The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife

Although he spent most of his life in London, Maclise never strayed far from the material of Ireland. His friendship with fellow Corkmen, S.C. Hall, William Maginn, and Rev. Francis Mahony, his reading of Moore's Melodies as well as his sketching of the Irish countryside and its characters all contributed to a myth of home. These friendships, combined with a sense of the medieval and the historical, meant that Ireland was always present as a possibility, as a Celtic 'sport' within his broader historic perspectives. His romantic sketching of Killarney and Wicklow and his illustrations for Mahony's pen portraits in Reliques of Father Prout gave him a clear starting point as an Irish artist. As the Illustrated London News wrote in 1868: 'Full scope was here found for the purely Celtic imagination of the painter - that source at once of his strength and weakness, his equally obvious merits and faults, his vigour and rich picturesqueness, his crowded, exuberant invention, and his extravagant emphasis.'

His painting The Origin of the Harp (1842), based on one of Moore's Melodies, is a deeply romantic, almost German, portrayal of a weeping Erin and he would return to this theme of defeat and submission in his grandest Irish picture, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. This magnificent canvas that now hangs in the Irish National Gallery, Dublin, was painted when Maclise was at the height of his powers in 1854. It shows the arranged marriage of the daughter of the acquiescent Leinster King, Dermot MacMorrough, to Strongbow, the Norman conqueror of Ireland. At 309 cms by 505 cms (over 10x16.5 feet), it is a magnificent Irish work, prodigious in its scale and detail. In the foreground of the painting one can see the heaped bodies of the defeated Irish soldiers, as well as the harp (the symbol of Ireland) with its broken strings and the arrogant conqueror, Strongbow, with his brutish foot crushing a Celtic cross. A dying maiden points her finger at a runic inscription that has never been deciphered. It is a great painting of calamity and alliance; and a symbol of Ireland?s long years of subjugation. Its general political impact is overwhelming in the context of Irish history, yet, seen technically, it is an essay in crowded, numismatic detail, in the manner of Maclise's other great history paintings.

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