Endurance: Heroic Journeys in Ireland

a new book reviewed by Jerry O’Sullivan


Weight is an important consideration when going walk-about so if given the choice of that emergency flare or Dermot Somers’ book ‘Endurance: Heroic Journeys in Ireland’, leave the emergency flares behind.

‘Endurance’ is composed of seven stories spanning 2,000 years, from the Fifth Century BC to the compilation of the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’ just before the arrival in Ireland of Oliver Cromwell in the mid 1600s. It allows the reader to superimpose upon the mental map of Ireland the sweeping tides of history both National and European, before the centralization of power in London and the Plantations.

Escape and Brutality

The first story recounts Red Hugh O Donnell’s kidnap in 1587. Set against the pre-Armada paranoia of Elizabethan England and his subsequent “escapes” from Dublin Castle.  It segues nicely into the story of the shipwreck of Francisco De Cuellar on Streedagh Strand, County Sligo in September 1588.  The reader is introduced to the casual brutality of troubled times where shipwrecked survivors were either murdered for their possessions and clothing or stripped naked and left to the harsh elements. Francisco’s account, possessing great humour at times, shows us avarice, greed, mercy, barbarity and life and death on a whim. It is poignant for its view of shifting allegiance. Red Hugh’s father handed over Spanish survivors to Dublin Castle in return for his son. The Spanish were promptly executed. Red Hugh remained a prisoner.

O’Sullivan Beara

The third deals with Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beara’s retreat/flight from Beara, Co. Cork to Briefne, Co. Leitrim. The 400th Anniversary of this epic walk took place in January 2002. The details of this story are well documented but Somers manages to add a new slant to some aspects of the story, asking was O’Sullivan a “charismatic figure that folklore reveres, or simply a running man protected by hired soldiers?” Somers also wonders why we know the names of none of the people who died en route but have  the full story on the demise of a horse called An Cearc!

An Táin and Acallamh Na Seanorach

The Tain and the Connaught invasion of Ulster under Queen Medb is one of our greatest legends. It retraces the invasion route from Cruchan, County Roscommon to County Louth, but deals in myth, difficult to credit numbers, and feats of magic that leaves little impression on the rational mind. As little in fact as on the landscape. For these tales require a suspension of belief which is difficult in modern Ireland.

This restraint must remain with the reader in the section devoted to Acallamh na Seanorach, ‘Discourse of the Elders’, the story of a journey around Ireland made by St. Patrick and a pagan warrior of the Fianna, Caoilte mac Ronain. It continues on in the vein of incredible acts of magic and complete disrespect for time and chronology. Acallamh is a conversation on the changes between pre-Christian and Christian Ireland taking place in Fifth Century Ireland which was in fact written in the Twelfth Century. Already changing due to the Norman invasion they however laid the foundations for our characters and myths, reinforcing the truism; “He who writes history decides who has merit and who is without.”

High King

Brian Boru’s tour of the North is an account of a High King’s patrolling the kingdom to control his subject lords. Though a real historical figure, his accession to power bore a strong resemblance to a leveraged buy-out deal of today, and his power base folded just as quickly upon his death. Generational change always brought a realignment of the pieces on the chess board and the absence of a centralized bureaucracy during Brian’s reign the reader awaits the inevitable end and the shout of - all change, start again!


The Annals of the Four Masters

The final story covers the journey of Michael O’Cleary.. 

The Annals of the Four Masters were compiled by Micheal O Cleirigh agus Cuchoigcriche O Cleirigh, Fearfeasa O Maolchonaire agus Cuchoigriche O Duibhgheanainn. They were two O’Clearys from Donegal, one of the Roscommon Conrys, and a Duignan from Leitrim. The Annals are a compilation of Irish legend and history from the Year of the Deluge, or Noah’s Flood to 1616 AD. Michael O’Cleary, the chief of the Four Masters, had spend time as a Fransiscan in Louvain where spiritual material was printed to be used in the Counter Reformation in Ireland and to publish evidence that would glorify the history of the Irish Catholic Church. As Somers’ says, “a Scottish theologian, Thomas Dempster had kidnapped the entire canon of Irish saints to whose names the adjective ‘Scotus’ had been appended. The coup included figures as thoroughly green as St. Bridgid – for ‘Scotus’ of course had traditionally meant Irish. This was a major crisis at the time. Damage to Ireland’s religious image would also erode the country’s political status in Catholic Europe.”

An edition, published in 1848-51 and edited by John O’Donovan, of the  Annals of the Four Masters (compiled during the period 1632-6) was published in six massive volumes, plus a seventh as an index, and runs to well over four thousand pages.

It is debatable as to whether the “Annals of the Four Masters” would ever have been compiled without Michael O’Cleary.

Somers traces his journeys upon his return from Louvain, Belgium in 1626 for ten years to 1636. It recounts his compilation by debate of what merited retention of Gaelic Ireland’s history definitely slanted to over-emphasize the contribution of the Northern half of Ireland. He was  hereditary historian to the O Donnells of Donegal. When viewed with the benefit of hind-sight his journey and work was more important than even he could have imagined.

 A contemporary was Ussher, Protestant Primate (who traced the creation of the world to October 23rd, 4004 BC at 8:00pm!) and whose extensive library O’Cleary visited to do research.

Somers’ also informs us of the academic spleen which greeted O’Cleary’s work and which did perhaps more to popularise it than anything else.



For anyone driving, walking around Ireland this is a good companion.  It will also interest anyone interested in a series of short, palatable stories identifying where upon the landscape the stories which inform our myths, legends, history and literature were written, This book is well written and is a testament to the changes of yesteryear and also a witness to the changes of today.




Endurance;  Heroic Journeys in Ireland by Dermot Somers is published by O’Brien Press, Dublin and is available for €17.95 from Macroom Bookshop Tel (026) 41888