Waterford’s history was predicated on its position in the south-east of the island and its proximity to the sea and to Britain. Like Dublin and Limerick it was one of many Irish ports founded by the Vikings who saw similarities between the great entrance of Waterford Harbour and the fjords of their own coastline. About 20km upstream they founded a port at what the Irish called Port Láirge (Lárac is an Irish word meaning limb or thigh). The Vikings gave it an old Norse name Veðrafjǫrðr (Vedrafjordr) meaning windy fjord or ram-fjord.
Waterford is situated mostly on the south bank of the river Suir. You get a good view of the river as you arrive by train. The station is one of the few places on the northern side of the river in Co Waterford, along with Ferrybank to the east and Sallypark to the west. The Port of Waterford further downstream and even Waterford Golf Club high above Mount Misery which guards the station are both in Co Kilkenny. The cliffs across the river with the power lines are at Bilberry, the original home of the Bilberry goat, a species now close to extinction. Downstream of the cliffs is the beginning of the Quay, the mile-long river front main street. Waterford may mostly be south of the Suir but it could never be accused of turning its back on the river.
The Suir is one of the three sisters, and when it joins the Nore and the Barrow downstream they empty out into Waterford Harbour. The river is tidal past Carrick-on-Suir and Waterford’s prominent position made it an attractive proposition for invaders through the centuries. The Viking Age in Ireland lasted from the first recorded raids in 795 until the Angevin English invasion of 1171. During this period the major Irish ports were formed which brought Ireland into closer contact with Viking colonies across Europe. Waterford Vikings used the port to launch attacks on other parts of Ireland but the upheaval hampered trade and Waterford transformed from a “parasitic entrepôt” into part of a supply-network dependent on inland trade, raw materials and exotic imported goods.
I’m back in Waterford for Christmas and Winterval has just ended, a Christmas festival complete with its own Waterford Eye ferris wheel on the Quay. It certainly adds a bit of colour to what was once “the noblest quay in Europe” now looking a little drab, especially since the port moved downstream. The bus station just under the Eye is particularly soulless. I’m hearing there are plans to house the bus and rail station together further downstream with access via a footbridge and I hope this comes to pass.
Just back from the Quay is a now pedestrianised Bailey’s New St. It used to be famous for the front of the Back O’ the Munster (which if you walk through becomes the Munster Bar opening out on the Mall) but now has an amazing 23-metre long tree carved into a sword which landed there only days before I arrived. Carved by local men John Hayes and James Doyle, the sword has 18 panels which tell the story of Waterford from Viking days.
City walls are a big part of that story. The city of Waterford is 1100 years old and was fortified from an early date. Around the start of the 13th century King John extended the city west with three new gates as Anglo-Norman settlers were starting to create a suburb. The Watch Tower here at Manor St dates to the 13th century and guarded the southern exit to the town. By the end of the middle ages a complete circuit of stone walls and towers existed. By 1705 the Quay walls were demolished but six towers and large sections of city wall still survive in one of the largest remaining walled cities in Ireland.
The most famous part of the walls is Reginald’s Tower on the strategic corner of the Quays and the Mall, commanding the view downstream. Reginald is from the Irish name Raghnall, itself derived from the Old Norse Røgnvaldr. Ragnall mac Gillemaire was the last Hiberno-Norse ruler of Waterford and the tower dates between 1253 and 1280. But there have been towers on the site since the 10th century. A little upstream at Woodstown, excavations of an actual Viking site has yielded remarkable finds that show the importance of Waterford as a busy port a millennium ago. Archaeologists have found ship-nails, locks, and balance-weights (some decorated with Irish ecclesiastical metalwork), a pagan warrior-burial and hacksilver. It was also a world centre of trade. At Woodstown they found a ninth century Kufic dirham (a silver coin from the Arab world) and a fragment of a Hiberno-Scandinavian arm-ring of similar vintage.
Most of the Viking relics are in the Waterford Museum of Treasures but I was keen to check out the new Medieval Museum which charts Waterford’s growth in the 14th and 15th century. Most of its stories are from the Great Charter Roll of Waterford, a historic legal document created by the Anglo-Norman rulers of the town in the 14th Century. Its story show the power of English kings in Ireland. Henry II made Waterford a Royal Port which meant it could levy tolls but with nearby port New Ross wooing Edward III for favouritism, Waterford hit back with the Roll, drawn up in a pictorial and colourful style showing the city’s relationships with Edward’s ancestor kings for centuries. The flattery worked and the king reinstated Waterford’s monopoly as a Royal port.
In the basement of the Chorister’s Hall inside the Museum is the Mayor’s Wine Vault. It is the oldest wine vault in Ireland, dating to 1440, and built by Peter Rice, a wealthy wine merchant and mayor of Waterford. His son James followed in his father’s footsteps as wine merchant and mayor of the city – the latter an astonishing eleven times so there was plenty of celebrations to drink to. James Rice gave this wine vault and the house above it to Dean John Collyn in 1468 who transformed it into a priest’s hostel.
By then Waterford was a solidly Catholic town. It built churches like this Franciscan priority also known as Greyfriars Abbey, and most famous as The French Church. It is the oldest church in Waterford, built in 1241 on what is now the corner of Greyfriars and Bailey’s New Street (Okay, so the street wasn’t just about the Back O’ The Munster). This friary was one of the first in Ireland, founded by Anglo-Norman Sir Hugh Purcell.
Behind the imposing Bishop’s Palace is Waterford’s Protestant cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral. The Vikings built the first cathedral on this site in 1096 and in 1170 it hosted the marriage of English knight Strongbow to Irish princess Aoife fatally bringing Ireland and England closer. The Normans built a new Gothic cathedral in 1210 which was demolished in 1773 to make way for the current structure. It was designed in neo-Classical Georgian style by John Roberts who also designed Waterford’s Catholic Cathedral.
The Clock Tower, halfway up the Quays is another famous Waterford landmark. It was built in the 1860s in Gothic revival fashion. In the mid 1800s Waterford was Ireland’s busiest industrial port with the largest shipbuilding yards in the country (before Belfast surpassed it). To reflect its civic pride, Charles Tarrant designed the clocktower and public water fountain, with water troughs for horses. Built by public subscription, it was completed in 1861 with a clock costing £78-10s donated by the Corporation and installed in 1864. Because of the horse troughs, it was originally known as the Fountain Clock.
A few steps north along the Quay is the Granville Hotel. This elegant hotel is one of Ireland’s oldest and dates from the early 1700s. The Newport merchant and banking family built the hotel and subsequently sold it to another prominent merchant, Thomas Meagher, who traded between Waterford and Newfoundland. His son Thomas Francis Meagher was born in the hotel in 1823. Meagher (junior) designed the Irish flag in 1847 but was transported to Tasmania a year later for his role in the failed Young Ireland rebellion. He escaped to the US and became a Brigadier General in the Fighting 69th and The Irish Brigade in the American Civil War. He went on to become Secretary to the territory and Governor of Montana before disappearing in the Missouri River. The Granville was also the headquarters of Charles Bianconi’s coaches, the first public transport system in Ireland.
There is another link to Meagher and the American civil war in the graveyard attached to Ballybricken church on the hill overlooking the river. Captain Patrick Clooney was a native of Waterford and a military adventurer. In 1860 he fought at the Battle of Castelfidardo with the battalion of St Patrick in aid of the Papal States against Italian reunification. He travelled to the US a year later as the Civil War broke out. He enlisted as a private in “Meagher’s Zouaves”, Company K of the 69th New York State Militia, and fought at First Bull Run. He raised a company for the 88th New York Volunteers which became part of the Irish Brigade. The Brigade and Captain Clooney fought through the the Maryland Campaign in 1862 until it reached the bloody slaughter of Antietam. There Clooney received a severe gunshot wound in the knee and refusing to leave the field he was killed by a rifle bullet, aged 27. A year later Waterford locals erected a memorial to him in Ballybricken.
There are a few stark memorials to a later conflict that was closer to home including this one on the walls of the old Barracks on Green St. The 1921 Irish War of Independence mostly passed Waterford by apart from a failed ambush at Pickardstown near Tramore. But Waterford was besieged in the subsequent civil war in July 1922, something I’ve written about before. Three months later, the Dáil passed a resolution providing for the death penalty for terrorist offences, following trial by military tribunal. The government executed 75 rebels in the six months from November 1922 to April 1923, all by firing squad at various locations including Patrick O’Reilly and Michael Fitzgerald in January 1923. According to Terence O’Reilly’s book Rebel Heart, the two men from the Anti-Treaty 1st Cork Brigade were captured in Waterford a month earlier and “went to their deaths bravely” singing as they were marched from Ballybricken prison to the Barracks parade square, “even sharing their cigarettes with the firing squad”.
It is likely the military tribunal would have sat at the old courthouse which dates to 1849. The grand courthouse has recently had significant restoration works including the demolition of the vacant fire station next door and further restoration to the original building designed in classical style by John B Keane. The building was disused in 1977, and partly derelict but was extensively renovated and extended in the early 1980s and resumed work as a courthouse.
Another sign of recent rejuvenation was the mirrored roof put over the Apple Market at the end of Michael St. The large-scale triangular canopy, designed by locals dhb Architects, is made up of stainless steel, glazed edges and a reflective underbelly. The square is the beating heart of Waterford, packed when the big screens were showing Waterford’s run to the All Ireland hurling final in 2017. Another superb addition to the landscape is the Deise Greenway on the old Waterford-Dungarvan rail line, now the longest rail trail in Ireland. I did get out to take a look but I was out for a run and did not have my camera with me. Which was a shame as a fox ran past me, heading down to the river for a drink.
With so much new stuff around Waterford, it is heartening to see old shopfronts like An Siopa (Irish for “the shop”) survive. Also in the Apple Market, An Siopa is deals in gold and antique jewellery. There must remain room for old and new in Waterford. I remember growing up and walking home from school down Castle St past its amazing medieval towers. But the city walls were neglected, the street was decrepit and the area smelt of urine. It was as if Waterford was ashamed of its past. Hopefully those days are gone. The old Viking city should wear its history with pride while embracing whatever excitement the future brings.