Michael O'Clery

Born 1580 - Died 1643.

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 1 (1880), edited by Charles A. Read

Michael O'Clery, the principal author of the well-known Annals of the Four Masters, was, according to Geraghty in his introduction to Connellan's translation of that work, born in Donegal about the year 1580. He was descended from a learned family who had been for centuries hereditary historians to the O'Donnells, princes of Tyrconnell, and at an early age became distinguished for his abilities and laboriousness. While yet young he left Ireland and retired to the Irish Franciscan monastery at Louvain, where he soon attracted the attention of the learned Hugh Ward, a native of his own county, and a lecturer at the Irish College. His perfect knowledge of the Irish language and history caused him to be employed by Ward to carry out a project that enthusiastic monk had formed for rescuing the annals and antiquities of his country from the comparative oblivion into which they had fallen.

O'Clery, accepting the offer made to him, returned to Ireland, where for many years he busied himself collecting manuscripts and other works and transmitting them to Louvain. In 1635 Ward died, but some time before he managed to publish from O'Clery's materials The Life of St. Rumold, an Irish Martyrology, and a treatise on the Names of Ireland. John Colgan, also a native of Donegal, afterwards made large use of O'Clery's manuscripts in his works on the Irish saints Trias Thaumaturga and Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae. Even before Ward's death, however, O'Clery had already commenced his great work, which at first went by the name of The Annals of Donegal, then by the title of The Ulster Annals, and is now known over the world as The Annals of the four Masters, as he and his assistants, Peregrine O'Clery, Conary O'Clery, and Peregrine O'Duigenan, a learned antiquary of Kilronan, were named. He had also some little help from two members of the old and learned family of the O'Maolconerys, hereditary historians to the kings of Connaught.

In the "Testimonials" prefixed to the work it is stated that it was entirely composed in the convent of the Brothers of Donegal, who supplied the requirements of the transcribers while their labours were in progress. Fergal O'Gara, a member for Sligo in the parliament of 1634, is also said to have liberally rewarded O'Clery's assistants, while it was his advice and influence that prevailed on O'Clery to bring them together and proceed with the work. In the "Testimonials" are also stated the names of the books and manuscripts from which the Annals were compiled, and there also we find the information that the first volume was began on the 22d January, 1632, and the last finished on the 10th August, 1636. To the "Testimonials," which is a kind of guarantee of the faithfulness of the work, is subscribed the names of the superior and two of the monks, together with the counter signature of O'Donnell, prince of Tyrconnell.

After the completion of the Annals O'Clery returned to Louvain, where in 1643 he published a Vocabulary of the Irish Language. This seems to have been the last of his works, and this year the last year of his life. Magee, however, tells us that "relics of other undertakings both by him and Ward are reported to exist in some continental collections." The Annals of the Four Masters commence at the earliest period of Irish history, about A.D. 1171, and terminate A.D. 1616, embracing a period of 444 years. They were fully translated from the original Irish in which Michael O'Clery and his assistants wrote them into English by Owen Connellan, Irish historiographer to George IV. and William IV., and one of the best Irish scholars of his day. The Annals were published in Dublin by Bryan Geraghty in 1846.

O'Clery's great work, written as it is in the annalistic form, can never become popular reading. A knowledge of it is necessary, however, to any one who even pretends to the study of Irish history or antiquities.