The Four Masters

John Healy
The Four Masters

[This paper was prepared and delivered as a Lecture to the Students of Maynooth in the Aula Maxima. It has been slightly altered in some respects to suit its present purpose].

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 ruin of an old castle that in the distance can hardly be distinguished from the craggy rock on which it stands. That shapeless remnant of a rum 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, and 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 rock on 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 M‘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 Fiachrach Aidhne, 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. Round 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 chieftain? 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, while 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’Clery, 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 castle, 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.”[1] 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 from 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 Wardtown, along the winding Erne, and also the rich pastures between Bundoran and Ballyshannon—lands 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 peasants’ 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.


[1] His son, Peregrine O’Clery, was the author of a Book of Annals which the Four Masters had in their hands, augmented, doubtless, by his successors.