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  • The Annals of the Four Masters: Irish History, Kingship and Society in the Early Seventeenth Century
  • Thomas O'Connor
The Annals of the Four Masters: Irish History, Kingship and Society in the Early Seventeenth Century. By Bernadette Cunningham. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. 2010. Distrib. by ISBS, Portland, OR. Pp 348. $70.00. ISBN 978-1-846-82203-2.)

Like iconic texts the world over, the Annals of the Four Masters, an early-seventeenth- century manuscript compilation of Irish history in Gaelic, is a work frequently cited, seldom read, and rather poorly understood. From John O'Donovan's partial edition of 1851 through the various instrumentalizations of the text by cultural agents associated consecutively with the Gaelic revival, the nascent Irish state, and the reformed "brown" Franciscans, this seminal text has been rather badly served by the Irish academic community, who acknowledged it without explaining its significance. Thus, the work of Paul Walsh and other twentieth-century scholars notwithstanding, Bernadette Cunningham's volume is both timely, in that it subjects yet another cultural icon to dispassionate intellectual scrutiny, and also significant, because the Annals emerge from this study with their importance contextualized not only within the early-modern Irish but also the European intellectual world. The contrast frequently drawn by Cunningham between the apparent insularism of the Annals and the internationalism of contemporary Gaelic works like [End Page 811] Geoffrey Keating's Foras Feasa ar Éireann (c. 1634) serves to specify rather than devalue the importance of the continental link.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, consisting of three chapters, Cunninghnam sets the background for the text in the continental connections of the Irish Franciscans (one of the Annals' editors, Micheál Ó Cléirigh, belonged to the order). She then presents an overview of the Irish annalistic traditions before engaging in a detailed investigation of the approach of the text's editors (traditionally called "The Four Masters") to the past. In the second part, she examines the form and structure of the text, the methodology of the editors, and the way that the material was collected, transcribed, and arranged. She takes two case studies (the annalists' treatment of secular heroes and religious figures) to explain how the Four Masters' reverence for the tradition in no way stymied their central aim of establishing the history of Ireland as chronological, contextualized, and continuous. The last part of the book consists of a chapter on the scholarly and patronage networks that made the work possible. In the tantalizingly and somewhat disappointingly brief concluding chapter she draws the many threads of the investigation together in a more philosophical commentary on the Annals as a paradigmatic exercise in making history, or, as she puts it elsewhere,

weaving together a new and comprehensive historical compilation, encompassing origin legends, genealogies of saints and king lists as well as annals . . . in the manner of the great medieval miscellanies, but now addressed to a wider readership because of the potential of access to print.

(p. 42)

The potential of publishing looms large on the horizon of the editors' motivation and goes far to explain the editing and selection processes that took the Annals from their multiple manuscript sources to the versions of the text now held in the libraries of University and Trinity Colleges and the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. It also explains, Cunningham suggests, why the editors eschewed the term king () when speaking of the minor "kings" in Ireland, preferring tighearna ("lord") to underscore the importance of the high kingship of Ireland and hence its historical conformity with the emerging nation-states familiar to the eventual intended audience. Interestingly, there is no hint here of a transfer of sovereignty by disgruntled Gaelic underlings to the king of Spain (p. 122), but rather a practical acceptance of the legitimacy of the Stuarts. For these editors, what counted was the sovereign power of the king of neither Spain nor England but rather the kingship of Ireland. In chapter 7, Cunningham discusses the ideological concerns underpinning the selection and arrangement of the entries, stressing their belief in the value of memory itself in the new Ireland emerging from the great travails of the sixteenth...


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