatigable zeal of the poor friar in carrying out his noble and patriotic purpose. The work was completed on the 10th of August, 1632; and the Superiors of the Convent of Donegal formally testify to the time and place of its composition, to the names of the authors, whom they saw engaged on the work ; to the ancient books which they made use of as their chief authorities ; and also to the name of the noble patron with whose assistance the work was brought to a successful issue.

Then Brother Michael took his staff and sandals, and, putting his precious manuscript in his bag, set out to submit his work to the judgment of Flann M'Egan, who then dwelt at a place called Ballymacegan, which is now known as Redwood Castle; in the Barony of Lower Ormond, County Tipperary, where he had studied in his youth. M'Egan examined the work, and formally testifies, under his hand, that of all the books of history which he ever saw, even in the great school of John Mulconry, "who was tutor of the men of Ireland in general in history and chronology," he never saw any book of better order, more copious, or more worthy of approbation, than the book submitted to him by Brother Michael ; which, he adds, no one, lay or cleric, can possibly find fault with. This approbation is dated 2nd November, 1636. Though so late in the season, the poor friar at once set out to visit Conner M'Brody, who then kept a historical school at Kilkeedy, in the County Clare. M'Brody gave a similar testimony, on the 11th day of November, 1636. Then Brother Michael set out to submit his work to the ecclesiastical authorities ; and first of all he came to the celebrated Malachy O'Queely, Archbishop of Tuam, who, relying on the official testimony of the distinguished antiquaries to whom the work was submitted, gave it his own formal approbation, and authorized its publication " for the glory of God, the honour of the country, and the common good." This approbation is dated the 17th of November, just a week after Brother Michael was in the County Clare. Then, facing still north, he came to the beautiful convent of his order at Roserilly, near Headfort, and there got a similar approbation from the learned Boetius M'Egan, Bishop of Elphin, himself a Franciscan friar, and a famous Irish scholar. The work was also solemnly approved by Dr. Fleming, Archbishop of Dublin, and Dr. Roche Bishop of Kildare. Then Brother Michael once more returned to spend his Christmas with the brotherhood in his own beloved convent of Donegal, having completed his great work for the glory of God and the honour of Erin. He felt, it is true, that the darkness of the evil days was deepening around his country ; but he had also the satisfaction of feeling that his own great work was accomplished, and never could be undone. When he heard the brothers chant the complin of the dying year, he might well sing, with a full and grateful heart, the Nunc dimittis Servum tuum, Domine. His toilsome journeys now were over, and his long day's work was done. He had laboured for God and for his country ; and he knew that God would reward him beyond the grave, and that his country would never forget his name.

Neither must we forget the illustrious name of the noble Ferrall O'Gara. Brother Michael himself tells us that it is to him in a special way "thanks should be given for every good that will result from this book in giving light to all persons in general." The poor friars of Donegal nobly did their duty, and more than their duty, in supplying the Masters for four years with food and attendance; but it was Ferrall O'Gara "who gave the reward of their labours to the chroniclers by whom it was written." The poor chroniclers, like the native chieftains, had been robbed of their patrimony, and were now entirely dependant for the maintenance of themselves and their families on the generosity of those members of the ancient nobility who had still some property remaining. It was Torloch MacCoghlan, of King's County, who maintained the Masters when compiling the Succession of the Kings; Bryan Roe M'Guire, Lord Enniskillen, was their patron and paymaster when producing the Book of Conquests. These, however, were comparatively small undertakings, and the Masters were not long engaged upon them.

But who would be their patron in the great task now before them, which would engage them for years, and cost a large sum of money? To the eternal honour of the County Sligo, such a man was found at Moy O'Gara, in Coolavin. He told Brother Michael to be of good heart, to secure all the help he needed, and that he would give the antiquarians the reward of their labours, no matter how long they might be engaged on their task ; and therefore Brother Michael says that, after the glory of God and the honour of Erin, he writes the Annals "in the name and to the honour of the noble Ferrall O'Gara ;" and he beseeches God to bestow upon him "every blessing, both of soul and body," for this world and the next. The ruins of the old castle of Moy O'Gara, where Ferrall O'Gara then dwelt, may be seen about three miles from Boyle, and not far from the junction at Kilfree. It was a square keep, like so many others, yet not like them; for a halo of literary glory lights up its mossy, mouldering walls. Its very site will be sought and visited by Irishmen in the future, when the castles of its spoilers will have become nameless barrows. We may well re-echo the touching prayer of Brother Michael for the welfare of his soul:

"Oh, for ever and for ever
Benedictions shower upon him ;
Brighter glories shine around him,
And the million prayers of Erin
Rise, like incense, up to heaven,
Still for Ferrall, Lord of Leyney."

Neither should we forget those younger Masters, who have lately passed away, by whose labours those who are strangers to the ancestral tongue of Erin are enabled to profit by the writings of Brother Michael and his associates. Foremost amongst them stands the ever-honoured name of John O'Donovan, who has translated and annotated the Annals of the Four Masters, and thus made that great work accessible to the whole English-speaking world. It was a task requiring great learning and immense labour ; and, according to the confession of all, it has been most successfully accomplished. His name will go down to posterity, and most fitly so, bracketed for ever with the immortal Masters of Donegal. Eugene O'Curry also and Petrie, with Todd and Hardiman, gave most valuable assistance to O'Donovan in accomplishing this great work.

It was O'Curry who transcribed for the press in his own beautiful style the autograph copy of the Four Masters, and also gave most effective help by explaining, as perhaps he alone could do, ancient and obsolete words in the text. Petrie, to whom in other respects Irish literature is so much indebted, read the sheets as they passed through the press, itself a work of very great labour, and gave useful help in many other ways also. Todd and Hardiman likewise lent their assistance; the former especially, for he spared neither his labour nor his purse in order to bring the work to a successful issue. The publisher, too, Mr. George Smyth, who at his own sole risk undertook this vast work, certainly deserves his meed of praise for making the Four Masters accessible to the literary world. We should never forget the ungrudging labours of those great men in the cause of Irish literature; and, certainly, their example should not be without its effect in moving us to do something, each in his own way, be it great or small, to forward the same glorious work.

We are living in brighter days than the Four Masters lived in. Now there is everything to encourage students to pursue the study of Irish literature and of Irish history. A wider and more general interest is being awakened in all that concerns the antiquities of Ireland. Continental scholars eagerly scan the Celtic glosses of our ancient manuscripts, and our old romantic tales are translated and read with the greatest interest. Not so in the time of the Masters. Their lot was cast on dark and evil days. They had no motive to inspire them but a lofty sense of duty, and the hope of a supernal reward:

" Not of fame and not of fortune
Do these eager pensmen dream,
Darkness shrouds the hills of Banba,
Sorrow sits by every stream ;
One by one the lights that led her,
Hour by hour were quenched in gloom ;
But the patient sad Four Masters
Toil on in their lonely room
Duty thus defying doom."

All that time Donegal itself was a vivid picture of Erin's woe; school and castle and abbey were despoiled and dismantled. The six counties of the North were confiscated after the flight of the Earls; and were just then in process of sub-division and occupation by the stranger. The hungry Scot and greedy Saxon were settling down in every fair valley of green Tirconnell, and the remnant of its owners were being driven to the bogs and mountains. The bawns of the newcomers were rising up in hated strength by all their pleasant waters. The gallant chiefs of the North, who at Kinsale had made their last vain stand for Irish independence, were now all dead some from the poisoned cup of hired assassins, and some from broken hearts. At the very time that the Masters were writing, Strafford was maturing his plans in Dublin for further despoiling the native chiefs, who had yet escaped the sword and the halter. The present hour was dark, and the future was darker still:

" Each morrow brought sorrow and shadows of dread,
And the rest that seemed best was the rest of the dead."

And yet it was in the deepening gloom of those darkest days, when the religion, the patriotism, and the learning of the Gael were all proscribed together, that the Masters sat down in that ruined convent of Donegal the fit emblem of their unhappy country to compose with patient and self-denying toil that enduring monument of their country's history, which will be our cherished possession for ever. What men ever laboured under more discouraging circumstances, with more unselfish toil, or for a nobler purpose? Where can we find a better lesson than in the simple record of their lives ? And where shall we look for men to be inspired with the spirit of the Masters, and to continue their patriotic labour except amongst those who inherit their names, their blood, and their faith and to whom every old book and every crumbling ruin should speak with a voice stronger and more persuasive than mine surely they before all others are called upon to share in the noble work of preserving and extending through the coming years a knowledge of the Irish language and literature. The study of our history, our literature, and our antiquities, will serve to elevate and purify the mind ; it will occupy leisure hours that might easily be spent in more frivolous, if not more ignoble, occupations ; it will lend a new interest to those old storied scenes that are scattered throughout the land ; it will clothe in the spiritual beauty of religious and historic association many a broken arch and ivied ruin that in our ignorance we might heedless pass by. And when we are tempted to let our ardour grow cold, then the vision of the Four Masters in that old abbey by the sea, toiling patiently at their self-imposed task, may serve to inspire us to labour with renewed zeal in the same patriotic work for the glory of God and the honour of our native land.


IRISH ECCLESIASTICAL RECORD Volume 15, 1894, 385-402

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