The Four Masters

Thomas D'Arcy McGee

The famous “Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland,” better known as the “Annals of the Four Masters,” were compiled in the Franciscan convent at Donegal by the monk Michael O’Clery and his three assistants early in the seventeenth century. In the dedication of the work to Fergal O’Gara, Lord of Moy-O’Gara and Coolavin, under whose patronage the Annals were compiled, Brother Michael says: “On the 22d January, 1632, this work was undertaken in the convent of Dunagall, and was finished in the same convent on the 10th of August, 1636.” The other three Masters were Conary and Peregrine O’Clery, and Ferleasa O’Mulconry.


MANY altars are in Banba,

  Many chancels hung in white,

Many schools, and many abbeys,

  Glorious in our Father’s sight;

Yet whene’er I go a pilgrim,

  Back, dear Holy Isle, to thee,

May my filial footsteps bear me

  To that abbey by the sea,—

      To that abbey, roofless, doorless,

      Shrineless, monkless, though it be!


These are days of swift upbuilding,

  All to pride and triumph tends;

Art is liegeman to religion,

  Genius speaks, and song ascends.

As the day-beam to the sailor,

  Lighting up the wreckers’ shore,

So the present lustre shineth

  On the barrenness before,—

      But no gleam rests on that abbey,

      Silent by Tyrconnel’s shore.


Yet I hear them in my musings,

  And I see them as I gaze,

Four meek men around the cresset,

  With the scrolls of other days;

Four unwearied scribes who treasure

  Every word and every line,

Saving every ancient sentence

  As if writ by hands divine.


On their calm down-bended foreheads,

  Tell me what is it you read?

Is there malice or ambition

  In the will or in the deed?

O no! no! the angel Duty

  Calmly lights the dusky walls,

And their four worn right hands follow

  Where the angel’s radiance falls.


Not of fame and not of fortune

  Do these eager pensmen dream;

Darkness shrouds the hills of Banba,

  Sorrow sits by every stream;

One by one the lights that led her,

  Hour by hour, were quenched in gloom;

But the patient, sad Four Masters

    Toil on in their lonely room,—

    Duty thus defying doom.


As the breathing of the west-wind

  Over bound and bearded sheaves,

As the murmur in the beehives,

  Softly heard on summer eves,

So the rustle of the vellum,

  So the anxious voices sound,

So the deep expectant silence

  Seems to listen all around.


Brightly on the abbey gable

  Shines the full moon through the night,

While far to the northward glances

  All the bay in waves of light.

Tufted isle and splintered headland

  Smile and soften in her ray,

Yet within their dusky chamber

    The meek Masters toil assay,

    Finding all too short the day.


Now they kneel! attend the accents

  From the souls of mourners wrung;

Hear the soaring aspirations,

  Barbed with the ancestral tongue;

For the houseless sons of chieftains,

  For their brethren afar,

For the mourning Mother Island,

  These their aspirations are.


And they said, before uprising,

  “Father, grant one other prayer,—

Bless the lord of Moy-O’Gara,

  Bless his lady, and his heir;

Send the generous chief, whose bounty

  Cheers, sustains us in our task,

Health, success, renown, salvation,—

  Father! this is all we ask.”


O that we who now inherit

  All their trust, with half their toil,

Were but fit to trace their footsteps

  Through the Annals of the Isle;

O that the bright angel, Duty,

  Guardian of our tasks might be,

Teach us as she taught our Masters,

    In that abbey by the sea,

    Faithful, grateful, just, to be!