How The Irish Scholars Compiled Their Annals

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, year by year. 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

ecords 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 same plan. These men took nothing on hearsay: and

in this manner successive annalists carried on a continued chronicle from

age to age.

We have still preserved to us many books of native Annals. They 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.

There are many tests which prove the remarkable accuracy of the Irish

Annals. For instance, their records of such occurrences as eclipses,

comets, tides, and so forth, are invariably found to be correct. Indeed

they could not be otherwise, for the good reason that the faithful

chronicler noted down the events, each at the very time of its occurrence.

If he waited for some future time, or noted down some event that had

occurred years before, taking hearsay evidence, or calculating the time

backwards as best he could, the chances were that there would be an error

in the date.

A remarkable example occurs in the record of an eclipse of the sun of A.D.

664. At the present day astronomers can calculate to a minute the time of

an eclipse occurring in that or any other year. But it was otherwise

twelve centuries ago. Then the rules of calculation were not quite

correct, so that a person calculating backwards was pretty sure to be in

error as to the exact time. The great English historian and scholar, the

Venerable Bede, who wrote fifty or sixty years after the above-mentioned

eclipse, was aware of the year (664), but had to calculate the day and the

hour. The rule then in vogue led him astray, and accordingly his record of

the date--the 3rd May--is two days wrong. In the Annals of Ulster the

correct date--1st May, 664--is given, and even the very hour. This shows

quite clearly that the event had been recorded by some Irish chronicler,

who actually saw it and noted it down on the spot. We find numbers of

records of this kind in our Annals, which, according to the accurate tests

we are now able to apply, are all found to be correct.

Another remarkable instance of a similar kind deserves to be mentioned

here. We have an old Irish book called "The War of the Irish with the

Danes," written early in the eleventh century, soon after the battle of

Clontarf, in which that great battle is very fully described. In the

course of his narrative the writer makes these very specific

statements:--that the battle was fought on Good Friday, the 23rd April,

1014; that it commenced at sunrise when the tide was full in, and that

it lasted the whole day till the tide was again at flood about the same

hour in the evening, when the foreigners were routed. Moreover, the old

historian puts in the time of high water, morning and afternoon, merely to

explain why there was such terrible slaughter of the Danes in the evening;

for on account of the full tide they were not able to reach their ships,

which lay some distance out in the bay, whereas if it had been low water

they might have waded out to them. Beyond that he was not in the least

concerned about the time of high tide.

The tide comes in at any particular point of the coast about every 12

hours 25 minutes, and accordingly the hour changes from day to day, so

that there might be a high tide at any hour of the twenty-four: but

astronomers can now calculate the exact time of high tide for any day of

the month at a particular place in any year, no matter how far back. Now,

the question is, was the tide really at its height on the Clontarf shore

at sunrise on that fatal morning?

Forty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Todd, who was then engaged in translating

the old book mentioned above, in order to test the chronicler's accuracy,

put this question to the Rev. Dr. Haughton, a great science scholar, of

Trinity College, Dublin:--At what time was there high tide 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, and that the evening tide was

in at fifty-five minutes past five: 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. Dr. Haughton's

calculation--every figure--may now be seen in Dr. Todd's published book.

Little did the old annalist think, when penning his simple record, that

after lying by unnoticed and forgotten on some obscure bookshelf for eight

centuries, it was destined to be at last brought out under the broad light

of science, and its accuracy fully tested and established.

There are several other ways of testing the truth of our annals. One is by

comparing them with the testimony of foreign writers of good standing.

Events occurring in Ireland in those early ages are not often mentioned by

British or Continental writers. Indeed they knew very little about

Ireland, which was, in those times, especially as regards the Continent, a

very remote place. But whenever they do notice Irish affairs, it may be

said that they are always in agreement with the native records.

In our Irish books we find accounts of events or customs, which some

people--not knowing better--would be inclined to pronounce fabulous, but

which we find recorded as sober history by certain great English and

Continental historians. The colonisation of Scotland from Ireland, for

instance, which was formerly doubted by many, is fully confirmed by the

Venerable Bede. And to take another instance from the battle of

Clontarf:--All the Irish chronicles state that a general rout of the Danes

took place in the evening, and that there was an awful slaughter of them,

for they were cut off from their fortress by the river Liffey, and from

their ships by the high tide; while the infuriated Irish assailed them,

front, flank, and rear. Now in the description of the battle by a Danish

writer--the best possible authority in the case, as he had good reason to

know what happened--there is a full confirmation of this. His record is

simple and plain:--"Then flight broke out throughout all the Danish host."

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 various tests,

have drawn forth the acknowledgments of the greatest Irish scholars and

archaeologists that ever lived.

The existing books of Irish Annals will be found described in our

Histories of Ireland, and more fully in the two Social Histories of

Ancient Ireland. Most of them have been published with translations. Here

we must content ourselves with mentioning one, the Annals of the Four

Masters, the most important of all. These were compiled in the Franciscan

monastery of Donegal, by three of the O'Clerys, 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.

The Dinnsenchus [Din-shannahus] is a treatise giving the history and

derivations of the names of remarkable hills, caves, raths, lakes, rivers,

fords, and so forth. Another corresponding treatise for the names of noted

Irish historical persons is called the Coir Anmann, meaning 'fitness of

names.' Both have been translated and published.