Looking at Strongbow

The giant painting of Strongbow’s marriage to Aoife hanging in the National Gallery of Ireland is one of the few epic renderings of an Irish historical event.  (We don’t do epic, as Garry Hynes recently remarked in a documentary on Druid’s production of Shakespeare’s history plays which she directed).

The painting has it all: the ruins and smoke of fallen Waterford; the Irish prone in death or submission; a mother laments to heaven over her dead child; a harpist is silenced; the serried ranks of victorious and impassive Normans; even what looks like a small brass band celebrating.  In the centre, a triad of bride, groom and priest.

The priest looks and points heaven-ward.  The bride is modestly looking to the ground.  Like the fallen Irish in the foreground and her train of bridesmaids, Aoife is ablaze in light.  The Normans are a dark shadowed band across the centre.  Light and dark meet at the touching hands of bride and groom.

Maclise is making a point, literally in the artistic sense, perhaps symbolically about our history. In the Norman invasion of Ireland, forces of light and dark met under God’s eye in a divine plan that we cannot know.

Strongbow’s head is tightly coiffed in a steel helmet, its inhuman polish highlighted by a dazzling spot of white paint.  Yet it is hard to make out his features, cast as they are in shadow.  He is a knight embodied but unknown.

Whether intentional or not, Maclise portrays Strongbow as our history has done.  We barely know one of the most consequential figures in our history.

The nationalist struggle imposed constraints and demands on our interpretation of our history.  Memory and analysis were distorted for its purposes.  As we exit that and are freer to look back with a clearer eye and less clouded mind, we should take a fresh look at Strongbow.

Like so much of the story of the Normans in Ireland, Richard de Clare, Lord of Strigoil, known as Strongbow, deserves more attention.  Strongbow’s treatment in history has tended to get short-shrift for a number of reasons.

Much of this has to do with the dismissive way that he was treated by the first historian of the invasion, Geraldis Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales).  Gerald de Barry, to give him his proper name, was kin of the FitzGeralds on his mother’s side through his grandmother, the famed Princess Nest.  The FitzGeralds, took their name and much familiar pride from Princess Nest (“the queen bee of the Norman Welsh swarm” as historian Edmund Curtis noted with a hiss) and one of her husbands, Gerald of Windsor.

Along with another of her sons (by a different father), Robert FitzStephen, the FitzGerald’s formed the advance guard and key group of the first wave of Norman invaders.  Gerald was therefore keen to give prominence to their role in his account of the invasion of Ireland, the Expugnatio Hiberia – at Strongbow’s expense.

Secondly, Irish historians took some pleasure in deriding Strongbow as weak and hesitant, the better to ensure that the invasion could not be seen as heroic or adventurous.  It had to be a bad thing all round, begotten by MacMurrough’s treachery and led by a spineless interloper.

Thirdly, Strongbow died in 1176 only six years after arriving in Ireland, of sepsis from a wound on his foot.  His son by Aoife died young so he left no male line.  He had begun the sub-infeudation of Leinster but this was not advanced enough to leave much an historical trace.

The formative Norman influence in Leinster was William Marshall who married Isabella, daughter of Strongbow and Aoife.  From 1200 onwards, Marshall led the development of the colony.  He built Tintern Abbey, Ferns Castle, and Hook Lighthouse as well as creating New Ross.

Fourthly and decisively, the Norman invasion was in hindsight conflated with the brutal Tudor invasion of the 16th century. It is as if our heroic struggle against English colonisation was burnished by extending our misery back to the 12th century.

We hold to this idea despite being happy to recite the dictum that the Normans in Ireland – French speakers who were already cross-bred with the Welsh – became more Irish than the Irish themselves, happy as they were to marry locally and adapt to their new environment from the outset.

We hold to it despite too that FitzGerald and any other name beginning with Fitz is regarded as an Irish name, along with a host of other Norman and Flemish ones like Russell, Simmons, Barry, Prendergast, Tyrell, Dillon, Butler, Beamish, Cogan, Lucey, Shortall, Hussey and Stapleton.

And we hold to it despite the fact that Irish families of Norman lineage remained Catholic in the face of the aggressively Protestant Tudor “New English”.

While not ignoring the predations of the Normans in seizing land and warring in Ireland, more prosaically, the Normans brought to Ireland villages, towns, proper cities, manors, organised agriculture and estates, commerce, the end of slavery as a business, vastly increased trade with Europe, the consolidation of church reform, and a new era of Abbey building along with new forms of monastic life and orders.

The Normans created and sustained the Irish House of Lords and parliament that would help shape Irish nationalism until that great chamber was abolished by Britain in 1800.

In contrast, the English embrace their Norman heritage and rightly so.  It was the Normans who created the English state as we know it, from its foundation in common law to the careful balance between crown and aristocracy (Magna Carta et al) that endured until the modern transition to parliamentary democracy beginning in the 17th century.

The Normans above all brought pragmatism to England, steering it away from the distorting passions of ideology that wreaked such havoc in Europe.

Until of course June 2016 when ideology was foolishly injected into the English body politic.  How shocking the speed with which that particular virus paralysed their system!

Now it is the pragmatism of Europe and Ireland that is trying to save the UK from a terrible mistake of its own making.

But I digress.  Instead of talking about eight hundred years of oppression, let’s agree to shorten it by half and finally welcome into our narrative our Norman family.  They’re all around the place.

So when you’re again in the fabulously renovated National Gallery, pause before Maclise’s great rendering.  Try a thought experiment.  Try to consider it a family portrait.  It’s not that easy.  What you feel is the weight of nationalist interpretation pulling you back into its own familiar gravity.

I’ll do some PR on Strongbow’s behalf shortly.  That might help.

Eamonn

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