In many ways WATERFORD is Ireland’s least discovered city, often bypassed by tourists heading from Rosslare for the more hyped destinations of Cork and Kerry further west. Even the hardiest defender of this dockland city’s reputation would be hard-pressed to mount a campaign centred upon Waterford’s immediate allures. Though neat wooded hillsides figure north of Rice Bridge, the vista mainly encompasses ugly industrial development, with cranes and a refinery dominating the skyline and the unappealing quays of the River Suir offering barely a hint of the vibrant city lying behind.
But Waterford is one of those places where scraping the surface reveals numerous delights. Behind those ugly quays lies a complex of narrow lanes, first formed in medieval times, and many grand examples of Georgian town planning in the shape of sturdy townhouses and elegant municipal and ecclesiastical buildings. There’s a lively nightlife here too, with plenty of enjoyable bars, as well as decent cafés and restaurants.
Waterford’s origins are integrally linked to the River Suir. The Vikings built a settlement here in the early tenth century to provide shelter for their longboats and to exploit the trading opportunities offered by the river, which along with the Barrow and the Nore provided easy access to the southeast’s fertile farmland. The Viking settlement prospered and controlled much of this part of Ireland, exacting a tribute from the Celts called Airgead Sróine (Nose Money) since the punishment for welshers was to have their noses cut off.
Later, the course of both local and national history was much impacted by Strongbow’s assault on the city in 1170, caused by Dermot MacMurrough’s attempts to gain sway over Ireland. The success of the Anglo-Norman earl’s bloody offensive not only led to his marriage to MacMurrough’s daughter but brought his liege lord, Henry II, scurrying to Ireland the following year to assume control of the country’s conquest. Henry granted a charter providing royal protection to the city and his descendant, King John, increased its size by adding new walls and towers.
Though much affected by the Black Death and frequent incursions by both Irish and Anglo-Norman neighbours, Waterford continued to flourish as a port, reliant on trade in wool, hides and wine. Though Cromwell was repelled in 1649, a year later Ireton’s troops took control and expelled many of the Catholic merchants. Protestant domination of the city’s trade was reinforced by William of Orange’s accession. The eighteenth century witnessed major architectural developments, mostly designed by locally born John Roberts. Shipbuilding prospered during the nineteenth century, the city becoming second only to Belfast in terms of tonnage constructed, and many Waterford-built vessels transported the city’s famous crystal, first manufactured here in 1783. However, Waterford suffered economically during the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of this century, witnessing factory closures, a major downsizing of the iconic Waterford Crystal and the virtual end of shipbuilding here.