Interview with Dan McCarthy

The Irish Annals: Their genesis, evolution and history, by Dan McCarthy, examines the works created in early medieval Ireland, and which continued to be a major source of Irish history into the early modern period.

McCarthy’s book, which was first published by Four Courts Press in 2008, re-examines the manuscript evidence, commencing with an account of the primary manuscript witnesses for the ten most characteristic annalistic texts. It then reviews the scholarly literature relating to the annalistic corpus and identifies those hypotheses that are not supported by the available evidence. Next, based upon a critical evaluation of both the textual and chronological characteristics of the texts, the book establishes, where possible, the place, author(s), time and salient characteristics of the compilations that have contributed to the development of these ten texts.

Dan McCarthy is a senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin. We interviewed him by email:

As you talk about in your book, the use of annals has long been popular in Ireland, stretching over more than a thousand years. Why do you think that this way of writing history remained so popular among the Irish?

Well, to start from before the time of Christ, I believe that in learned Celtic society the questions of the meaning of time and its representation were considered of great significance. For example, in Gaul both the Coligny calendar and Caesar’s statement in book six of De bello Gallico that Gaulish education included the detailed study of the stars and their motions, of the extent of the world, and of the nature of things, attest to this interest. That this interest survived both the Roman invasion and the arrival of Christianity there is shown by the fact that the only two significant Western Paschal compilations, the 84-year latercus of Sulpicius Severus and the 532-year Easter table of Victorius of Aquitaine, were both compiled in fifth-century Gaul. Regarding Ireland, there is evidence that in pre-Christian times the learned class here shared their Gaulish cousins’ interest in time. Then, with the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, this learned class received an annalistic chronicle representing each year of the world from Creation to the early fifth century. This work clearly resonated with their pre-existing interest in time and consequently found an enthusiastic readership amongst them, for they continued this chronicle for well over a thousand years, indeed until the collapse of learned Gaelic society in circa 1600. Thus it appears to me that a critical interest in time was a deeply embedded intellectual tradition of learned Irish society, and it was this that sustained their recording of history in annalistic form for so long. Furthermore, that Irish society still retains a keen interest in the detailed recording of history implicit in annals is clearly demonstrated by the large number of titles registering chronicles and history listed in the catalogue of my publisher, Four Courts Press.

In this book you note the “importance of including the chronological apparatus in the analysis of a chronicle.” Part of your research focuses on how chronologically accurate the various annals are, such as the dating of periods of famine and widespread mortality during the sixth century. Why did you want to take a look at this aspect of the annals?

To me the chronological apparatus is the critical element that coherently links all of the entries together to form a meaningful temporal structure, a chronicle; in terms of an analogy, it is the essential thread that secures many pieces of fabric together to form a single, usable garment. As such the chronological apparatus, while it normally only constitutes a small percentage of the text of a chronicle, plays a crucial role of integration, for it coherently locates all of the chronicle entries across time in a measured fashion. In order to be able employ chronicle entries to make reliable inferences concerning the events that they describe we need to know whether this distribution is trustworthy or not. One way to do this is to compare the chronology of the phenomenological entries against the independent chronology provided by such as dendrochronology, orbital mechanics, and ice cores. In the case of the Irish Annals, which exist in multiple copies with a relatively simple chronological apparatus of either just a kalend, or a kalend plus a ferial datum, this apparatus had been hardly studied by earlier scholars with the result that the editors of the published editions invariably supplied conflicting marginal chronologies. My study of the chronological apparatus of the Annals was undertaken in order to resolve the conflicts between these conflicting published editorial chronologies.

What areas of research do you think scholars might want to focus on – in terms of the annals themselves, as well as the material they cover?

Well I believe that, because they have been relatively little studied in detail, the Irish Annals provide many interesting research opportunities in a number of areas. Firstly, the presence of a considerable number of phenomenological entries recording astronomical events (e.g. eclipses, comets, aurorae), meteorological events (e.g. extremes of rain, ice, wind), biological events (e.g. human and animal plagues, harvest extremes), which may all be collated against any parallel entries in other chronicles and against records drawn from orbital mechanics, dendrochronology, ice-cores, and pollen deposits, in order to improve our understanding of these events. I am aware of two such studies recently concluded, one dealing with climate and the other with European cattle plagues. Secondly, because obituaries form the majority of the Annalistic entries and these often incorporate personal name elements linking two or three generations, then these may be collated against the vast corpus of biological links recorded in the Irish genealogies, and such studies may now also be able usefully to employ DNA analysis. Thirdly, over the latter centuries of the first millennium a canonical list of Ireland’s supposed kings evolved, and this regnal canon was used for both mythological and chronological purposes. By the twelfth century this resulted most famously in various recensions of The Book of Invasions, alias An Lebor Gabála, and a critical examination of the formation of the regnal canon should greatly illuminate the origin, intention, and chronology of this culturally important compilation. Fourthly, some of the Annals preserve early versions of the Irish origin myth, and more may be learned about the evolution of this myth by comparing these Annalistic versions against the later versions preserved in a great variety of literary forms.

Finally, you explain that you have been reading and researching these annals since your youth. Can you tell us why you found them so fascinating?

I suppose that from an early age I was interested in the phenomenon of time and its representation, and consequently when I first encountered the Irish Annals I was attracted by their unique kalend, or kalend plus ferial, representation. The scholars who had previously discussed this representation had considered it to be both trivial and hopelessly compromised by scribal errors. However, when I examined it I found this not to be the case, and hence I became engaged in the task of resolving the chronology of the Annals. In this undertaking both the presence of the phenomenological entries, and of my having access to computer technology greatly facilitated this process, and I was able to make the resultant collations available at in an accessible form. This chronological interest, together with the fact that the Annals provide so much detailed information about a huge number of diverse events in Ireland and neighbouring countries for over a thousand years, ensures that my fascination with them will continue into the foreseeable future.

We thank Dan McCarthy for answering our questions.

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