Interpretations and Meanings

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

Paintings, like history, can be interpreted in many different ways, and considerable debate surrounds the interpretation of this marriage scene.

On one side of the debate are those who believe that Maclise intended to express his sympathies with the Irish nationalist cause by painting this story; a story which had become particularly resonant for nineteenth-century nationalists who believed it signified England’s first advances into the country.

However, others believe that the painting is essentially an exercise in high drama and theatricality of a kind that Maclise particularly enjoyed painting.

Those who favour a nationalist interpretation call attention to a variety of details in the painting, from the dark and stormy sky, to Strongbow’s foot planted firmly on top of a toppled cross. For more information on these symbols and their possible meanings see Hidden Secrets of the Painting.

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

The alternative interpretation stems from the fact that the painting was executed as part of a commission for the new Houses of Parliament in London, and it was favourably received by the public when exhibited at the Royal Academy. It seems improbable that the Fine Arts Commission would have endorsed a painting even vaguely critical of British actions in Ireland. Maclise was a successful artist in England – why would he risk his career and reputation? Is it more likely that this historical event provided Maclise with the perfect opportunity to indulge his love of drama and spectacle? History painting had been concerned with grand displays of notable events from history.  Maclise’s expansive composition adheres to this tradition, and certainly succeeds as a impressive piece of entertainment.

Another convincing interpretation is that Maclise was very familiar with Thomas Moore’s work, including Irish Melodies (1807-1834) and History of Ireland (1847). These publications, replete with romantic imagery of Ireland’s ancient past, were very popular in England; such sentimental nationalism would not have been perceived as threatening. Maclise’s imagery was certainly informed by Moore’s writing, in particular his description of the marriage of Strongbow and Aoife in History of Ireland:

The still reeking horrors, therefore of the sacked and ruined city [Waterford] were made to give place to a scene of nuptial festivity. (Thomas Moore, History of Ireland, 1847, Vol. II, p.227)