Harp

Harp detail from Daniel Maclise, 'The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife', 1854
Daniel Maclise,'The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife', 1854

One of the most eye-catching details in this painting is the harp which Maclise has executed with precision. The design of this harp is based on the so-called Brian Boru harp which is housed in the Long Room in Trinity College, Dublin. Despite its name, the harp has no connection with Brian Boru and was in fact carved in the fifteenth century by either an Irish or West Highland craftsperson. The harp is a recurring motif in Maclise’s work and he may have included it here to demonstrate his technical virtuosity and antiquarian knowledge.

Detail from Daniel Maclise, 'The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife', 1854
Detail from Thomas Moore, 'Irish Melodies', 1845; illustrated by Daniel Maclise

Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, published in 1845, with illustrations by Maclise, did much to popularise the harp as a symbol of Irish national identity.  Moore's sentimental songs frequently refer to the harp as a symbol of Ireland’s past glory.  In one song, a young bard, believing that the sound of the harp can only ring out in times of freedom, deliberately tears the strings of his harp as invading troops swarm around him. A silent harp with broken strings appears in the painting. Maclise may have included it to illustrate his Romantic nationalist sympathies.