The importance of the Old Moore’s Almanac to Irish cultural history cannot be understated. It has thrived for 254 years, and it is imperative that the magazine is preserved and treasured for many centuries to come.
Humble Beginnings: The Irish Merlin
In 1764, an almanac called The Irish Merlin burst onto the scene. It was published by Theophilus Moore, known henceforth to generations of Irish people as Old Moore. Although in its early form this almanac didn’t bear the compiler’s name, it was indeed the first Old Moore’s Almanac.
There was a good reason why Theophilus didn’tt put his name to The Irish Merlin. Because the Catholic faith was actively being quashed at the time, Theophilus (a devout Catholic) wanted The Irish Merlin to be a Catholic publication while he himself remained free of any attention from the authorities.
John McCall (editor of Old Moore’s Almanac from 1874 to 1902) in his manuscript History of Irish Almanacks confirmed that The Irish Merlin was published by Theophilus Moore. He says it was known as one of ‘Stewart’s Merlins’ because it was printed by A. Stewart, a wellknown printer and editor of the time.
According to McCall, Moore did indeed commence his almanac in 1764:
“At the same time, he removed to Dublin where he opened an academy in Charlemont St. and annually supplied the almanack. He was related to Thomas Moore, the poet, who attended his school for a considerable time before he entered college. Theophilus frequented the house of Thomas Moore’s father in Aungier St.; they were kinsmen in name and race and consequently allied to each other by ties of close intimacy for many years. Moore’s almanack had not the registry of his name till after the period of 1782 when Catholic disabilities were partially removed, when his name appeared in his almanacks. He died at the close of the eighteenth century.”
Likewise, another account of Moore’s early life seems to match the one above. The alternative account gives his birth as 1730 in Offaly, the territory of the O’Moores. It has been said that he was descended from Rory Óg O’Moore, the ruins of whose castle may still be seen on the rock of Dunamase, three miles east of Port Laoise.
The future astrologer spent his youth on the plains of Offaly. He had a great thirst for learning and acquired a deep knowledge of English, Irish, Latin and Greek. He also studied mathematics and astrology.
Around the age of 30 he went to Dublin, where for a time he led a precarious existence. Ultimately, he settled on the Palmerston estate in Old Rathmines, between Milltown and “The Bloody Fields.” Here he opened an Academy and taught mathematics and classics as well as astronomy and astrology.
He is said to have taught the young members of the Palmerston household, but his fidelity to the Catholic faith and refusal to conform to the Established Church lost him their patronage. Before entering Trinity College, Thomas Moore, the poet, attended the academy of Theophilus as a pupil, and it is said that master and pupil, namesakes and kinsmen, remained always firm friends.
Moore’s Almanack is Born
So, these two separate accounts do match up. Both agree that Theophilus Moore commenced his Almanack shortly after coming to Dublin (the Almanack would later be spelled almanac). In its early issues the Merlin did not bear the compiler’s name, but merely his nom-de-plume: “Philomath” (meaning tutor).
After the Merlin had been published for some time, “Philomath” became very well-known for his predictions. But many people wanted in on Theophilus’ growing fortune, and claimed to be “Philomath,” so in 1793, Theophilus Moore came out from the shelter of his nom-de-plume, and claimed his success. From that point onwards, the almanac appeared bearing his name. The title was now The Irish Merlin, or Moore’s Almanack, 1793, by Theophilus Moore, Philomath. Soon after, it simply became known as Moore’s Almanack.
A Growing Institution
From 1793 until Moore’s death, the almanac grew in popularity and fame. It was in the first decade of the nineteenth century that the famed astrologer died, or “was gathered to his fathers” as the media reported. He was then nearly 80 years old. He was buried in Drumcondra Churchyard near the spot where Thomas Furlong (one of our national poets) rests.
The woodcut picture of Theophilus Moore used in the book for centuries was carved towards the end of his life, and it shows him bent over, with a walking stick. It seems to be an accurate portrait of Theophilus. Before photos were widely available, people were described by means of “pen pictures.” A pen picture by Revd. Patrick O’Byrne, of Ralston Street, described Moore well:
“In his early manhood his figure was tall, slight, elastic and graceful; towards the end of his life it naturally was inclined to be stooped. His face was long, narrow and handsome, and his fine head was covered to the last with long masses of soft and wavy hair. Eagle eyes were set deep beneath shaggy beetling eyebrows. His nose was long and aquiline; and the furrowed lines on his high and intellectual forehead proclaimed to the world the deep and anxious thought that ever occupied his great and active mind.”
The editorship of the almanac is not clear for a considerable time after the death of Theophilus. All we know is that the magazine continued to be published every year under the name Moore’s Almanack. And copycat magazines continued to appear (“spurious editions” as they were called).
In 1874, the editorship was given to John McCall. It was thought that around this time the word “Old” was added to the title, in honour of how long Theophilus had lived, which was remarkable for the time. McCall was editor until his death in 1902 at the age of 81 – he actually edited the almanac until a month before his death.
McCall was quite well known at this time in Ireland for many accomplishments in publishing, and he was also known to have advanced the almanac to a very considerable extent during his tenure. He was known as “a man of wonderful knowledge and natural ability.”
During his editorship, John McCall gathered around him several vivid personalities who contributed to the almanac. They linked together into a clan, and John McCall was regarded as Chieftain. They considered themselves as the successors of the Irish Bards and wrote of themselves as “The Bards of Di.” This title is thought to be derived from the Goddess of the Moon, Diana; the connection of the bards with astrology makes the reference easily understood.
Often in the pages of the Moore’s Almanack we see references to “Lady Di” and the contributors are also spoken of as “Diarians”, a title the bards were very proud of. They developed close bonds of fellowship and friendship. Indeed later issues of Old Moore’s Almanack have many elegies penned for departed bards of this clan. On the death of John McCall, the bards became very vocal, and many elegies appeared for many years in praise of his work and in his memory.
After McCall, the relatively famous Patrick Keary edited the Moore’s Almanack under the pen name “Kevin Kay” for two years. He was succeeded by Michael Fanning, and then by Seamus Bolger. By 1940 the circulation was 200,000 copies. Even more than that were sold “in every part of the globe whither Irishmen have gone. The popularity of Old Moore’s Almanack was well grounded, upon its usefulness and its interest. As regards the former, it supplied, in cheap and handy form, much information of everyday service to the farmer and rural worker, as well as to many town-dwellers.”
Even beggars were said to have bought the Almanack. They gained the best begging takings at the fairs and marts listed faithfully in each edition. Historian B. P. Bowen said in 1940:
“It is not surprising that such a publication should have found favour among the people of the country, when newspapers were scarce, before modern progress had so changed means of communication. It has been said, with much truth, that the books in the average country cabin during the nineteenth century consisted of a prayer book, a chap-book [a small paperback booklet, typically containing poems or fiction]and an Old Moore’s Almanack.
This last provided much material of a puzzling nature to while away long winter evenings and encouraged those of an ingenious turn to try their skill in solving the problems proposed. As prizes were given for solutions to the puzzles, and for new puzzles for next year, the connection between issues was maintained.
Let it not be thought that the poems have been mere drivel—far from it; many show distinct merit, and sometimes herald the rise of a new poet. John Keegan Casey (“Leo’ of the Nation) appeared in the pages of Old Moore as a youthful and aspiring poet. So did Charles Kickham, under the nom-de-plume of “Cavellus.” The late P. J. McCall made many contributions to Old Moore’s Almanack in his early days. The pages of Old Moore were always open to the budding rhymester, and the better his work the more likely he was to have it published.”
The Power of Prediction
So what gave Old Moore’s Almanac its staying power? The accuracy of its predictions, of course! Theophilus Moore himself had a great reputation for his skill in prophecy, and subsequent editors made sure that the predictions were compiled by someone who was skilled in the art.
The editor and the prophet have not always been the same person. Michael Fanning, a native of Brackenstown, Co. Dublin, was a regular contributor to almanacs, and did some of the predictions for Old Moore’s Almanac. Bernard O’Neill, of Blackwatertown on the Moy near Armagh, was the prophet for some time previous to 1914-15.
There are famous examples of predictions coming true in the past which made readers talk endlessly. In 1903 it was foretold that “a crown would fall from a kingly head”. Certainly the chance was rather a wide one. But when the King and Queen of Serbia were assassinated in June 1903, who could doubt the prophet’s vision? In that year also, Old Moore declared that “the Eternal City would have cause to go into mourning”. The death of Pope Leo XIII in July 1903 was the fulfillment of that prophecy.
The Old Moore’s Almanac once foretold that the Derby would be run in a snowstorm; as this race takes place in June, the likelihood seemed remote, but it happened, and the almanac received much kudos. After Old Moore’s successful prediction of the victory of a horse called Blenheim in the Derby, many half-crowns were sent direct to the editor to be staked on the winner of the next big race. But he had to decline the responsibility and return the money.
Old Moore was so popular at one time that the travelling peddler often had cause to bless the almanac. It ensured a meal or a night’s lodging for the wayfarer. One such peddler has said that he always set out with a bundle of the recently-issued Almanacs under his arm, knowing that for many a day he could obtain his bed and board from those he visited, thanks to the welcome given to Old Moore in the countryside.
Today, the editor and the prophet are once again two different people, but the amazing predictions are still coming true with alarming accuracy. Long live Old Moore’s Almanac!
You can see historical copies of the almanac at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin. You can’t borrow the books, but you can peruse them in the reading rooms. Here’s what to ask for:
- The title started its life as The Irish Merlin in 1764
- The title was changed to Moore’s Almanack around 1782
- By 1853 it was called Old Moore’s Almanack
- After around 1900 it was called Old Moore’s Almanac
Every now and again, old copies of the Almanac pop up for sale on eBay or other auction sites. Recently, an Irish Merlin from 1765 sold on eBay. If you see one, buy it!
You can also find old copies in the Marsh Library in Dublin, and in Trinity’s Old Library (pictured) which also holds the Book of Kells. The Irish Merlin, for the year 1793 is located in the Department of Early Printed Books and Special Collections Reading Room. This is in the East Pavilion of the Old Library, at one end of the Long Room, in the same building which houses the Book of Kells. In general, the Library’s Early Printed books and Special Collections Reading Room is not open to the public, but individuals may apply for a temporary reader’s ticket in certain circumstances. Email [email protected].
The information for this article came from:
Historian B. P. Bowen B.L., B.Sc. He wrote an article about the Old Moore’s Almanac in 1940 for the Dublin Historical Record Vol. 3, No. 1 (Sep., – Nov., 1940), pp. 26-37. The Dublin Historical Record is a history journal established in 1938, published biannually by the Old Dublin Society, which still exists today. (Have a spin around their fascinating website at olddublinsociety.ie)
Plus we had help from Maria O’Brien, who is an ace at family history and searching old records. Got a family history mystery? Contact us here.