One of the main sources for medieval Irish history, The Annals of the Four Masters, has an entry for the year 887 which talks about a mermaid 195 feet tall. So can you trust sources with such claims – How could a mermaid be so tall?
In all seriousness these accounts, the various annals of Ireland are littered with bizarre blatantly false accounts so here’s an ABC of the Annals being used as one of the sources for the Irish history podcast
What are the annals?
There are numerous medieval annals documenting Irish history. The four I am using most at the moment are The Annals of Ulster, The Annals of the Four Masters, The Fragmentary Annals and The Annals of Inisfallon.
The Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four Masters were both written in the late medieval period and are most lightly compiled from documents that are now lost or destroyed. They are all written in Gaelic or Latin. The Annals of Inisfallon were written slightly earlier in the medieval period but again are probably compiled from older documents.
The Fragmentary annals were written sometime in the 11th century and as the name suggested only survives in fragments. They are probably one of the sources for the later accounts.
You can find translations of them and many other annals here .
What do they look like?
The annals all follow a similar chronological pattern with an entry being written for each year or in some cases just years of noted activity. Some accounts are more developed than others. For example the Annals of the Four masters, the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Inisfallon are basically births, death and noted events in the lives of kings – you won’t find any social commentaries or analysis. Each year that is documented has one or maybe two entries. They can times read like reverend Lovejoy in the Simpsons – x begat y who begat z etc.
The Fragmentary Annals have much more detail – probably too much detail than could possibly be accurate. However these are still useful as the words attributed to kings etc, would have been written to be believed by people of the day. In this way these accounts can give us an insight as to what Kings might have thought in general.
Authors and bias?
The annals were nearly all written by monks and patronised by the male Gaelic aristocracy. The annals universally concern themselves with the lives of kings and aristocrats and are not particularly interested in the lives of peasants or women. This creates a completely lopsided version of Irish history with well over 50% of the population not accounted for. However this criticism is valid for much of 20th and 21st century history as well.
What about the crazy stuff?
From time to time the annals launch into bizarre accounts for example the entry mentioned at the start reads
“A mermaid was cast ashore by the sea in the country of Alba. One hundred and ninety five feet was her length, eighteen feet was the length of her hair, seven feet was the length of the fingers of her hand, seven feet also was the length of her nose; she was whiter than the swan all over.” Annals of the four masters
In my opinion this is not a reason to discount the annals as historical sources. Nearly all pre-modern histories do this. What are considered some of the Great Roman Historians were equally prone to mythical elaboration? These wild stories are actually in no way problematic because they are in no way believable or even relevant so can be easily discounted, they should be treated more like decoration than history.
So can we actually trust accounts this old? On an overall level Yes…..
It is really important to use modern historians as a guide and the annals as an accompaniment. I certainly wouldn’t base histories of them alone. Later histories and archaeology have a very important role to play in analysing these texts.
The general accuracy can be corroborated by contemporary works like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and some Icelandic sagas. On detail they probably aren’t very trustworthy. From time to time they have been rightly questioned by modern historians.
All this said there are some Irish historical accounts which should be read with extreme caution. The most famous and influential of these is the Cogadh Gael re Gallaibh (the war of the Irish and the foreigners). This is an account of medieval Irish history according to the O Brien Family, descendents of Brian Boru. The account erroneously creates a picture of 11th century Ireland dominated by a war between Vikings and Gaelic Ireland. This is completely untrue. This text is where a lot mythology around the battle of Clontarf (1014) and Brian Boru himself originates. This document was used by 19th century Irish nationalists as it created a version of Irish history that suited there aims.