Michael O'Clery

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter II

Michael O'Clery, the chief of the Four Masters, was a friar of the order of St. Francis. He was born at Kilbarron, near Ballyshannon, county Donegal, in the year 1580, and was educated principally in the south of Ireland, which was then more celebrated for its academies than the north. The date of his entrance into the Franciscan order is not known, neither is it known why he,

"Once the heir of bardic honours,"

became a simple lay-brother. In the year 1627 he travelled through Ireland collecting materials for Father Hugh Ward, also a Franciscan friar, and Guardian of the convent of St. Antony at Louvain, who was preparing a series of Lives of Irish Saints. When Father Ward died, the project was taken up and partially carried out by Father John Colgan. His first work, the Trias Thaumaturgus, contains the lives of St. Patrick, St. Brigid, and St. Columba. The second volume contains the lives of Irish saints whose festivals occur from the 1st of January to the 31st of March; and here, unfortunately alike for the hagiographer and the antiquarian, the work ceased. It is probable that the idea of saving—

"The old memorials

Of the noble and the holy,

Of the chiefs of ancient lineage,

Of the saints of wondrous virtues;

Of the Ollamhs and the Brehons,

Of the bards and of the betaghs,"[3]

occurred to him while he was collecting materials for Father Ward. His own account is grand in its simplicity, and beautiful as indicating that the deep passion for country and for literature had but enhanced the yet deeper passion which found its culminating point in the dedication of his life to God in the poor order of St. Francis. In the troubled and disturbed state of Ireland, he had some difficulty in securing a patron. At last one was found who could appreciate intellect, love of country, and true religion. Although it is almost apart from our immediate subject, we cannot refrain giving an extract from the dedication to this prince, whose name should be immortalized with that of the friar patriot and historian:—

"I, Michael O'Clerigh, a poor friar of the Order of St. Francis (after having been for ten years transcribing every old material that I found concerning the saints of Ireland, observing obedience to each provincial that was in Ireland successively), have come before you, O noble Fearghal O'Gara. I have calculated on your honour that it seemed to you a cause of pity and regret, grief and sorrow (for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland), how much the race of Gaedhil, the son of Niul, have passed under a cloud and darkness, without a knowledge or record of the obit of saint or virgin, archbishop, bishop, abbot, or other noble dignitary of the Church, of king or of prince, of lord or of chieftain, [or] of the synchronism or connexion of the one with the other." He then explains how he collected the materials for his work, adding, alas! most truly, that should it not be accomplished then, "they would not again be found to be put on record to the end of the world." He thanks the prince for giving " the reward of their labour to the chroniclers," and simply observes, that " it was the friars of the convent of Donegal who supplied them with food and attendance." With characteristic humility he gives his patron the credit of all the "good which will result from this book, in giving light to all in general;" and concludes thus:—

"On the twenty-second day of the month of January, A.D. 1632, this book was commenced in the convent of Dun-na-ngall, and it was finished in the same convent on the tenth day of August, 1636, the eleventh year of the reign of our king Charles over England, France, Alba, and over Eiré."

There were "giants in those days;" and one scarcely knows whether to admire most the liberality of the prince, the devotion of the friars of Donegal, who "gave food and attendance" to their literary brother, and thus had their share in perpetuating their country's fame, or the gentle humility of the great Brother Michael.


[3] Betaghs.— Poems, by D. F. Mac Carthy.