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The Irish Annals
432pp; colour ills. 2008; reprint April 2010
Catalogue Price: €60.00
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The Irish Annals

Their genesis, evolution and history

D.P. McCarthy


‘This is a remarkable book, undoubtedly one of the most important monographs published in Irish history in a great many years. It addresses all of the major questions about the genesis, evolution and history of the Irish annals – the primary foundations for Irish historical studies of the centuries prior to the English incursion/invasion of 1169. The profound scholarship underpinning its conclusions is impressive, the lucidity of its complex arguments is exemplary, and its impact on early Irish historical research will be incalculable. I have not read such an exciting volume in quite some time … this is a remarkable piece of scholarship … McCarthy traces the manner in which the archetypal Irish chronicle was extended, and the paths by which it was transmitted through various manuscripts, up to the seventeenth century. His analysis of each stage of the development of the Irish annals is strikingly detailed, and is persuasive. This is a monumental body of work, whose repercussions will ripple through Irish historical scholarship indefinitely', Henry Jefferies (University of Ulster), Irish Historical Studies (November 2009).

‘As in many places, the practice of keeping chronicles arrived in Ireland with Christianity, and those that over a long period contain an entry for each year during most of their range are called annalistic chronicles, or annals. McCarthy examines and documents the process of their initiation, development, and role, both as a group and as individual records’, Book News (November 2008).

‘The annals of Ireland are probably unique in being the history of a nation was written down in the sixth century and carried on until the early modern period. Although extensively used and studied over the centuries by more recent historians, McCarthy’s is the first comprehensive book to be written on them. It is a subject that this emeritus fellow of TCD has long been interested in … McCarthy examines the origin of the annals, the language they were written in and what other scholars have said about them. He arranges the annals in order and thematically examines what they deal with in terms of Irish and world history. Each collections of annals, from the Iona chronicle to the Fermanagh Chronicle is analysed in detail. This along with the colour reproductions of pages from the original manuscripts, makes this a must have book for scholars of early and medieval Ireland’, Books Ireland (September 2008).

'This ambitious and wide-ranging book surveys the extant manuscripts of all the major annals known from medieval Ireland and offers challenging new interpretations of the methodologies of the chroniclers …. this is a book to be reckoned with. It is an exhilarating read for its entirely fresh approach to the evidence; for the way it debunks and revises so much of the pre-existing scholarship on the Irish annals; for the penetrating light it shines on the shortcomings of the methodologies of Irish manuscript scholarship over the past 200 years and not least for the courteous but devastating way in which it exposes the perils of past failures to re-examine at first hand the primary manuscript evidence, a practice which we all know must form the raw material of worthwhile scholarly research', Dr Bernadette Cunningham, RIA, Irish Archives (Winter 2008).

‘Mc Carthy aims in this book to master the mess of medieval history with his precise identifications of authors, original manuscript sources, and later revisions of the many Irish monastic annals. Mc Carthy demonstrates envious familiarity with the manuscript materials, a comprehensive knowledge of all the editions of the many Irish annals, and, of course, the ability to count things. Readers of his book will learn where to find the annals, how to seek patterns in their contents, and how to handle their kalends. Nonspecialists will be amazed to discover the constant revision and reinterpretation that characterized seemingly straightforward accounts of yearly events and the complex relationships among the texts', Lisa M. Bitel, Speculum (2010).

'We must be grateful to Daniel McCarthy for undertaking his impressively weighty monograph … his distinctive contribution to the study of the Irish Annals has been his work on their chronology and dating mechanisms which, as a computer scientists, he is perhaps more qualified to comprehend than most historians … the book opens with chapters on the character of the sources, the manuscripts, and previous work in the area. It then proceeds to lay out McCarthy’s view of the successive stages of annal-compilation from a foundational world-chronicle assembled in the fifth century through to the seventeenth. This has the advantage of clarity … [the book also contains] a number of useful appendices including a list of all the manuscripts of the major annals, a bibliography and an index … this is a book of interest beyond the circle of scholars who read Old Irish, and indeed beyond the field of Irish history. It offers a model and a challenge to those working on annals and chronicles from all traditions', Alice Jorgensen, TCD, Óenach: FMRSI reviews (2010).

‘This is an ambitious and wide-ranging book. Mc Carthy presents a history of Irish chronicling within which he proposes several identifications of chroniclers who contributed to the shaping of the extant texts; and he also argues for a textual history between the eighth and the eleventh century which is radically different from any offered by previous students of Irish chronicles … Mc Carthy is a late, and thoroughly welcome, convert to the band of early Irish historians … Four Courts Press are to be commended for the production of The Irish Annals: the plates, in particular, are excellent', T.M. Charles-Edwards, Studia Hibernica (2009-10).
‘This is a truly wonderful production. I am simply stunned by the breadth and depth of learning contained within its covers and by the scope and quality of the enormous body of careful, sustained, lucid and minutely detailed argumentation in this magnificent volume. Dr McCarthy with this book has filled an enormous (and indeed astonishing, and even shameful) gap in Irish scholarly literature. He has set the Irish Annals in the context of Irish literature from the 5th to the early 17th centuries, but he has also given them an international context - from the world of the later Roman Empire to 7th-century Northumbria and on to Louvain a millennium later, together with brief and tantalising references to the 11th-century Marianus Scotus of Mainz (alias Maél Brigte of Moville), in the Rhineland in south-western Germany. For all of this, we and future generations of scholars, both in Ireland and abroad, are deeply in his debt and should shower him with our blessings ... One Irish historian, specialising in the late-medieval and early-modern periods, who just finished reading the book at the beginning of this week, has pronounced it ‘mind-blowing’. For my own part, one of the spin-offs of reading the book is a desire to go and read (and in some cases re-read) some of Dan's own groundbreaking articles, published in a variety of journals over the past decade or so ... I would hope that this marvellous publication will spur many scholars to tackle some of the many questions that have been raised and highlighted in its pages, perhaps even spur some of them on to accomplish those great desiderata in this particular field - namely new, up-to-date editions of the Annals of Tigernach, of Mageoghegan's Book (or as I propose to rename it, The Annals of Lios Maighne) and of the last four centuries of the Annals of Ulster. Whoever undertakes these tasks, or the ambitious (or foolhardy) scholar or scholars who will one day attempt a re-edition of the Annals of the Four Masters, cannot do so without having first digested Dan McCarthy's magnificent work ... All of us should be grateful to Dan McCarthy for providing us with this remarkable book, a wonderful lóna anama agus intinne. As such, I urge you all to buy this book and not merely read it but devour it! For it will provide sustenance and nourishment to generations of students and scholars who will, we hope, continue the study of early Irish history in the years to come. I mbeagán focal, is éachtach an saothar é seo. Nár laga Dia a údar!’ (Nollaig Ó Muraile, department of Irish, NUI, Galway).

‘The Irish annals are often quoted in archaeological and historical publications as an invaluable aid to creating a basic chronological framework for people, places and events. There are many questions as to where and when particular annals were written down, and what were the sources of the information contained in them ... The Irish Annals ... presents a survey of the sources for these medieval Christian chronicles from the fifth century to the late sixteenth century. McCarthy introduces the annals as chronicles that 'represent a window onto the collective memory of the past preserved by one of its most privileged groups, its literate class'. He carries out a critical review of the sources and modern analyses to arrive at a new account of the origins and evolution of the annals. There is much detail in this volume and it will lend to a better understanding of these early chronicles, Archaeology Ireland (Winter 2008).

’… this experience has been a sheer pleasure. This is a work of such scholarly depth and love of learning that you would have to have a heart of stone, or a right-wing commentator, not to enjoy it. In fact, this book is one worth celebrating simply on account of its glorious intellectuality … In great depth this book gives a definitive and truly comprehensive account of the Irish Annals … What the author … does is to closely examine these manuscripts … The author overwhelmingly succeeds in proving the truth of his claim that “the Irish Annals are compilations to be treasured”’, Joe Horgan, Books Ireland (December 2008).

‘Daniel P. McCarthy presents the first truly comprehensive analysis and account of the origins and development of the genre of annalistic record keeping in Ireland from the fifth to seventeenth centuries AD. In doing so, he has written one of the most important and path breaking books on Irish history to be published to date. I do not make this statement lightly, but do so by virtue of the fact that the Irish annals are one of the most fundamentally important (even though under-recognised) primary sources for Irish political, social and environmental history from the Early Christian to Early Modern periods, supplying almost all dating for major historic events in medieval Gaelic Ireland. Despite their importance, they are problematic in terms of their chronological accuracy, particularly for the first millennium AD, whilst the interrelationships between the surviving texts and their underlying sources is often highly complex and ambiguous. McCarthy’s sustained and detailed treatment of these issues is consequently of utmost value in informing the credible future use of the Irish annals as historical sources … McCarthy’s integration of non-annalistic documentary sources and environmental archives into his arguments regarding the Irish annals are notable examples of the commendable interdisciplinary approach that prevails in his work … Any genuinely open-minded reader of this book will be impressed by the creative intelligence and interdisciplinarity of the approach adopted in McCarthy’s examination of the Irish annals, the many challenges his findings present to scholars of Irish history and the clarity which he has achieved in presenting his arguments and setting forth his landmark conception of the origin and development of the most important historical sources remaining to Irish medieval history', Frank Ludlow, IEHN online (March 2011).

‘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 … 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 gives most of the 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 … 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’, Nicholas Evans, The Medieval Review (April 23, 2009).

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