The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife

Was Daniel Maclise a proto-Nationalist painter? Peter Murray thinks not, in his assessment of the National Gallery’s recently restored masterpiece.

The recent conservation and cleaning of The Marriage of the Princess Aoife of Leinster with Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (Strongbow) (1854) by Daniel Maclise, one of the treasures of the National Gallery of Ireland, has revealed a depth of colour and richness of detail that could hitherto only have been guessed at.

The painting’s narrative – the dynastic marriage of an Anglo-Norman baron, with the daughter of an Irish king, can be read as a metaphor for the cementing of what is now called the United Kingdom. Maclise was keenly aware of the Romantic view of a Gaelic civilization overwhelmed by the arrival of armour-clad barons, but his sympathies were equally weighted between Britain and Ireland. He viewed the overwhelming of Anglo-Saxon Britain in 1066, and the imposition of Norman rule in England and Wales, with the same dispassionate eye. In creating a composition that includes a large number of figures, Maclise managed to avoid the visual monotony that so often forms part of the depiction of ceremonial occasions. His painting shows the influence of Delacroix, David and Gericault, artists whose works he would have seen on a visit to Paris in 1830. It is also not dissimilar to paintings by English artists, notably William Powell Frith, whose large canvas, Ramsgate Sands, was also completed in 1854 and which was a popular hit at the Royal Academy exhibition that year.

While allowing for the necessities of pictorial composition, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (as it is popularly known) is reasonably accurate in its depiction of history. Drawn by the prospect of easy conquests, in 1170 the Earl of Pembroke, Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, also known as Strongbow, led his ‘marching barons’ over from Wales to Ireland. Ostensibly, he was responding to an invitation to aid a deposed Irish king, Dermot MacMurrough. On 23 August 1170, Strongbow landed in Ireland with 200 knights and 1,000 infantry. Two days later he attacked the city of Waterford and demolishing a house built against the city wall, the Anglo-Normans made a breach and entered the city, slaughtering many of the inhabitants. Their crossbows and body armour gave them the edge over the Irish soldiers, who fought with stone slings and battles axes. The Viking King of Waterford, and the Prince of the Decies, Melaghlin O’Faoláin (Malachy O’Phelan), were both taken prisoner and were only saved from summary execution by the arrival of Dermot MacMurrough. The marriage of Strongbow, a widower, and Aoife, the young daughter of Dermot MacMurrough, took place in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and was an essential part of legitimizing the Anglo-Norman invasion.

In October 1171, Henry II arrived in Ireland with a fleet of over 200 ships, 400 knights and 4,000 men. He also brought a controversial letter from Pope Adrian, giving papal blessing to the invasion. At Lismore he was met by the chiefs of Munster, including O’Phelan and Dermot McCormack MacCarthy who, along with the bishops and abbots, swore allegience. The King then travelled to Cashel, receiving Donald O’Brien, and accepting his oath of loyalty. Strongbow was named Lord Marshal of Ireland, Hugh de Lacy became Justiciary, or Lord Constable, while de Wellesley was appointed Royal Standard Bearer. The loyalty of these men to Henry II was tenuous, and when he left Ireland, he left a discontented country, full of rival factions. There were repeated uprisings against Norman rule and for the next century, the Vikings of Waterford complained about being treated in the same way as the Gaelic inhabitants of the Decies, evidently considering themselves a cut above their rural neighbours.

Maclise sought to reflect these complex patterns of loyalities and rivalries in his painting. The composition is divided into three roughly horizontal registers. The most prominent of these, the lower foreground, shows the defeated Celtic and Danish forces, whose attempt to withstand Strongbow and his barons has met with failure. Amidst the dead and dying, the figure of an aged harper represents Gaelic culture (Fig 2), while a woman raises her hands in horror and anguish at the catastrophe that has overwhelmed her land. While some of the weaponry and costume of the vanquished Gaelic and Danish soldiers is clearly exotic, Maclise did strive for accuracy. There are many references in the painting to the Viking settlement of Ireland that preceded the Anglo-Norman invasion by some two centuries. Their incursions began with sporadic raids on monasteries, but were consolidated with the founding of seaports such as Dublin, Waterford and Youghal. Although the Viking settlements, clustered along the Irish coastline, enjoyed an uneasy co-existence with the indigenous farming communities of the inland areas, Maclise sought to highlight their uniting in the face of a common enemy, the Anglo-Normans. This conjoining of Viking and Gaelic Irish interests is aptly symbolized in another detail in the foreground, a carved grave slab, inscribed with Scandinavian runes, as well as the Gaelic Christian inscription ‘oroit do mac’ or ‘pray for the soul of Mac’‚Äî presumably a wry reference by the artist to his own name (Figs 1&4).

In the foreground also, a group of vanquished Gaelic and Irish Viking rulers kneel to swear fealty to the new overlords. Their expressions and attitudes range from resignation to barely suppressed anger and resentment. Behind the vanquished lords, on the extreme right of the composition, two warriors turn away in anger, their brooding expressions suggesting an inclination to take to arms at the first opportunity. Tattoos on the chest of one of the warriors, a man with long dark hair who holds a battleaxe, include a sun motif and an interlaced serpent. The warriors wear gold gorgets and pennanular arm bracelets, based on those recovered during excavations of Irish Bronze Age and Early Christian sites. While the arm bracelets differ in detail from those used at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion, Maclise has used them primarily in a symbolic, rather than literal sense, to symbolize Gaelic culture and civilization. In like manner, while the harp in the painting is based on the famous ‘Brian Boru’ harp, an instrument dating from the late 14th or early 15th centuries, Maclise conjectured, not unreasonably, that a harp of two hundred years earlier would not have differed radically in design. He depicts some of the strings of the harp as broken, a commonly-used visual motif of the 19th century, referring to the downfall of Gaelic Ireland. Such references also highlight Maclise’s debt to the songs and writings of Thomas Moore, whose 1845 History of Ireland was probably the principal source used by Maclise in researching his painting.

Maclise sought to reflect these complex patterns of loyalities and rivalries in his painting

While the foreground, or lower register in the painting, is brightly lit and full of expressive figures, the middle register, containing the central scene, is more formal, less visually dramatic, and with most of the figures depicted in shadow. For dramatic efect, Maclise chose to depict the marriage of Richard de Clare, and Aoife, daughter of the King of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, taking place in front of a ruined monastery. The bishop raises his left hand, an extraordinary detail, suggesting the artist intended to depict the gesture as a malediction, rather than a blessing. Depicted as a dutiful and unresisting bride, Aoife’s eyes are demurely downcast. She is dressed in a gold-embroidered dress, the train of which is held by the first two of a procession of eight bridesmaids, wearing white blouses, that stand out as the only group of brightly-lit figures in this dark theatrical tableau. Maclise depicts chained prisoners witnessing the ceremony, while to the right, the banners of the Norman cavalry are emblazoned with the names of leading members of the invasion forces, including FitzGerald, FitzStephen, Strongbow, MountMaurice and Milo de Cogan. The upper register of the painting, the background, contains scenes of burial and lamentation. The bodies of slain citizens and soldiers are being carried over the ruined city walls of Waterford, with black smoke billowing up behind.

In terms of its message, the painting occupies an uncertain place in the iconography of 19th-century Irish politics. Although there have been readings of Maclise that position him as a proto-Nationalist painter, this is, in many ways, wishful thinking. At no time did Maclise evince sympathy for the conditions of the majority of the Irish population, even during the years of the Famine; nor is such sympathy reflected in his art. Indeed in the 1840s, while people in his native county of Cork faced death from starvation, dysentery and cholera, Maclise was painting elaborate tableaux of feasting and carousing. His banqueting scene from the novel Gil Blas was exhibited in Cork in 1845. While his painting of Strongbow and Aoife does reference the blood and gore associated with the Anglo-Norman triumph, and has a degree of sympathy for the old Gaelic order, the overall tone of this work of art is firmly set in terms of sympathy and support for the political union of Great Britain and Ireland. Maclise echoes Walter Scott in this regard, and his work can be seen to represent the political aspirations of Disraeli and the British Liberal party. In depicting one key episode in Irish history, Maclise also provides a generalized view of the complex overlayering of one invasion of Ireland after another. Among those assembled to witness the marriage are Gael, Viking and Anglo-Norman. The original inhabitants of Co Waterford were indeed Gaels, the Decii, who settled there sometime around the 3rd century AD and later adopted the surname O’Phelan or O’Faoláin. Two centuries later, this clan was Christianized by St Declan, who founded a monastery at Ardmore, and also by St Carthage, who founded an equally famous monastery at Lismore. In the 9th century, the Vikings arrived, some of them settling in a barony still known as Gaultier, or the ‘territory of the foreigner’. These Scandinavian seafarers, originally pagan and rapacious raiders of Waterford’s monasteries, founded the city of Waterford, or ‘Vaterfjiord’, and eventually themselves became Christianized.

However, the underlying message is not so much about historical events, but rather about politics and the moral ambiguities of Victorian Britain. Unlike his friend Charles Dickens, who created characters that are either clear-cut heroines or downright villains, Maclise tended to paint a moral universe full of uncertainties. While admiring his skill and technique, the public and critical reception to many of his paintings was often hesitant, perhaps because the artist was so clearly drawn to the morbid and the grotesque. Thus The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife reveals as much about the artist’s attitude to his own times, as it does about the history of Ireland in the late 12th century.

Peter Murray is Director of the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.




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