The Four Masters.

From Irish Essays: Literary and Historical by John Healy

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Brother Michael, in his 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—ay, 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 county, 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, "O 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 Lismoyny, 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 Enmskillen, 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 M'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 service 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 as 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 M'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 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 authorised 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, 1636; 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.

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