Friday, 01 April 2011 11:43

The Annals of the Four Masters as an important Genealogical Resource

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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The Annals of the Four Masters (also often known as the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland), is one of the most important collections of Irish annals, written at the Franciscan house at Bundrowes in south County Donegal in the 1630s. These annals can also be a great genealogical resource as they record the deaths and very often the major events in the lives of thousands of medieval Gaelic Irish chieftains and kings, and often their wives and children and most important followers also.

In my own research I have found two McGettigan chieftains, recorded as living in the Derry area in late medieval times, one of whom is not recorded in any other source. Recently while undertaking a commission for an Australian lady I found the Four Masters to be an invaluable source for the Maguaran family of west Cavan, who although a minor Gaelic family are recorded regularly in the Four Masters from the 1220s right up to the end of the annals in the 1590s.

The Four Masters also often recorded very unusul events which sometimes ocurred, just as if they were the early modern equivalent of a Gaelic Irish newspaper or newsletter. For example for their entry for the year 1526 AD the annalists record that Godfrey O'Cahan 'heir to the lordship of his own country set out upon a predatory incursion into Glenconkeine, in the month of January'. Glenconkeine was a forested fastness in the heart of the Sperrin Mountains in the Gaelic lordship of Tyrone and was the home of the O'Henry family. However, rather than descending on the unsuspecting O'Henrys, Godfrey O'Cahan 'perished in consequence of the intense cold, nor was there a word heard about him until the end of the following Lent, when his body was discovered'. This annalistic entry shows that unusually cold weather has not been confined to recent times in Ireland. The Four Masters also record that the noble Henry O'Neill of Braid near Omagh also died in Godfrey O'Cahan's raiding party and indeed this record in the annals  gives something of a hint of the concern and amazement that must have been felt in the O'Cahan territory that an important noble and his entire band of warriors could simply march into the Sperrin mountains and disappear without a trace, not to be discovered until the snow melted months later.

Another entry in the Four Masters for the sixteenth century records quite a similar occurance in the neighbouring lordship of Tír Chonaill. This time in the year 1517, the annals record that a distinguished nobleman Donough O'Boyle ' set out with the crew of a boat for Tory; but a wind drove them westwards through the sea, and no tidings of them was ever since heard'. Here the annals capture the essence of a tragedy in Donegal where people were probably watching from the mainland as O'Boyle and his crew were blown west into the Atlantic on what should have been a routine trip to Tory Island.

It is unusual entries like these which make the Annals of the Four Masters such a wonderful source. Also with a bit of luck and hard work the Four Masters can also be very helpful for genealogical research. Entries in these annals can add detail to figures listed in many of the Gaelic genealogical collections which exist for this period and can also locate families in medieval and early modern times. As such the Annals of the Four Masters can be of great assistance to the modern genealogist.

Last modified on Friday, 01 April 2011 12:47
Darren McGettigan

Darren McGettigan

Darren is an historian, author and genealogist from County Wicklow, Ireland. He provides genealogy services to help you discover your family history in Ireland.