09.04.09, McCarthy, The Irish Annals

Main Article Content

Nicholas Evans

The Medieval Review baj9928.0904.009


McCarthy, Daniel P.. The Irish Annals: Their genesis, evolution and history. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008. Pp. 416. ISBN: 9781846820489.

Reviewed by:
Nicholas Evans
University of Glasgow

The Irish annals constitute one of the most significant sources for medieval Ireland (and also Scotland for the period before 1100). Irish chronicles were maintained over the whole medieval period and survive in a number of manuscripts from the late eleventh to mid-seventeenth century. One prominent feature of the Irish annals is the sheer number of events recorded per year, which is much greater in the early medieval period at least than any equivalent corpus in Europe, although this abundance is tempered by the extreme brevity employed, resulting in the annals providing tantalising snapshots lacking the broader narrative of cause and effect found in equivalent texts elsewhere. The quantity of material, combined with the late dates of the main manuscripts and the small number of Irish scholars, has meant that the Irish annals are still poorly understood in terms of their development and usefulness as evidence. Studies have often been highly focussed while wider studies have frequently been too abbreviated or have neglected important areas, so there is a great need for a comprehensive study of all the Irish annals, such as that produced by Daniel McCarthy in The Irish Annals. McCarthy, from a background in Computer Science, has written a large number of articles on the Irish chronicles, focussing on the chronological data which structure them, typically kal. for the kalends (first) of January of each year, but also A.D. and Anno Mundi dates, ferials, and epacts, using this to draw wider conclusions about the inter-relationships and development of the Irish annals. This publication, therefore, provides McCarthy with the opportunity to bring his conclusions together and explain why contradictory interpretations are incorrect, by covering areas he had previously not studied so that a complete picture of the annals is created. The result is an exposition which is radically different from those offered in previous studies.

In his first chapter McCarthy divides the surviving texts into groups based on his view of their textual relationships, giving their chronological data priority in his categorisation, and then proceeds to use these groups to structure his subsequent analysis. The exception is chapter 3, a lengthy literature review of how Gaelic chroniclers and subsequent scholars in spite of the evidence have largely incorrectly (according to McCarthy's conclusions) perceived the development of the annals. The majority of the book is a study of the manuscript witnesses, as well as of the origins and development of these annals from the Late Antique period to their final compilation stages, dealing with each textual group in turn on a chronological basis, although the last main chapter is a short discussion of which sets of annals provide a reliable chronology for different periods. McCarthy generally explains his arguments with clarity, providing background discussion of Late Antique chronicles and chronological dating methods, helpful summaries of identified developments at the end of each chapter, and useful diagrams of each chronicle's textual history in chapter 11, as well as many tables, graphs and quotes throughout.

Through his structure, McCarthy gives most of the Irish annals (the main gap being the so-called Anglo-Irish annals) considerable attention, sometimes discussing previously neglected areas of the subject. Most notably, McCarthy discusses the manuscripts and the final compilation stages in some detail, providing excellent colour plates of pages from each of the surviving witnesses, studying the relatively neglected pre-A.D. 431 section of the Annals of Roscrea and making some important points about the compilation of Mageoghagan's Book (also known as the Annals of Clonmacnoise) and the Annals of the Four Masters. McCarthy's study of the kings of Ireland which provide the chronological structure of the latter two texts also brings out the relationship of the Irish annals with the Lebor Gabála tradition and the eleventh-century historical poetry of Flann Mainistrech and Gilla Cóemáin, although his attempt to relate the origins of this Regnal Canon tradition to the early Irish annals is not convincing, since there were considerable differences between them.

McCarthy uses his analysis to challenge many pre-existing views of the annals. He has followed the theory, first propounded by Eoin Mac Neill, that the World Chronicle section was derived from a Late Antique chronicle, although McCarthy has also hypothesised the existence of a chronicle by Rufinus of Aquileia in the early fifth century as the source, and argued that it went to Ireland ca. 425 before being continued ca. 550 by St Columba and subsequently by his community on the island of Iona off Scotland until about 740. According to McCarthy, Adomnán, abbot of Iona, added imperial items to this World Chronicle ca. 687, and a copy of this formed a major source for Bede's Chronica Minora of 703 and Chronica Maiora of 725. Then, at about 727, the Anglo-Saxon monk Ecgberht ruined the chronology of the Irish annals through malevolence, removing anything monastic and adding papal and Patrician events to make it fit his orthodox Dionysiac views on the Easter controversy. In suggesting these ideas, McCarthy has rejected the opinion of most scholars that the Irish chronicles became contemporary at some point in the late sixth or seventh centuries, and that the World Chronicle in the Irish annals was a much later addition based on earlier sources, including Bede's Chronica Maiora.

Another major innovation is his proposal that this Iona chronicle, which ended at about 740, was continued at Moville in Ulster to 753, and then kept at the monastery of Clonmacnoise by the River Shannon until about 1227. McCarthy argues that the common source of the surviving Irish annals can be dated to about 1019, when a revision (from which the Annals of Ulster derive) was undertaken by the poet Cúán Úa Lothcháin. These hypotheses contradict the previously dominant theory that the common source ended earlier, in 911, with the ancestor of AU being kept at the powerful ecclesiastical centre of Armagh after this date, and conflict with the alternative suggestions that the common source was produced at Armagh, Clonard or Brega before 912.

The other main point stressed by McCarthy is that the Clonmacnoise group, consisting of the Annals of Tigernach, Chronicum Scotorum and Annals of Roscrea, is superior to the Annals of Ulster in terms of contents and chronology, which contrasts greatly with the more positive view of the Annals of Ulster held by most scholars. As a result, McCarthy uses the ferial numbers in the Clonmacnoise group to reconstruct the chronology of the annals up to the mid-seventh century, regarding AU's chronology as a late variant created by Cúán Úa Lothcháin, and he explains textual differences between AU and the Clonmacnoise group by postulating that these were the consequence of alterations during the Annals of Ulster's textual history, whether caused by Dub dá Leithe of Armagh in the mid-eleventh century, or by the addition of abridged material from the Clonmacnoise group ca. 1220.

McCarthy's conclusions, if accepted, would have considerable implications, not only for our understanding of the history of chronicling in Europe, but also for how the annalistic record in different chronicles should be evaluated. However, there are problematic elements in McCarthy's analysis which render his conclusions extremely doubtful. One of these is a tendency to draw far-reaching conclusions with utmost certainty based on questionable or slight evidence. For instance, McCarthy argues (31618) that the use of Arabic numerals and statements specifying that an event took place in a particular year (such as in hoc anno) show that the exemplar of the Annals of Ulster was actually written by one of the later scribes, Ruaidhri Ó Caiside. This conclusion makes it possible for McCarthy to regard the main text hand and later additions as part of a single source throughout the book, but his theory, which is in opposition to all previous scholarship, renders it difficult to understand why the later additions were not copied by the main scribe if they were in the exemplar. Similarly, McCarthy's insistence that the pre-431 World Chronicle section of the Annals of Ulster was written by the main scribe (11415) is based on a very brief palaeographical and codicological discussion in a previous article which does not stand up to scrutiny when the manuscript is viewed in person. [1] These two cases are significant because McCarthy uses his conclusions to establish that the World Chronicle was not a late addition, and that a close relationship existed between the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Inisfallen, in contradiction to most other scholarship. Another notable feature of the book is a tendency to identify major changes with well-known figures, such as Adomnán, Ecgberht, and Cúán Úa Lothcháin, without strong supporting textual evidence, thus affecting his dating of phases of development and sometimes creating a suspect context for the annals.

While the detailed chronological argumentation of his previous articles has understandably been relatively abbreviated in this book, McCarthy's interpretation of the chronological evidence set out in those studies provides the driving force behind McCarthy's argument, taking priority over the more traditional methods of identifying chronicling centres, in terms of perceived significance and the amount of space devoted to them. When McCarthy does attempt to locate chronicling activity employing other textual techniques, his argument is notably weaker, relying mainly on the very basic method of counting the number of events recorded for a particular place. When identifying the inter-relationships of chroniclers, the bar is set so low for demonstrating a textual link between items that a person having the same name and part of the same title is considered sufficient to show that two chronicles (for instance the Annals of Ulster and the Clonmacnoise group, discussed on page 104) are textually cognate rather than independently reporting the same event. Also, while arguing that the Annals of Ulster was based largely on the Clonmacnoise group, albeit with later alterations being made using an Armagh Chronicle and then extra events from the Clonmacnoise group being included ca. 1220, McCarthy does not explain how these items were included. As a result, it is not possible to identify the source a particular record comes from or to evaluate whether McCarthy's theories have a sound evidential basis. Overall, McCarthy does not produce a convincing explanation for many of his theories, which mainly stem from his prioritisation of chronological data found only in the Clonmacnoise group, and therefore potentially dating from the tenth or eleventh centuries rather than the Early Christian period, as McCarthy suggests.

A comparative lack of attention is given to the social context of chronicling. While questions of how and why the Irish annals were produced are difficult to address given the current state of scholarship, and it is understandable that McCarthy's study concentrated on identifying the main sources and changes, this different perspective would have been welcome for those seeking guidance on how to approach these texts. Considering this different aspect may also have affected his conclusions. For instance, while the mathematical probability that common events recorded in two chronicles after 911 would sometimes be found in the same order is remote, as McCarthy argues (104), events do happen in a certain sequence, and chroniclers probably usually wrote down the news as it arrived, so such a pattern is possible in independent chronicles, especially if they were produced in the same region.

Overall, while much of McCarthy's reconstruction of the history of the Irish annals should be treated with extreme caution, this study does contain a considerable number of good points and important studies of the texts which will be useful to scholars, so there is much of great value in this book. In this study and in his previous articles McCarthy has used his talents to improve our understanding of the chronological framework of the Irish annals, achieving far more than historians have managed before. Therefore, while one might disagree with many of his provocative arguments, it is to be hoped that McCarthy's call for scholars to give the chronological evidence and the manuscripts more attention (35758) will be heeded, and that The Irish Annals provides a stimulus for further research, since there is still so much to be done before we can adequately understand these crucial texts.

-------- Notes:

1. Daniel McCarthy, "The Original Compilation of the Annals of Ulster AD 821019," Studia Celtica 38 (2004): 6996, at 8789.

Article Details

Author Biography

Nicholas Evans

University of Glasgow