Waterford (Port Lairge) (pop. 50,000), the Republic of Ireland’s fifth largest (i.e. second smallest) city, has been described as “basically a modern European port wrapped around an old provincial town“. The old docks on the River Suir and some of the suburbs are rather grim, but between them lies a vibrant and interesting nucleus with a distinctly urban ambience.
Waterford by night. (Photo by Typhoon)
There are some excellent pubs, both traditional and modern. The students attending the modern Waterford Institute of Technology have created a burgeoning youth scene, and I’m told that the nightlife is quite sophisticated. Apart from the ghastly concentration of fast-food joints on John Street, there are a couple of good restaurants, where you will learn that Blaa is a doughy, white bread roll peculiar to Waterford City.
Although the historical capital of Co. Waterford, the city is nowadays administered separately from the county, and has its own very interesting history.
Waterford City History
The C9th Vikings raiding the Irish coasts soon took to over-wintering in ships’ havens called Longphorts, and a Danish chieftain called Sigtrygg established one such at Waterford in 853 AD.
It was not until 914 AD that the settlement became the permanent Vedrarfjord (from the Old Norse meaning “windy fjord” or “haven from the wind-swept sea”); and started growing into the future city of Waterford.
The townsfolk were still of predominantly Norse stock when the Normans invaded, taking Waterford after a desperate defence.
Strongbow married Aoife McMurrough on the foreshore. In 1171, King Henry II of England landed with a large fleet at Waterford and became the first English king to set foot in Ireland. He declared Waterford and Dublin royal cities.
Throughout the medieval period, Waterford was Ireland’s second city. Waterford’s great Parchment Book (1361-1649) contains the earliest use of the English language in Ireland (instead of Norman French or Latin) for official purposes.
Waterford repelled sieges by two pretenders to the English throne, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck in 1487 and 1495 respectively. As a reward, King Henry VII gave the city its motto: Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia [Waterford remains the untaken city].
Waterford remained a Catholic city despite the best efforts of the Protestant Reformation, and participated in the Confederation of Kilkenny, initially a Catholic uprising, which developed into a pro-Royalist force during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Oliver Cromwell gave the Confederates no quarter, massacring thousands; he sent frigates to bombard Waterford in 1650, and his nephew Ireton finally took Waterford in 1651. Although the populace was not put to the sword, many Catholics were either exiled to Connacht or sent into slavery in the Caribbean.
The C18th was a period of huge prosperity. Trading with Newfoundland brought much wealth into Waterford. One of the most important dates in Waterford’s history is 1783. In that year George and William Penrose founded a glass factory. So began Waterford Crystal, for which the city is so famous.
At the time of the 1798 Rebellion there was considerable United Irishmen activity in the city and district, where secret recruitment had been going on apace, but no armed uprising took place in the neighbourhood, probably due to the rebel defeat at Wexford. There were, however, more than a few arraignments for seditious activity, including the toll collector of the then five-year-old wooden bridge over the Suir (a major engineering feat for its time).
In 1826, Waterford returned Henry Villiers Stuart to Parliament against the opposition of George Beresford, the outgoing candidate and powerful landowner in the district. Stuart was put forward by Daniel O’Connell‘s Catholic Association and O’Connell personally led his campaign here. Though not a Roman Catholic himself, Villiers Stuart was a man of liberal views and his election was an important step in the way to Catholic Emancipation which came three years later.
The Great Famine of 1846-1848 made itself felt in Waterford, although the fact that there were large quantities of rice in the city saved it from the worst. Waterford Port became a centre for mass emigration.
Waterford was already a well-established shipbuilding centre by the middle of the 19th. Between the mid-1850s and the late-1860s, the Malcomson family, owners of the Neptune Shipyard, built and operated the largest fleet of iron steamers in the world, including five transatlantic passenger liners.
At the beginning of the C20th, the leader of the Home Rule movement, John Redmond was the MP for Waterford at Westminster. For some years it looked likely that Ireland would peacefully achieve Home Rule, but WWI and the 1916 Uprising intervened.
The War of Independence (1919-1921) and the subsequent Civil War (1922-1923) saw great unrest and economic uncertainty in Waterford. After the evacuation of British troops, Waterford’s military barracks was occupied by the local units of the IRA, two to three hundred men hostile to the new Irish Free State government. July 1922 saw 4 days of serious fighting as National Army troops under Major General John T. Prout besieged their positions until the republicans abandoned the city.
Economic recovery began after the end of WWII, and despite some intervening hiccups, Waterford continued to thrive until recently.
The Quay, once termed ‘the noblest quay in Europe’, is the face that the city presents to those travelling into the city from the north. Actually a series of quays stretching for a mile along the south bank of the river Suir, the riverfront is still a major commercial and social focal point.
Waterford Museum of Treasures, the city’s chief visitor attraction, is housed in the converted C19th Granary on Merchant’s Quay, It is the city’s foremost museum, housing a collection of artefacts and high-tech audiovisual displays spanning over 1,000 years of history.
Waterford’s City Walls, a combination of the original C10th defences and a C15th Outer Bulwark to the west, are the best-preserved and most extensive remaining in the Republic of Ireland. Tours are conducted daily.
Reginald’s Tower, Waterford’s most recognisable landmark, named after the city’s Viking founder, Regnall, is undoubtedly the most impressive remaining medieval building in Waterford, and the most substantial of the seventeen defensive towers that once encircled the city. Inside a display details its history and that of the powerful Waterford Vikings, their struggles with the Anglo-Normans, and the arrival of the English Crown.
The Viking Triangle is the name given to the oldest part of the city, now a quiet and tranquil area with Reginald’s Tower at its apex, dominated by narrow laneways containing some of the city’s finest juxtapositions of medieval and C18th architecture.
The French Church on Greyfriars, founded by Franciscans in 1240, was used as a Protestant place of worship by French Huguenot refugees from 1693 to 1815. It is now a roofless ruin with a complete tower and fine east triple-lancet window. Stones at the base of the outer windows are decorated with comic carved figures, and the church contains some interesting burial slabs, including that of Sir Neal O’Neill, who accompanied King James II in his flight from the Battle of the Boyne in 1689.
Most of the city’s best architecture is from the Georgian era, as evidenced by the faded splendour of the buildings on and near O’Connell St., George St. and Parnell St.
The “Port of Waterford” building in Georges St. was designed at the end of the C18th by John Roberts for William Morris. The Manifesto Gallery & Retail Emporium occupies the ground floor and features original work from national and international artists, sculptors, jewellers, ceramicists & wood turners.
The Mall (where the first Irish tricolour was flown in 1848, having been brought from France by Thomas Francis Meagher) is a particularly fine thoroughfare, built by the Wide Streets Commission in order to extend the city southwards.
Waterford City Hall, designed by John Roberts in 1783, was originally known as the ‘Bishops Palace’ as it occupied the site of the prelate’s formal residence. The Large Room, known in the C18th as the Grand Banqueting Room, has welcomed such notable figures as Daniel O’ Connell, Thomas Francis Meagher, Isaac Butt, Charles Stewart Parnell, John Redmond and King Edward VII. In the adjoining Council Chamber hangs William Van der Hagen‘s famous view of Waterford, the earliest view of an Irish city, commissioned in 1736. There are several fine examples of Waterford Crystal, notably an early chandelier. (Photo by vadrefjord)
The Theatre Royal on the Mall, built in 1876 as part of a remodelled section of City Hall, is a U-shaped Victorian theatre, seating about 600 people. The Waterford International Festival of Light Opera has been held in the Theatre Royal since 1959.
Waterford’s two cathedrals present two very different styles from the hand of the same remarkable designer, John Roberts.
Christchurch Cathedral (CoI), designed in 1773 and constructed over six years, has been described by architectural historian Mark Girouard as the finest C18th ecclesiastical building in Ireland. It has a wonderfully baroque stucco ceiling, and contains many interesting features associated with its historic location on the site of the Viking and later Norman Gothic churches in the centre of the city.
The tomb of C15th Mayor of Waterford James Rice and his wife is truly morbid and macabre, not to mention creepy.
The Cathedral of The Most Holy Trinity (RC) in Barronstrand St., designed in 1792, has the distinction of being the earliest post-Reformation Roman Catholic cathedral in the British Isles. (Photo by Merlante)
A nearby urban space, long known as Red Square due to the red paving that was used when the area was first pedestrianised, was renamed John Roberts Square in 2000.
Waterford Courthouse, an imposing classical edifice erected in 1849, is connected by a footbridge to the People’s Park.
The People’s Park, Waterford’s largest and finest park, was created in the mid-C19th and features a splendid Victorian bandstand, vandalised by local schoolchildren in 2011 but promptly repaired.
William Vincent Wallace Plaza, a monument and amenity built around the time of the most recent millennium, commemorates the Waterford born composer.
Arundel Square has long enjoyed a fine commercial tradition, marred only by the hideous City Square shopping centre.
The Waterford Municipal Art Collection on Greyfriars contains works by major C20th Irish painters such as Jack B. Yeats, Louis Le Brocquy, Paul Henry, Charles Lamb and Sean Keating.
The Dyehouse Gallery in Dyehouse Lane is the home of an art gallery and pottery works operated by the renowned Waterford potter Liz McKay.
The Garter Lane Arts Centre on O’Connell St is housed in the old Quaker Meetinghouse built in 1792; the converted hall seats 200, and is home to the Red Kettle theatre company
Waterford Youth Arts (WYA), formerly known as Waterford Youth Drama, established in August 1985, has grown into a fully structured youth arts organisation with a paid staff and 400 young people taking part each week.
Spraoi, a street theatre company that produces the Spraoi Festival held in Waterford every August Bank Holiday weekend, attracting crowds of up to 80,000 people, staged it’s biggest and most prestigious production to date, Awakening, for the Cork European Capital of Culture 2005 Opening. The Spraoi Drummers have become renowned for the performances of Fergal Kelly as a soloist.
Ballybricken, just outside the western city walls, is thought to have been Waterford’s Irishtown, a type of settlement that often formed outside Irish cities to house the Vikings and Irish that had been expelled during the Norman conquest of Ireland. Ballybricken is an inner city neighbourhood with a long tradition, centred around Ballybricken Hill, which was a large, open market-square. Today it has been converted into a green civic space, but the Bull Post, where livestock was once bought and sold, still stands as a reminder of the hill’s past.
Newtown School, founded in 1798 on the former estate of Sir Thomas Wyse by the Religious Society of Friends in order to educate Quaker boys in the south of Ireland, is now a multidenominational, coeducational independent school with both boarding and day pupils.
Mount Sion, founded in 1802 by Edmund Rice as the first Christian Brothers school for boys, now features a Heritage Centre for both Christian Brothers and Presentation Brothers. There is a mildly interesting Museum, and the founder’s tomb is enclosed in a spectacular modern glass chapel overlooking the city.
St Angela’s School, founded by the Ursuline Order next to their convent in 1816, educates over 800 teenage girls.
De La Salle College, established in 1887, is the largest secondary school in Waterford, with over 1000 pupils, a tiny fraction of whom are girls.
The Mercy Order of nuns have been teaching in Waterford since 1900.
The world-famous Waterford Crystal glassworks were founded in the city in 1783. The modern factory, a trip to which is vigorously promoted throughout the region, is located in Kilbarry about two km from the city centre. The company is currently in Receivership.
The Waterford City Walking Tour is reportedly enjoyable, informative and good value for money.
Waterford City is within easy reach of Passage East, Dunmore East and Tramore on ByRoute 1 and Portaw and New Ross (Co. Wexford) on ByRoute 2.