At the Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin lie two stone effigies side-by-side—one larger and intact, and the other a worn-down demi-figure. The larger of the two is dressed in full armor, its face completely covered to its viewers. It carries a large shield decorated in crosses; the family this design could belong to or any other meaning it might hold remains a mystery. Meanwhile, the smaller figure’s features are indistinct due to age. The effigies are dated to the fourteenth century, but are said to be the resting places of historical figures from the twelfth century—and to complicate it further, the figures in the photograph are actually sixteenth-century reproductions. When the church’s south wall collapsed in 1562, the original figures were damaged beyond recognition. They were repaired in 1576 under the patronage of Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney, a distant successor of the man this tomb is said to belong to. As an enduring piece of history with connections to the Medieval era, the crypt has come to represent the origins of violent English conquest in Ireland as well as the enduring resultant struggle between the two nations.
If tradition is to be believed, then these figures represent Strongbow and his son. Strongbow is the epithet of Richard de Clare, the Anglo-Norman Earl of Pembroke in the twelfth century whose arrival in Ireland and aid in the capture of Dublin in 1170 marks the beginning of English presence in the nation. Born around 1130, Strongbow’s ambitions in Ireland were guided by his lack of favor with the Anglo-Norman king, Henry II, and the promise of succession to the Irish throne through marriage to the Irish King of Leinster’s daughter. Strongbow’s marriage to Aiofe has since become a symbolic marker of English conquest in Ireland and the death of Gaelic Ireland. Though he was eventually able to secure his position and estates in Ireland, Strongbow had to struggle to defend his status and passed away around 1146 due to illness. Over the centuries after his death, his reputation has become one of cold severity—according to legend, Strongbow was such a stringent military commander that when his son deserted out of cowardice, Strongbow executed him upon his return. A translation of a later-affixed tablet to the demi-figure in the crypt reads, “O graceless son, who left thy sire / Amid the battle’s din; / And the same moment, turned thy back / On Country, Kith and Kin.”
Despite his bitter relationship with his son, Strongbow is still considered to be buried alongside him even as he remains eternally separated from his wife, Aiofe. Though this physical separation appears to contradict the significant Irish societal upheaval that resulted from their marriage, it would have been unusual for a husband and wife to be buried together in twelfth-century Ireland. Aoife, anglicized as “Eva,” did not remarry following her husband’s passing but was buried in Tintern Abbey alongside Strongbow’s father. While Aoife’s loyalty to her English husband is apparent through her burial among his family, her Irish heritage was still respected through the separation of her body and that of her husband. By following the burial traditions of Irish culture rather than English, Aoife appears to have held a powerful influence over Strongbow in both life and death. Through the abandonment of his nation’s burial traditions, Strongbow revealed an unexpected disloyalty to English culture that appears to run perpendicular to his violent impact on Ireland. Aoife’s apparent influence over her husband could also suggest that she played a larger role in the destruction of Irish independence than what she is formally known for. The last record of Aoife Mac Murchadha was recorded in an Irish charter in 1188, while Ireland remained haunted by the wake of her husband’s conquest. However, there is little further surviving information about the life of Aoife beyond her union with Strongbow. She remains a woman whose legacy lies in her husband’s conquests.
As a key figure in the Norman invasion of Ireland, Strongbow sought control over the seized territory. In May of 1171, he was crowned King of Leinster, and thus became the first non-native ruler of an Irish province. This watershed moment marked the beginning of more than 800 years of English authority, a moment in history that drastically transformed Irish culture and politics. Built in 1030, 139 years prior to the Norman invasion, Christ Church Cathedral serves as a symbol of strife, a time of immense change, and a juxtaposed political landscape full of stark cultural differences. Over time, as several conflicts between the Irish and English arose, the Irish desire for independence was often met with English resistance. Political changes over the years also yielded religious transitions, as the Catholic faith slowly declined in prominence during the mid-1500s. Christ Church Cathedral has oscillated through various leaders, faith-based restorations, and reconstructions—the crypt at one point even serving as a meeting place and local pub in 1633—but it has always remained a historical staple. Even though Strongbow can be seen as an emblem of colonization, Christ Church Cathedral remains an important part of Irish history. Strongbow’s crypt is a memento of the past, a way to preserve a bygone era—even if the history is fraught with social and political conflict.
The legend of Strongbow, and the historical weight it carries, bears many contradictions. He was a violent invader, yet simultaneously swayed from traditional English customs. His conquest of Ireland marked a period of social, political, and cultural unrest, yet the preservation of his crypt still continues to safeguard this tumultuous historical period. Christ Church Cathedral, and its crypt of Medieval connections, remains a timeless Dublin attraction, but its complexities only enhance the site’s mystery.
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Carson Farrell, Jordan Holman, Michelle Kim.