Accuracy of the Irish Annals

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER X....continued

2. Tests of Accuracy.

Physical Phenomena.—There are many tests of the accuracy of our records, of which I will here notice three classes: physical phenomena, such as eclipses and comets: the testimony of foreign writers: and the consistency of the records among themselves. Whenever it happens that we are enabled to apply tests belonging to any one of these three classes—and it happens very frequently—the result is almost invariably a vindication of the accuracy of the records.

The Irish Annals record about twenty-five eclipses and comets at the several years from A.D. 496 to 1066. The dates of all these are found, according to modern scientific calculation and the records of other countries, to be correct. This shows conclusively that the original records were made by eye-witnesses, and not by calculation in subsequent times: for any such calculation would be sure—on account of errors in the methods then used—to give an incorrect result.

A well-known entry in the Irish account of the Battle of Clontarf, fought A.D. 1014, comes under the tests of natural phenomena. The author of the account, who wrote soon after the battle, states that it was fought on Good Friday, the 23rd of April, 1014; and that it began at sunrise, when the tide was full in. To test the truth of this, the Rev. Dr. Todd, of Trinity College, Dublin, asked the Rev. Samuel Haughton, a great science scholar, to calculate the time of high water in Dublin Bay on the 23rd April, 1014. After a laborious calculation, Dr. Haughton found that the tide was at its height that morning at half-past five o'clock, just as the sun was coming over the horizon: a striking confirmation of the truth of this part of the narrative. It shows, too, that the account was written by, or taken down from, an eye-witness of the battle.

Testimony of Foreign Writers.—Whenever events occurring in Ireland in the Middle Ages are mentioned by British or Continental writers they are always—or nearly always—in agreement with the native records. Irish bardic history relates in much detail how the Picts landed on the coast of Leinster in the reign of Eremon, the first Milesian king of Ireland, many centuries before the Christian era. After some time they sailed to Scotland to conquer a territory for themselves: but before embarking they asked Eremon to give them Irish women for wives, which he did, but only on this condition, that the right of succession to the kingship should be vested in the female progeny rather than in the male. And so the Picts settled in Scotland with their wives. Now all this is confirmed by the Venerable Bede, who says that the Picts obtained wives from the Scots (i.e. the Irish) on condition that when any difficulty arose they should choose a king from the female royal line rather than from the male; "which custom," continues Bede, "has been observed among them to this day." We have already seen (p. 37, supra) that the Irish accounts of the colony led by Carbery Riada to Scotland in the third century of the Christian era have been confirmed by the Venerable Bede.

All the Irish Annals record a great defeat of the Danes near Killarney in the year 812. This account is fully borne out by an authority totally unconnected with Ireland, the well-known Book of Annals, written by Eginhard (the tutor of Charlemagne), who was living at this very time. Under A.D. 812 he writes:—"The fleet of the Northmen, having invaded Hibernia, the island of the Scots, after a battle had been fought with the Scots, and after no small number of the Norsemen had been slain, they basely took to flight and returned home." Several other examples of a similar kind might be quoted.

Consistency of the Records among themselves. Testimonies under this heading might be almost indefinitely multiplied. References by Irishmen to Irish affairs are found in numerous volumes scattered over all Europe:—Annalistic entries, direct statements in tales and biographies, marginal notes, incidental references to persons, places, and customs, and so forth, written by various men at various times; which, when compared one with another, and with the home records, hardly ever exhibit a disagreement. The more the ancient historical records of Ireland are examined and tested, the more their truthfulness is made manifest. Their uniform agreement among themselves, and their accuracy, as tried by the ordeals of astronomical calculation and of foreign writers' testimony, have drawn forth the acknowledgments of the greatest Irish scholars and archaeologists that ever lived. These men knew what they were writing about; and it is instructive, and indeed something of a warning to us, to mark the sober and respectful tone in which they speak of Irish records, occasionally varied by an outburst of admiration as some unexpected proof turns up of the faithfulness of the old Irish writers and the triumphant manner in which they come through all ordeals of criticism.

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