1 - How the Annals were compiled.

AMONG the various classes of persons who devoted themselves to literature in ancient Ireland, there were special Annalists, who made it their business to record, with the utmost accuracy, all remarkable events simply and briefly, without any ornament of language, without exaggeration, and without fictitious embellishment. The extreme care they took that their statements should be truthful is shown by the manner in which they compiled their books. As a general rule they admitted nothing into their records except either what occurred during their lifetime, and which may be said to have come under their own personal knowledge, or what they found recorded in the compilations of previous annalists, who had themselves followed the samc plan. These men took nothing on hearsay: and in this manner successive annalists carried on a continued chronicle from age to age, thus giving the whole series the force of contemporary testimony.

[ Of course, it is not claimed for the Irish Annals that they are absolutely free from error. In the early parts there is much legendary matter; and some errors have crept in among the records belonging to the historical period.]

We have still preserved to us many books of native Annals, the most important of which will be briefly described in this chapter. Most of the ancient manuscripts whose entries are copied into the books of Annals we now possess have been lost; but that the entries were so copied is rendered quite certain by various expressions found in the present existing Annals, as well as by the known history of several of the compilations.

The Irish Annals deal with the affairs of Ireland - generally but not exclusively. Many of them record events occurring in other parts of the world; and it was a common practice to begin the work with a brief general history, after which the Annalist takes up the affairs of Ireland.

Tests of Accuracy

There are many tests of the accuracy of our records, of which I will here notice three classes :

  1. physical phenomena, such as eclipses and comets
  2. the testimony of foreign writers:
  3. 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.

Physical Phenomena

The Irish Annals record about twenty-five eclipses and comets 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, Use 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 Wnters

Whenever events occurring in Ireland in the Middle Ages are mentioned by British or Continental writers they are always - or nearly always - ln 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 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 Hlibernia, the island of the Scots, after a battle had been fought with the Seots, 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.

Principal Books of Annals

The following are the principal books of Irish Annals remaining. The Synchronisms of Flann, who was a layman, Ferleginn or chief professor of the school of Monasterboice; died in 1056. He compares the chronology of Ireland with that of other countries, and gives the names of the monarchs that reigned in the principal ancient kingdoms and empires of the world, with the Irish kings who reigned contemporaneously. Copies of this tract are preserved in the Books of Lecan and Ballymote.

The Annals of Tighernach [Teerna]. Tighernach O'Breen, the compiler of these annals, one of the greatest scholars of his time, was abbot of the two monasteries of Clonmacnoise and Roscommon. He was acquainted with the chief historical writers of the world known in his day, compares them, and quotes from them; and he made use of Flann's Synchronisms, and of most other ancient Irish historical writings of importance. His work is written in Irish mixed a good deal with Latin; it has lately been translated by Dr. Stokes. He states that authentic Irish history begins at the foundation of Emania, and that all preceding accounts are uncertain. Tighernach died in 1088.

The Annals of Innisfallen were compiled about the year 1215 by some scholars of the monastery of Innisfallen, in the Lower Lake of Killarney.

The Annals of Ulster were written in the little island of Senait Mac Manus, now called Belle Isle, in Upper Lough Erne. The original compiler was Cathal [Cahal] Maguire, who died of small-pox in 1498. They have lately been translated and published.

The Annals of Lough Ce [Key] were copied in 1588 for Bryan Mac Dermot, who had his residence on an island in Lough Key, in Roscommon. They have been translated and edited in two volumes.

The Annals of Connaught from 1224 to 1562.

The Chronicon Scotorum (Chronicle of the Scots or Irish), down to A.D. 1135, was compiled about 1650 by the great Irish antiquary Duald Mac Firbis. These annals have been printed with translation.

The Annals of Boyle, from the earliest time to 1253, are written in Irish mixed with Latin; and the entries throughout are very meagre.

The Annals of Clonmacnoise from the earliest period to 1408. The original Irish of these is lost; but we have an English translation by Connell Mac Geoghegan of Westmeath, which he completed in 1627.

The Annals of the Four Masters, also called the Annals of Donegal, are the most important of all. They were compiled in the Franciscan monastery of Donegal, by three of the O'Clerys, Michael, Conary, and Cucogry, and by Ferfesa O'Mulconry, who are now commonly known as the Four Masters. They began in 1632, and completed the work in 1636.

The Annals of the Four Masters was translated with most elaborate and learned annotations by Dr. John O'Donovan; and it was published - Irish text, translation, and notes - in seven large volumes.

On the Web:
Thesaurus Linguarum Hiberniae is a joint project of the Royal Irish Academy and University College Cork (CURIA) to create an interactive on-line searchable database archive of literary and historical materials in the various languages of early, medieval and modern Ireland.
Some section of the Four Masters are available in HTML format for downloading. The bulk of the work is being marked up in SGML ( HTML's big brother ).

A book of annals called the Psalter of Cashel was compiled by Cormac Mac Cullenan, but this has been lost. He also wrote "Cormac's Glossary," an explanation of many old Irish words.

The Annals noticed so far are all in the Irish language, occasionally mixed with Latin: but besides these there are Annals of Ireland wholly in Latin such as those of Clyn, Dowling, Pembridge, Multyfarnham, &c, most of which have been published.

Histories : Genealogies : Dinnsenchus


None of the Irish writers of old times conceived the plan of writing a general history of Ireland. The first history of the whole country was the Forus Feasa ar Erinn, or History of Ireland, from the most ancient times to the Anglo-Norman invasion, writtcn by Dr. Geoffrey Keating of Tubbrid in Tipperary, a Catholic priest: died 1644. Keahug was deeply versed in the ancient language and literature of Ireland; and his history, though containing much that is legendary, is very interesting and valuable.


The genealogies of the principal families were most faithfully preserved in ancient Ireland. Each king and chief had in his household a Shanachy or historian, whose duty it was to keep a written record of all the ancestors and of the several branches of the family.

Many of the ancient genealogies are preserved in the Books of Leinster, Lecan, Ballymote, &c. But the most important collection of all is the great Book of Genealogies compiled in the years 1650 to 1666 in the College of St. Nicholas in Galway, by Duald Mac Firbis.


In this place may be mentioned the Dinnsenchus [Din-Shan'ahus], a topographical tract giving the legendary history and the etymology of the names of remarkable hills, mounds, caves, carns, cromlechs, raths, duns, plains, lakes, rivers, fords, islands, and so forth. The stories are mostly fictitious - invented to suit the really existing names : nevertheless this tract is of the utmost value for elucidating the topography and antiquities of the country. Copies of it are found in several of the old Irish books of miscellaneous literature, as already mentioned.

Another very important tract - one about the names of remarkable Irish persons, called Coir Anmann ('Fitness of Names'), corresponding with the Dinnsenchus for place-names, has been published with translation by Dr. Stokes.

Go to the book Index

Go to Tír na nÓg