The men called the Tour Masters (although there were probably six of them) were Franciscans led by a lay brother named Michael O’Clereigh or Michael O’Clery (1575-1643), who, after collecting a massive number of monastic annals and other historic records from all over Ireland, set up shop in a friary in Donegal and between 1632 and 1636 produced a monumental history of Ireland from the abeyance of Noah’s flood to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Titled Annala Rioghachsa Eireann (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland) and usually called Annals of the Four Masters, it is a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic, sometimes exasperating compendium of birth and death dates, ecclesiastical appointments, royal advancements, weather reports, local gossip, battles, and miraculous cures. Some events are covered in exacting detail (a mermaid who washed up on shore was 195 feet long with hair 16 feet long and a 7-foot nose), while an entry on the massacre of an entire army can be only a few words long or—more frequently—simply a list of the names of the most distinguished casualties. Yet the lavish wealth of information it contains makes the seven thick volumes of the published version of The Four Masters the most consulted work of medieval Irish history. It is the source with which all other sources are compared. Today in the city of Donegal, not far from the ruined friary where the Masters wrote, stands an obelisk in their honor, which must be one of the few civic monuments ever raised for a committee of historians.

The edited selection from The Four Masters included here—for the years 799 through 919—presents a vivid picture of both the constant wars among the clans (at one point the Masters think it worth mentioning that two rival branches of the O’Neill family met and did not come to blows) and the first destructive landings of the “foreigners,” the Vikings. Some entries may seem to be simply masses of family and place-names, but readers who sail through them without pausing to worry about their identity or present-day locations can gain an intimate feeling for the everyday concerns of that distant time.

THE AGE OF CHRIST, 799. There happened great wind, thunder, and lightning, on the day before the festival of Patrick of this year, so that one thousand and ten persons were killed in the territory of Corca-Bhaiscinn, and the sea divided the island of Fitha into three parts ….

The Age of Christ, 801. The ninth year of [the reign of king] Aedh Oirdnidhe. Congal, son of Maenach, Abbot of Slaine, who was a learned sage and a pure virgin; [and] Loitheach, doctor of Beannchair [Bangor], died. Hi-Coluim-Cille was plundered by foreigners; and great numbers of the laity and clergy were killed by them, namely, sixty-eight. Flaithiusa, son of Cinaedh, lord of Ui-Failghe, was slain at Rath-Imghain. Tir-da-ghlas [Terryglass] was burned. Finnachta, son of Ceallach, King of Leinster, took the government again. Connmhach, Judge of Ui-Briuin, died.

The Age of Christ, 802 …. The church of Coluim-Cille at Ceanannus was destroyed. Inis-Muireadhaigh was burned by foreigners, and they attacked Ros-Commain. Cormac, son of Donghalach, lord of the North, died. Murchadh Ua Flainn, lord of Ui-Fidhgeinte, died.

The Age of Christ, 803. The eleventh year of Aedh …. Finshneachta, son of Ceallach, King of Leinster, died at Cilldara. Cinaedh, son of Conchobhar, was slain at Magh-Cobha, by the Cruithni [of Dal-Araidhe]. A hosting by Muirgheas, son of Tomaltach, with the Connaughtmen about him, to assist Conchobhar, son of Donnchadh, son of Domhnall, to destroy the men of Meath, and they arrived at Tir-an-aenaigh. The king, Aedh, came to protect the men of Meath; and he drove Conchobhar and his forces to flight out of it, as if they were goats and sheep. He afterwards burned that part of the country of Meath which was dearest to Donnchadh.

The Age of Christ, 804 …. Finbil, Abbess of Cluain-Bronaigh, and Dunchu, Abbot of Tealach-lias, were slain. Cuciarain, Prior of Cluain [-mic-Nois], and Baedan, of Cluain-tuaisceirt, died. A battle by the Ulidians between the two sons of Fiachna, and Cairell defeated Eochaidh. A battle between [two parties of] the Ui-Ceinnsealaigh, in which Ceallach, son of Donnghall, was slain. The plundering of Ulidia by Aedh Oridnidhe, the king, in revenge of the profanation of the shrine of Patrick, against Dunchu. Fire came from heaven, by which persons were killed in Dearthach-Aedhain.

The Age of Christ, 805 …. Maelfothartaigh, i.e. the scribe, son of Aedhghal, Abbot of Airegal-Dachiarog, died. Anluan, son of Conchobhar, lord of Aidhne, died. Tadhg and Flaithnia, two sons of Muirgheas, son of Tomaltach, were slain by the Luighni; and Luighne [Leyny] was laid waste by Muirgheas, in revenge of them. A hero of the Luighni said:

Muirgheas slew my son, which very much wounded me;
It was I that struck the sword into the throat of Tadhg

The Age of Christ, 818. First year of [the reign of King] Conchobhar …. An army was led by Murchadh, son of Maelduin, to Druim-Indech, having the Ui-Neill of the North along with him. Conchobhar, King of Ireland, with the Ui-Neill of the South and the Leinstermen, came from the South, on the other hand; and when they came to one place, it happened, through the miracles of God, that they separated from each other for that time without slaughter, or one of them spilling a drop of the other’s blood.

The Age of Christ, 819 …. The plundering of Edar by the foreigners, who carried off a great prey of women. The plundering of Beg-Eire and Dairinis-Caemhain by them also. An army was led by Conchobhar, son of Donnchadh, to Ardachadh of Sliabh-Fuaid; and all the Airtheara were devastated by him, as far as Eamhain-Macha.

The Age of Christ, 820 …. An army was led by Murchadh, son of Maelduin, having the men of the North with him, until he arrived at Ard-Breacain. The men of Breagh and the race of Aedh Slaine went over to him, and gave him hostages at Druim-Fearghusa.

The Age of Christ, 826. A battle was gained by Leathlobhar, son of Loingseach, King of Ulidia, over the foreigners. Muireadhach, son of Ruadhrach, King of Leinster, died. Cinaedh, son of Moghron, lord of Ui-Failghe, died. Uada, son of Diarmaid, lord of Teathbha, was slain ….

The Age of Christ, 829. The twelfth year of Conchobhar. Airmheadhach, successor of Finnen of Magh-bile, was drowned. Muirenn, Abbess of Cill-dara, died. Ceithearnach, son of Dunchu, scribe, priest, and wise man of Ard-Macha, died.

The Age of Christ, 831. The burning of Tearmann-Chiarain by Feidhlimidh, son of Crimhthann. The plundering of [Dealbhna] Beathra thrice by him also. The plundering of Cilldara by Ceallach, son of Bran. Cinaedh, son of Eochaidh, lord of Dal-Araidhe of the North, was slain. Cinaedh, son of Arthrach, lord of Cualann, and Diarmaid, son of Ruadhrach, lord of Airthear-Life, died. After Conchobhar, son of Donnchadh, had been fourteen years in the monarchy of Ireland, he died, after the victory of penance.

The Age of Christ, 832. The first year of Niall Caille, son of Aedh Oirdnidhe, in sovereignty over Ireland. Reachtabhra, Abbot of Cill-achaidh; and Irghalach, Abbot of Saighir, died. A battle was gained by Niall Caille and Murchadh over the foreigners, at Doire-Chalgaigh, where a slaughter was made of them. The plundering of Cluain-Dolcain by the foreigners. A great number of the family of Cluain-mic-Nois were slain by Feidhlimidh, son of Crumhthan, King of Caiseal; and all their termon [church lands] was burned by him, to the door of the church. In like manner [did he treat] the family of Dearmhach, also to the door of its church. Diarmaid, son of Tomaltach, King of Connaught, died. Cobhthach, son of Maelduin, lord of West Munster, was slain. The plundering of Loch-Bricrenn, against Conghalach, son of Eochaidh, [by the foreigners].

The Age of Christ, 887. The eleventh year of Flann …. Maelmordha, son of Gairbhith, lord of Conaille-Muirtheimhne, was beheaded by Ceallach, son of Flannagan. The plundering of Cill-dara and Cluain-Iraird by the foreigners. A slaughter [was made] of the Osraighi by the Deisi, and the killing of Braenan, son of Cearbhall, and also of Suibhne, son of Dunghus, lord of Ui-Fearghusa. A slaughter [was made] of the foreigners by the Ui-Amhalghaidh, in which fell Elair, son of Bairid, one of their chieftains, and others along with him. Maelfabhaill, son of Cleireach, lord of Aidhne, died …. A mermaid was cast ashore by the sea in the country of Alba [Scotland]. One hundred and ninety-five feet was her length, eighteen feet was the length of her hair, seven feet was the length of the fingers of her hand, seven feet also was the length of her nose; she was whiter than the swan all over. Conchobhar, son of Flannagan, lord of Ui-Failghe, was destroyed by fire at Cluain-foda-Fini, in the church; and the relics of Finian were violated by the Feara-Tulach, on his way from parleying with Flann, son of Maelseachlainn, King of Ireland.

The Age of Christ, 888 …. A great wind [occurred] on the festival of St. Martin of this year; and it prostrated many trees, and caused great destruction of the woods of Ireland, and swept oratories and other houses from their respective sites. A battle was gained by Riagan, son of Dunghal, over the foreigners of Port-Lairge, Loch-Carman, and Teach-Moling, in which two hundred heads were left behind. A battle was gained by North Connaught over the foreigners, in which Eloir, son of Barith, was slain. A battle was gained over the Eili by Maelguala and the men of Munster, at Caiseal, in which many noble youths were slain.

The Age of Christ, 919 …. Foreigners were defeated, a great number of them was slain, but a few of them escaped in the darkness at the very beginning of the night because they were not visible to them [the Irish]. A fleet of foreigners consisting of twenty-two ships at Loch Feabhail … and was plundered by them. Fearghal, son of Domhail, Lord of the North, was at strife with them, so that he slew the crew of one of their ships, broke the ship itself and carried off its wealth and goods.

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