There are more than 2,500 events throughout Ireland’s history penned into The Annals of Inisfallen. It is a chronicle of the medieval history of Ireland, scribed mostly by the monks of Innisfallen Abbey, on Innisfallen Island on Lough Leane, near Killarney. The events recorded in the Annals are thought to have taken place between AD 433 and AD 1450.
Remnants of other Annals still survive today. These chronological documents are often the only way to learn about important events of long ago. But of all of the annals that are available for gawking at these days, The Annals of Inisfallen seem to be the most famous. They contain more than 2,300 entries from the 5th to the 15th centuries. Over the years the responsibility of transcribing important historical events changed hands many times, in fact, the Annals of Innisfallen were compiled by a succession of 39 monastic scribes.
The first part of The Annals of Inisfallen was transcribed at the Monastery of Emly (in modern-day Tipperary) towards the end of the 10th century. The next part was rendered in County Clare at some point in the mid-11th century. Then in the 12th century, the manuscript was moved to the Abbey of Inisfallen, where all further contributions would be made. And it was named after its final destination.
Inisfallen is an island on Lough Leane, the “Lake of Learning”, in Killarney, Co. Kerry. The island was settled in 640 AD by Leinster native Finian Lobhar. He was also known over time as Saint Finian the Leper, whose festival day is observed on the eve of the Feast of Saint Patrick.
St. Finian established a leper colony at Inisfallen, in the 600s. Over time, use of the island as a leper colony faded out, and it morphed into one of the primary repositories of learning in early Christian Ireland. The site remained occupied for nine centuries, becoming an abbey for medieval Irish scholars. It is in the Abbey that the Annals of Inisfallen were completed. Written in Gaelic intermingled with Latin, the original manuscript contains 57 leaves. The beginning eight leaves narrate some of Ireland’s pagan history, as well as a concise version of world history in general. The final 57th leaf concludes with the year 1319. One of the most significant figures in the life of the Annals of Inisfallen was named Maelsuthan Ua Cerbhail.
Maelsuthan was a chief of the Eoghanacht of Loch Lein, a branch of a powerful southern Irish tribe that settled around the Lakes of Killarney. It is thought that he received his early education at the monastery on the island of Innisfallen and later became the school’s head. There he oversaw the future king Brian Boru’s education at the monastery. As Brian Boru went from student to king, he made Maelsuthan his anmchara (a term that can refer to an advisor a confessor). Maelsuthan was an important scholar, often credited for beginning the Annals of Innisfallen. Although this has come into dispute over the years.
Despite the remoteness of its location, the Abbey was raided at least three times: twice by Vikings and once by a rogue Irishman. However, none of these acts of violence would destroy the Abbey; after each raid, the monks would recover and re-establish their scholarly stronghold. Lasting defeat would not occur until 18 August 1594, when Elizabeth I forcibly banished the monks from their centre of learning. From there, it was abandoned as a monastery and place of learning, and the Annals eventually ended up in England.
The abandoned site would eventually take on a cult-like status among certain poets, especially those of the romantic vein, such as Dublin-born bard Thomas Moore, who waxed all sentimental about the isle in his ballad Sweet Innisfallen.
So what now remains of the Abbey? Though its 7th century beginnings are gone, parts of its 10th, 12th, and 13th century construction still stand proud. And you can visit them for yourself, as Inisfallen is open for tourism during the summer months, when boats head to the island daily.
The Annals of Inisfallen are currently held in the the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In 2001, Brian O’Leary, a Fianna Fáil councillor in Killarney, called for the annals to be returned to the town.
Below are some examples of entries in the Annals of Inisfallen. The full text can be found here.
Kl. The first feria [Sunday]. Conversion of the Scotti to the Christian Faith.
Kl. The first prey by the Saxon from Ireland.[AU 434].
Kl. The third feria [Tuesday]. Orosius and Cyril flourished in the doctrine. [AU 435, 436].
Kl. Death of king Bresal Brec. [AU 435, 436].
Kl. The ninth of the moon. Beginning of the Great Circle.
Kl. The twentieth of the moon.
K. The first feria [Sunday]. Secundinus, Auxilius, and Isserninus are sent to help Patrick; nevertheless, not they, but Patrick alone held the apostleship. [AU 439].
Kl. The second feria [Monday], twelfth of the moon.
Repose of Augustine, a learned man. [AU 440].
Death of Maine, son of Niall [Naígiallach]
Kl. The approval of Saint Patrick in the Catholic Faith. [AU 441].
Kl. The fourth of the moon. A comet appeared.
Kl. Patrick flourished in the doctrine of Christ. [AU 443].
Kl. An eclipse of the sun in the ninth hour.
Kl. The third [feria]. Theodosius, who reigned twenty-six years.
Nath Í, son of Fiachra, [died]. [AU 444].
Kl. The battle of Mag Feimin between the Munstermen and the Laigin, in which fell Mac Cáirthinn son of Caelub [AU 447].
Kl. Repose of Saint Secundinus. [AU 47].
Kl. The synod of Chalcedon assembles. [AU 457].
Kl. The death of Laegaire, son of Niall, at Grellach Dabaill between two hills, namely Ériu and Alba. [AU 462].
Kl. Ailill Molt reigned. [AU 463].
Kl. Isserninus fell asleep. [AU 468].
Kl. The battle of Ard Corainn. [AU 464].
Kl. Repose of bishop Benignus … dies in Rome.
Death of Leo the Minor who reigned sixteen years, and Eman (Zeno) becomes emperor.
Kl. The Festival of Temuir [celebrated] by Ailill Molt. [AU 467, 469, 470].
Kl. The battle of Duma Aichir [gained] against Ailill Molt. Illann was victor. [AU 468, 474, 476].
Kl. The second prey of the Saxon from Ireland. [AU 471].
Kl. The son of Conall, son of Cremthann, son of Niall dies. [AU 480].
Kl. Repose of Iarlaithe, the third abbot of Ard Macha [AU 481].
Kl. The battle of Uchbath [gained] over the Laigin by Crimthann, or by Fiachra Glomrach, son of Caelub, son of Crund, of Dál Araide. [AU 482, 483].
Kl. The battle of Granard (Mac Erce victor), in which Finnchad, king of the Laigin, fell; and Cairpre [was] victor, as others say. [AU 485, 486].
The mortal wounding of Crimthann Ceinnselach, king of Laigin, whom Echaid Glúinech slays. [AU 483, 485].
Kl. Birth of Brénainn, son of Finnlug.
Kl. Death of Crimthann Ceinnselach. [AU 483, 485].
Kl. Repose of Cianán of Dam Liac. [AU 489].
Death of Zeno, who reigned seventeen years.
Anastasius becomes emperor. [AU 491].
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