The Historicity of the Early Irish Annals:

Heritage and Content

Patrick C. Griffin

November 2, 2001

Early Christian Ireland

Dr. Katharine Simms









The Historicity of the Early Irish Annals:

Heritage and Content

To anyone attempting to explore the alluring world of medieval Ireland, it would seem that there is a set of guidebooks that allow one to look up any given year in Irish history and know the important events that had occurred. As any scholar who has researched early medieval Irish history can verify, however, there are myriad issues that must give one pause regarding the provenance of the annals and the information contained therein. This must influence the way in which these annals are read if they are to be used as a serious source for Irish history. The topic discussed herein is a very broad topic, and certainly one that requires more than a short essay to cover with any completeness; therefore, a brief overview of the issues relating to the annals and their historical content must be undertaken.

To begin, there are certain major annals that will not be discussed in this paper. The Annals of the Four Masters is a compilation of other annals that were available in the seventeenth century and therefore was written far too late to be considered a "medieval" annal. Also, the Annals of Loch Cé, beginning as they do in 1014 with a lengthy entry on the Battle of Clontarf, are a later medieval Irish annal. Though some have suggested that Loch Cé is Tigernachi Continuator (a continuation of the early Annals of Tigernach), this is probably not the case, as they begin seventy-four years too early to be a continuation of Tigernach, which ends in 1088. (Hennessy, xi, orig. O’Donovan) The Annals of Connacht, the Miscellaneous Annals, and Mac Carthaigh’s Book all begin on or after the year 1114. Because of the dates they treat, those annals are too late to be considered early Irish annals, and are therefore not pertinent to the discussion.

In this essay, therefore, the annals to be treated are the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Inisfallen, the Annals of Tigernach, and the Annals of Clonmacnoise. Each of them begins in what was sometimes referred to as "the earliest times," which generally means the Biblical Creation of the world. (Murphy, vii) They generally proceed almost exclusively through Biblical events to the classical world of Greece and Rome, though sometimes they refer to important events from Irish mythological history: "[c. 17 BC] Natiuitas Conculainn maic Soaltaim. (Birth of Cuchullain son of Soaltam)." (Stokes I, 404) Around the beginning of the sixth century, they become much more involved with events of Irish interest.

There are numerous theories for this commonality of history, but the most prominent one is that the early Irish annals all have their roots in one central document. Dr. Kathleen Hughes writes, "Anyone who does this very simple job of collating the two texts will realise immediately that both AU and Tig. go back ultimately to the same version. Let us call it the Chronicle of Ireland… that Chronicle… incorporated a Chronicle of Iona, and… entries about Iona, Scottish Dál Riada, and Pictland must have come from it." (Hughes, 101) She verifies this by pointing out seventh- and eighth-century entries in AU and Tig that do not appear in the other, but specifically reference essentially minor non-Irish events that were not likely to be in the records available to an Ulster author or the compiler of Tig. Mac Niocaill notes that the context of viewing Iona-related events changes around 740: instead of people going to Ireland, in 754 we have people coming to Ireland, indicating a change of location of writing. (Mac Niocaill, 19) There are other instances establishing location, such as in 492 AU, where there is an account of the death of Patrick in which the language implies a distinct separation between Ireland and the place of compilation of this source: "The Irish here state that Patrick the Archbishop died." (Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, 55) There would be no need to specifically indicate that the Irish did or did not do something if there weren’t some difference between what "the Irish" thought or what the chronicler thought (he records the death in 493, one year later). On the whole, this is a highly satisfactory system for determining the origin of this section of the annals.

In theory, when the Iona Chronicle was moved from Iona, it is likely it would have been moved to the nearest central Church location, in the interests of safety. Hughes believes that there is some evidence that the annal was transmitted to Bangor (Hughes, 121), and from then on, resided on the Irish mainland, though Mac Niocaill and Smyth do not believe that the book resided there. (Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, x) It is possible that the chronicle was stored there for some short time after leaving Iona, and the necessary entries with Bangor material were put in then, but this has not been confirmed.

It is thought that at least two copies of this Iona Chronicle were made, and that they were sent to different locations: Armagh, and Clonard. A sizeable number of the entries in AU relate directly to these, especially in the time after about 740, as do many entries in the other early annals. It is thought that the present annals derive a great deal of their material from these two sources up until about the middle of the tenth century, when Clonard appears to move to Clonmacnoise. (Mac Niocaill, 22)

Now that the general history of the common root of the annals has been discussed, we may discuss each annal’s later development separately. The first, and textually most complete, of the four early annals discussed herein, is AU, which seems to derive directly from a union of the Armagh and Clonard chronicles before the latter passed on to Clonmacnoise. There are entries throughout that reference happenings in Clonmacnoise, but it is probable that later scribes would have come into contact with the other annal at some time or another, and then added those data to their own chronicle. AU is also derived, in part, from two minor annals that are currently nonexistent. The first is the "Book of Cuanu" referred to in several entries up to 629: for example, in 629§4, we have "Death of Echaid Buide son of Aedán, king of the Picts. Thus I have found in the Book of Cuanu." (Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, 117) It is not known who Cuanu was, and though there are some possibilities (two of which are ninth-century churchmen from Louth), the problem has yet to be definitively solved. (Mac Niocaill, 20) The second source is the Book of Dub-da-leithe, first referred to in 630 (and noted by a different hand) in an entry on a battle. (Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, 117) The authorship of this book is not much in question: it is believed to be the abbot of Armagh from 1049 to 1064. (Mac Niocaill, 20) Because of this strong connection to the events of the northeast, AUs entries are slightly unbalanced, at least early on, away from the events of the rest of Ireland. Much information is to be obtained about the diocese of Armagh and the Uí Néill in the earliest periods, especially detailed accounts of a local interest: battles fought by the Uí Néill tend to be mentioned quite extensively, for example. In later years, it would appear that the proliferation of annals had taken hold of the contents of AU, as it contains events from Connaught, Munster, and many specific monasteries, and that in the interests of having a "complete" history, rather than simply a local one, historical data was included on any area from which it could be obtained. Because of its close connection to the original Iona Chronicle and the relative detail in which the early period is preserved, AU is one of the more important annals for study of the early medieval period.

Some of the annals, particularly Tig, have large sections missing due to the quality of the manuscript. The translator, Whitley Stokes, does not remark on the quality of the manuscript (Rawlinson B. 502) specifically, in his edition, but it can become a major problem when dealing with a set of annals. Tig shares the same heritage as AU does, but it is far more troublesome in that the most complete version that may be compiled is in four (or five, if one includes Tig Continuator) fragments where, between each, many years are missing and cannot be replaced. Tig is, early on, more concerned with Clonmacnoise material, as it derives from the tradition followed by the Clonard chronicle. As with AU, however, the later material blends together events recorded in other chronicles, both extant and lost. The major problem, today, with using Tig as a source is the general inaccessibility of a thorough translation: Stokes left most of the Tig Latin untranslated, presenting a barrier to many researchers who would care to refer to it. It also lacks any direct anno Domini dating, and Stokes has merely substituted the years that the listed events happened in other annals.

In the same tradition as Tig, Clo is very similar in content to both AU and its brother-chronicle Tig (though the translation at hand, by Conell Mageoghagan, is in a prose form in the earliest times, rather than an annual set of entries). Mac Niocaill notes that "down to the mid-tenth century Clo has almost nothing that is not in [AU] also." (Mac Niocaill, 23) Because of this, we can deduce that the sources for the two are similar, and indeed, Clo is thought to be derived directly from the older Clonmacnoise chronicle that gave rise to Tig and was quite possibly assimilated into AU or the Armagh chronicle. As there does not appear to be any more recent translation available, it would appear that, for early medieval Irish history, the better source would be AU in a general sense, as there have been much more recent, and much more scholarly, editions of it.

Finally, AI appears to derive to some degree from the central root of all the early annals, though, as Mac Niocaill states, it is "drastically abbreviated, often to the detriment of sense." (Mac Niocaill, 25) It is not certain whether AI derives from a Clonmacnoise tradition or an Armagh one, but even in the early medieval entries, the focus is largely on events of a Munster interest. Indeed, "after about 790 AI becomes a predominantly Munster Chronicle." (Hughes, 112) Communities such as Lismore and Emly are often thought to have been possible places for the composition of the original texts of AI, but unfortunately, this is difficult to verify. What is certain is that it is a strongly Munster-oriented annal, and therefore is almost certain to have been composed there. Indeed, we later see many entries regarding the family of Brían Boramha, and many of the exploits of his life are repeated in AI. It is probable that, being set in Munster, political affiliations may have influenced the writers of the annal somewhat towards this preponderance of entries on Brían and his descendants. It is much more effective as a Munster source than most other annals, but in the early period, is somewhat less complete for the rest of Ireland.

In the matter of the early Irish annals, therefore, it must be decided that each draws on the tradition of a single chronicle, probably originating in Iona, that covered the major events of the world up until the early eighth century. The texts diverge slightly after that to follow paths pertaining to Ulster, Meath, and Munster, and eventually cross-pollinate to form hybrid annals, which are the forms that have reached us. Though dating and verifiability may be problematic, the simple answer is to use more than one annal (preferably, several) to help eliminate errors. The annals, while certainly not perfect sources, still have a definite and important place in medieval research, and through study of their own history, we may learn more about how to read each of them for its content, not just its words.















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Hughes, Kathleen. Early Christian Ireland: an Introduction to the Sources. London:

Sources for History Limited, 1972.

Mac Airt, Seán, ed. The Annals of Inisfallen. Dublin: Dublin Institute for

Advanced Studies, 1988.

Mac Airt, Seán, and Gearóid mac Niocaill, eds. The Annals of Ulster (to A.D.

1131). Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1983.

Mac Niocaill, Gearóid. "The Medieval Irish Annals." Medieval Irish History

Series, 3. Dublin: Dublin Historical Association, 1975.

Murphy, Denis, ed. The Annals of Clonmacnoise. Felinfach: Llanerch, 1993.

Smyth, Alfred P. "The earliest Irish annals" in Proceedings of the Royal Irish

Academy 70 (1972) C, 1-48. (unquoted)

Stokes, Whitley, ed. The Annals of Tigernach, vols. 1 and 2. Felinfach: Llanerch,