O’DONOVAN, John. Ed. by. Annála Ríoghachta Éireann – Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. From the earliest times to the year 1616. Edited from manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College Dublin, with a translation and copious historical, topographical and genealogical notes and with special emphasis on place-names. Seven large volumes. Dublin: Hodges Smith, 1851. Quarto. Over 4,000 pages. With the neat stamp of St. Helen’s, Christian Brothers. Recent quarter calf gilt on marbled boards. Spine divided into five panels by four gilt raised bands, title and volume number in gilt on green morocco letterpiece in the second and fourth, harp tool in gilt in centre. Light foxing to prelims. A fine set of the first edition.
The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, Annála Ríoghachta Éireann or the Annals of the Four Masters to give them their best known title are the great masterpieces of Irish history from the earliest times to 1616 A.D. The work was compiled between 1632 and 1636 by a small team of historians headed by Br. Michael O’Clery, a Franciscan lay brother. He himself records: “There was collected by me all the best and most copious books of Annals that I could find throughout all Ireland, though it was difficult for me to collect them in one place”.
It is generally accepted that the Annals were written in the Franciscan convent of Donegal, which at that time was situated on the bank of the Bundrowes river where it forms the county boundary between Leitrim and Donegal.
Brother Michael who was chief of the Four Masters was born about 1590 and was a descendant of the illustrious and learned family of O’Clery which originally came from Tirawley in North Mayo. For three hundred years the O’Clerys were scholars and professors of history to the O’Donnells, chiefs of Tír Conaill, and their home and school was in Kilbarron castle scenically located by the shore of Donegal Bay, a few miles north west of Ballyshannon. Brother Michael was baptised Tadhg and in his youth was affectionately called `Tadhg an tSléibhe’ or Thady of the Mountain. In 1623 he joined the Franciscan Order in Louvain. His superiors soon recognised his talent as a historian and antiquarian and sent him back to Ireland in 1626 initially to collect what he could on the Lives of the Irish Saints and later to begin work on the history of his native land. To assist him in this enormous task he chose three assistants; his cousin Cucogry or Peregrine O’Clery, Fergus O’Mulconry from County Roscommon and Peregrine O’Duigenan of Castlefore County Leitrim. Michael’s brother Conor and Maurice O’Mulconry also assisted in the compilation of the Annals. The title Four Masters was first used by Father John Colgan in the introduction to his Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae which was published in Louvain in 1625.
The great work remained, for the most part, unpublished and untranslated until John O’Donovan prepared his edition between 1847 and 1856. Its crowning achievement is the copious historical, topographical and genealogical material in the footnotes which have been universally acclaimed by scholars. Douglas Hyde wrote that the O’Donovan edition represented: “the greatest work that any modern Irish scholar ever accomplished”. More recently Kenneth Nicholls says:
“O’Donovan’s enormous scholarship, breathtaking in its extent when one considers the state of historical scholarship and the almost total lack of published source material in his day, still amazes one, as does the extent to which it has been depended on by others down to the present. His translations are still superior in reliability to those of Hennessy, MacCarthy or Freeman to name three editor-translators of other Irish Annals … his footnotes are a mine of information”. A very nice set of this monumental source for the history of Ireland.