The Rock of Dunamase and Ireland’s Most Iconic Painting

The ruins on the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois date mainly from the 12th century, very shortly after the Norman Invasion of 1169. That invasion was led by Richard DeClare, Earl of Pembroke, known as Strongbow, and it was at the invitation of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster. MacMurrough had been ousted from his kingdom by Tiarnan O’Rourke and his allies, partly because MacMurrough had abducted O’Rourke’s wife Devorgilla (although some accounts say she went willingly). His request for help to King Henry II was welcomed, as the King was hoping to provide distraction to some over-ambitious knights, including deClare.

One of MacMurrough’s incentives to Strongbow was the promise of his daughter, Aoife, in marriage. The marriage took place in Christ Church Cathedral in Waterford in 1170 and following the death of Diarmuid in 1171, Strongbow declared himself King of Leinster.

The summit of the Rock commands views of several counties

So where does the Rock of Dunamase come in? It was one of the MacMurrough strongholds, and accordingly was part of Aoife’s dowry when she married Strongbow. Thus, it is inextricably associated with the most turbulent events in Irish History. For some of the later (and indeed earlier) history of the Rock, I refer you to The Irish Aesthete’s excellent post A Rock and a Hard Place.

The Barbican Gate, with the curtain wall and corner tower above and behind

The fortifications and buildings at the Rock are in a ruinous state, of course, but enough remain to give you a good idea of what a strategic site this was and how the defences were designed. The first entrance was a barbican gate behind which was a small area known as the Inner Barbican. Once there, you were at the mercy of archers situated on top of the inner, or curtain wall, shooting down from their crenellated parapet.

From the OPW informational sign

The curtain wall ran around the entire top of the rock. For three quarters of its length it was impossible to attack or breach with the weapons of the time because the wall was built at the top of a steep slope.

The more gentle slope of the east side necessitated the additional defence of the barbican gate. From the inner barbican a massive gatehouse with two towers gave access to the bawn or ward, while two corner towers guarded the northerly and southerly extent of the wall.

Looking upwards towards the Great Hall from the massive Main Gatehouse

There are indications of other buildings inside the curtain wall, but all that is really significant today  is a large rectangular building known as the Great Hall. This was subject to reconstruction in the 1700s by the then owner (a grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell) but the building project was never completed.

The main result of this reconstruction is to obscure and confuse original versus later parts of the fabric of the Hall. Everywhere you look what appears to be a gothic window embrasure is suddenly sporting red brick.

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is the title of an enormous painting by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland (see the final photograph for the complete painting). It is, in fact, the largest painting in the Gallery, and has been completely conserved in recent years – a series of videos recording this massive process is available on YouTube (just Google ‘Strongbow and Aoife conservation’). But start with this video, in which Dr Brendan Rooney talks about the painting itself.

According to Dr Rooney, the background to the painting is of the City of Waterford, the city on which the marriage took place. The use of this backdrop (rather than, say, the interior of a church)  is used to dramatise the conflict between the Normans and the Irish Chieftains and the consequences of the invasion. He points out a round corner tower that appears to be based on Reginald’s Tower in Waterford, and asserts that the arched gateway calls to mind ‘similar’ gateways in New Ross and Drogheda.

Even if the backdrop is intended to convey a picture of Waterford it seems obvious to me that it is inspired by and based heavily on the Rock of Dunamase. This makes perfect sense from both an historical and a visual point of view. First of all, Maclise was depicting a catastrophic moment in Irish history that is closely associated with the Rock, in that it was the seat of the MacMorroughs, transferred to Strongbow as part of Aoife’s dowry, and which allowed him to subsequently claim succession rights to the Kingship of Leinster.

Secondly – look at it! While there may be echoes of Reginald’s Tower and other Irish medieval sites (such as a round tower) in the painting, it is clearly the Rock of Dunamase that is being depicted. Waterford is essentially flat: there are still stretches of its town walls extant, but they are on level ground. Maclise was known for meticulously researching his subject matter and it seems obvious to me that the marriage is being consecrated in front of the Barbican Gate, while above and behind are the ramparts of the curtain wall. There are a few Irish Norman castle sites that are built on a rocky prominence, but the most dramatic of them is the Rock of Dunamase.

Maclise’s The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is one of our most iconic paintings and has been one of the most beloved because of the subject matter. At the same time, the Rock of Dunamase is central to the most critical juncture on our history. They belong together – don’t you agree?

Daniel Maclise (1806-1870), ‘The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’, c.1854. © National Gallery of Ireland

4 thoughts

  1. Standing up at the Rock, looking down over the never ending golden fields on a Summer’s evening, definitely puts life’s problems into perspective. Breathtaking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The sweet barbican of Irish in our primary school history books may have been their redeeming feature, fostering as it did an early patriotic ardor.
    Six decades on, revisiting that dear subject through the lens of Maclise in the National Gallery seems to usher an unreserved pleasure of afterlife.

    Liked by 1 person

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