The Four Masters

John Healy
The Four Masters (4) | start of essay

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 authorised 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 Headford, 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 could never 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 dependent 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 while 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.