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.