The Four Masters
The annals are mainly a compilation of earlier annals, although there is some original work. They were compiled between 1632 and 1636, allegedly in a cottage beside the ruins of Donegal Abbey, just outside Donegal Town. At this time, however, the Franciscans had a house of refuge by the River Drowes in County Leitrim, just outside Ballyshannon, and it was here, according to others, that the Annals were compiled. The patron of the project was Fearghal Ó Gadhra, M.P., a Gaelic lord in Coolavin, County Sligo.
The chief compiler of the annals was Brother Mícheál Ó Cléirigh from Ballyshannon, who was assisted by, among others, Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh, Fearfeasa Ó Maol Chonaire and Cú Choigríche Ó Duibhgeannáin. Although only one of the authors, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, was a Franciscan friar, they became known as 'The Four Friars' or in the original Irish, Na Ceithre Máistrí. The Anglicized version of this was "The Four Masters", the name that has become associated with the annals themselves.
The annals are written in Irish. The several manuscript copies are held at Trinity College Dublin, the Royal Irish Academy, University College Dublin and the National Library of Ireland. Translation
The first substantial English translation (starting at AD 1171) was published by Owen Connellan in 1846. The Connellan translation included the annals from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries. The only version to have a four-colour frontispiece, it included a large folding map showing the location of families in Ireland. This edition, neglected for over 150 years, was republished in the early twenty-first century. The original Connellan translation was followed several years later by a full translation by the historian John O'Donovan. The translation was funded by a government grant of £1,000 obtained by the notable mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton while he was president of the Royal Irish Academy.
The Annals are one of the principal Irish-language sources for Irish history up to 1616. While many of the early chapters are essentially lists of names and dates, the later chapters, dealing with events of which the authors had first-hand accounts, are much more detailed. Importance
The reliability and usefulness of the Annals as a historical source has sometimes been questioned on the grounds that they were limited to accounts of the births, deaths and activities of the Gaelic nobility of Ireland and often ignore wider social trends or events.
On the other hand, the Annals, as one of the few prose sources in Irish from this period, also provide a valuable insight into events such as the Desmond Rebellions and the Nine Years War from a Gaelic Irish perspective.
The early part of this work is based upon the Lebor Gabala. Today, most scholars regard the Lebor Gabála as primarily myth rather than history. It appears to be mostly based on medieval Christian pseudo-histories, but it also incorporates some of Ireland's native pagan mythology. Scholars believe the goal of its writers was to provide an epic history for Ireland that could compare to that of the Israelites or the Romans, and which reconciled native myth with the Christian view of history. It is suggested, for example, that there are six 'takings' to match the "Six Ages of the World" Lebor Gabála Érenn is also considered a "highly influential Middle Irish prose-and-verse treatise [...] written in order to bridge the chasm between Christian world-chronology and the prehistory of Ireland".