Ó Cléirigh, Mícheál (O'Clery, Michael) (c.1590–1643), OFM, historian and scribe, chief of the ‘four masters’, was born into the learned family of Ó Cléirigh in Co. Donegal, fourth son of Donnchadh (son of Uilliam son of Tuathail) Ó Cléirigh and his wife Honora Ultach (Onora Ó hUltacháin). In 1630 he described himself as ‘dar duthchas 7 darb foghlaim croinic’ (Gen. reg., 7) (a chronicler by descent and education), recalling with pride his cultural and family background. He was a direct descendant of Tadhg Cam Ó Cléirigh (d. 1492), who, according to his obituary in the ‘Annals of the four masters’, had been ollamh to Ó Domhnaill in literature, poetry, and history. The Ó Cléirigh family prospered as the politicial power of the Ó Domhnaill clan expanded in west Ulster through the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Mícheál's father was a poet to whom is attributed a poem that marked the inauguration of Domhnall Mac Suibhne Fanad (1570). His mother's maiden name links her to the professional family who were hereditary physicians to the Ó Domhnaill family. The names of Mícheál's three elder brothers are known: Uilliam, Conaire, and Maolmhuire. The last of these became Fr Bernardine, OFM, and was a priest member of the Franciscan community, ordained at Brussels in 1619 and later attached to the Donegal friary. Fr Bernardine's age was recorded on 10 November 1610, at which time he was in his twenty-second year. Since Mícheál was younger than Fr Bernardine, Mícheál's date of birth can be placed no earlier than the latter part of 1589 and more probably several years later. His baptismal name was Tadhg, and he was known in his native Donegal as ‘Tadhg an tsléibhe’ (Tadhg of the mountain).
Precise details of his early education in Donegal are not recorded, but it is known that he was trained in the well established scholarly tradition of his family. It is possible that his early teachers included James Walters and a member of the learned family of Ó hEódhusa, the teachers named by his brother Maolmhuire on joining the Irish college of Salamanca in November 1610. It appears that Mícheál left Donegal for continental Europe sometime before 1621, perhaps several years before. He may posssibly be identified with the ‘Don Tadeo Cleri’, one of the company of Arthur O'Neill, who received a monthly grant from the authorities in the Spanish Netherlands on 23 July 1621, on account of the ‘persecution and loss of estate he had suffered for the catholic cause in Ireland’ (Jennings, Associates, 18) It is not known precisely when Tadhg Ó Cleirigh joined the Franciscan order, taking the name Mícheál, but he was certainly a member by March 1623. He chose to remain a lay brother, rather than be ordained a priest. By the time he joined the Irish Francisans at St Anthony's College, Louvain, he was probably already known to some members of the community there, including Aodh Buidhe Mac an Bhaird (qv) (Fr. Hugh Ward) who had been in Salamanca with his brother Maolmhuire Ó Cléirigh a decade earlier. Hugh Ward had recently arrived in Louvain from Salamanca and, in consultation with another Franciscan, Patrick Fleming (qv), was actively pursuing scholarly research into the historical sources for the lives of early Irish saints. It was quickly recognised that Mícheál Ó Cléirigh's training in the use of medieval Irish manuscripts meant that he already possessed the necessary scholarly expertise to assist in this undertaking. Shortly after Hugh Ward was appointed guardian of the college (1626), Mícheál Ó Cléirigh received instructions to return to Ireland to work on the identification and transcription of manuscript sources relating to the lives of Irish saints. Leaving Louvain in the summer of 1626, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh spent the next eleven years in Ireland. He lived as a member of the Franciscan community in the friary of Donegal, which was then located at Drowes, near the border between Donegal and Leitrim. The original monastic buildings in Donegal town had been vacated by the Franciscans in 1601 at the height of the nine years' war.
Working under the direction of Fr Hugh Ward, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh devoted several summers to travelling extensively in the south and east of Ireland, visiting places where manuscripts were preserved by the learned class. His work took him to Drogheda, Kildare, Dublin, Multyfarnham, Athlone, Castlekevin, Cloghwalter, and Wexford in the province of Leinster. In the southern province of Munster he spent time at Cashel, Ballymacegan, Clonmel, Cork city, Timoleague, and Killaloe. He also visited Kinalehin, in east Galway, and nearer home spent time at the monastery of Lisgoole, Co. Fermanagh. Staying sometimes in Franciscan houses, and other times probably as the guest of learned families, he consulted the Irish manuscripts to which he gained access. He meticulously transcribed what was recorded in relation to the lives of early Irish saints, and carefully noted in colophons the place, source, and date of the transcripts he prepared. This was done on the instructions of his Louvain superiors, whose researches required accurate and authenticated transcripts of the best available manuscript sources. Some of the fruits of his researches were eventually published in Acta sanctorum Hiberniae, edited by John Colgan (qv) and printed in 1645, although Ó Cléirigh did not live to see the work come to fruition.
Mícheál Ó Cléirigh established an extensive network of contacts with other scholars, mostly of the learned class, and benefited from his association with men such as Flann Mac Aodhagáin, Baothghalach Ruadh Mac Aodhagáin, and Conchobhair Mac Bruaideadha. He also gained access to Irish manuscript materials in the possession of Sir James Ware (qv), and was even allowed to borrow the section of the Book of Leinster containing the Martyrology of Tallaght, which he consulted at Drogheda and later took to Donegal and Louvain. Each winter Ó Cléirigh usually returned to the Donegal friary. There he continued to work on manuscript sources and made fair copies of the transcripts he had compiled on his travels.
In addition to his work of transcribing lives of saints, Ó Cléirigh also undertook new compilations of source material in the Irish language. It was intended that these works would be translated into Latin for wider dissemination as part of the Irish Franciscan hagiographical research project masterminded from Louvain. In 1628 Ó Cléirigh completed the Martyrology of Donegal, a calendar of Irish saints which he worked on in association with some fellow Franciscans at Donegal and which was derived principally from the older Martyrology of Gorman. A second recension was completed in 1630. The first project for which Ó Cléirigh assembled a team of lay scholars to assist him appears to have been the ‘Genealogies of saints and kings’, compiled at Athlone under the patronage of Turlough MacCoughlan (Terence Coghlan (qv) (d. 1653)) in 1630. Ó Cléirigh's three collaborators on the project were Fearfeasa Ó Maolchonaire (qv), Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh (qv), and Cú Choigcríche Ó Duibhgeannáin (qv), the team who later became known as the ‘four masters’. The same team next undertook ‘to purge of error, rectify and transcribe this old chronicle’ (Eugene O'Curry, Lectures on the manuscript materials of ancient Irish history (1861), 168) by preparing a revised text of the medieval origin myth known as ‘Leabhar Gabhála Éireann’ (Book of the taking of Ireland). Their new recension of the text was completed at Lisgoole, Co. Fermanagh, in December 1631, under the patronage of Brian Ruadh Mág Uidhir of Enniskillen.
The work for which Ó Cléirigh and his lay collaborators are best known, the ‘Annals of the kingdom of Ireland’, commonly referred to as the ‘Annals of the four masters’, was commenced in the temporary Donegal friary in January 1632, and the annals from AM 2242 to AD 1208 were completed in the first phase of the work. In preparation for the task, Ó Cléirigh had borrowed manuscripts from a number of different learned families and brought them to the friary at Drowes. There the team of scholars that had worked on earlier projects with Ó Cléirigh prepared a new set of annals of Irish history. They worked by selecting and revising entries from earlier annals and rearranging them in a sequence that gave priority to ecclesiastical rather than secular leaders. The ‘four masters’ were assisted for a time by two other scribes, Mícheál's older brother Conaire Ó Cléirigh, and Muiris Ó Maoil Chonaire. Fearghal Ó Gadhra (qv) (d. 1660) of Coolavin, Co. Sligo, acted as patron for the work, while the hospitality of the Donegal friars, not least the Rev. Bernardine Ó Cléirigh, also facilitated the work in progress. Work resumed on the annals project in 1635 and was brought to completion in the summer of 1636, ending with a record of the death of Hugh O'Neill (qv) in the year 1616.
Mícheál Ó Cléirigh's work during the mid 1630s was not confined exclusively to the compilation of annals. He continued to travel to different parts of Ireland to consult manuscripts and make additional transcripts of saints' Lives. In Oct. 1636 he visited the convent of Poor Clare nuns recently established at Bethlehem on the shores of Lough Ree, and transcribed for them a copy of the Rule of St Clare in Irish translation. He made copies of historical texts such as ‘Cogadh Gaedheal re Gallaibh’ (War of the Gael and the Gall), and shortly before his return to Louvain (1637) he commenced a transcription of the recently completed history of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating (qv), ‘Foras feasa ar Éirinn’, though he left it to an assistant to finish the transcript.
The exact date of Ó Cléirigh's final departure from Ireland is unknown but he was back in St Anthony's College, Louvain, before the end of 1637. In the final years of his life he prepared Foclóir nó sanasain nua, a dictionary of difficult words in the Irish language, which was printed in 1643 at the college's own printing press. The work, intended for the education of young scholars, was the only one of Ó Cléirigh's numerous works to be printed in his lifetime. It contained a dedication to Baothghalach Mac Aodhagáin (Boetius Egan (qv)), bishop of Elphin, dated 23 October 1643. Before the end of the same year, Ó Cléirigh died in Louvain. He was buried in the grounds of the Franciscan Irish college there, though the precise location of the grave is not recorded. Archaeological excavations in 2002 revealed a number of burials in the grounds of the college, one of which may be that of Mícheál Ó Cléirigh.