An Irish city with Viking roots

Licking salt and malt vinegar from our fingers, we stroll down to The Quays along the waterfront of the River Suire in Waterford City, looking for a pub where we can wash down our fish-and-chip dinner. We’re feeling quite at home in Ireland’s oldest city. I’ve gone so far as to trade my Canadian “eh” for a lilting “to be sure.”

Much of the Irish phrasing reminds me of my many cousins, aunts and uncles in Newfoundland and, as it turns out, my ancestors may have set sail for the New World from this very spot. The Irish started fishing Newfoundland’s Grand Banks in the 1600s and while they planned to return, many remained — so many, in fact, that by 1731, the majority of the male population in Newfoundland were Irish Roman Catholics. No wonder the provincial capital of St. John’s has been described as one of the most Irish places in the world outside of Ireland itself. And no wonder I’m feeling quite at home in this sunny southeast corner of the Emerald Isle.

Waterford is synonymous with exquisite crystal, which has been made here by skilled artisans since 1783, but the city has so much more to offer than a tour of the famous glassblowing and cutting factory – althgh the tour should not be passed up. Waterford is a vibrant, modern city more than 1,000 years old.

A millennium in an hour
But to truly understand the impact of times gone by on the city’s character today, join a one-hour walking tour conducted by award-winning storyteller Jack Burtchaell. The tour covers less than a mile but more than a millennium of history. Start at the Viking building, Reginald’s Tower on The Quays, the oldest urban civic building in the country.

Then meander through the Viking Triangle, the historic quarter of Waterford. You’ll see the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in all of Britain and Ireland – the Cathedral Church of the Most Holy Trinity. Waterford also boasts the only neo-classical Georgian cathedral in Ireland: Christ Church Cathedral is built on a site of Christian worship dating back to 1050. Both buildings were designed by Waterford architect John Roberts. That a Catholic was allowed to build the Protestant cathedral is testament to the religious tolerance in the city during a time of great turmoil in the rest of the country.

The walking tour ends at the Waterford Treasures at the Granary. The award-winning museum has unique artifacts and striking finds from local archeological digs, including the only set of medieval vestments in Ireland and Britain to survive the Reformation.

Founded on the River Suire by the Vikings after they ransacked the monasteries in the rest of Ireland in the eighth and ninth centuries, Waterford is older than any of the major Nordic capitals of modern Europe, including Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen. While the city was taken by the Normans in the 12th century, Waterford boasts proudly of being the only one Oliver Cromwell was unable to capture during his invasion of Ireland in 1649. He did, however, threaten to take it “by Hook or by Crooke” (Hook is a headland on the Wexford side of the bay north of Waterford, Crooke a small village on the Waterford side). Cromwell is still despised in Ireland: “No tree high enough to hang him, no earth deep enough to bury him.”

Despite the pressure of the English, Waterford adhered to the old faith even after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and the rise of the ruling class of the Protestants. It walked a tightrope between treason and loyalty.

The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought only temporary relief to the Catholics of Waterford. After the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the ascendancy of the Protestant merchant class helped Waterford to grow in importance as a shipping centre even as the rest of the country chafed under Protestant domination.

The Penal Laws of the late 17th century reflected the fears of the English Protestant ruling class and were meant to eliminate the threat of the Catholic Irish. The laws denied them public office, the purchase of land, access to education and worship, and the use of Gaelic speech. Many Catholic Irish were dispossessed of their estates over time. And while the city of Waterford prospered with trade and commerce – it was one of the busiest ports in Ireland – the period from 1800 and 1830 saw the largest pre-famine exodus from Ireland: 35,000 people from the Waterford area emigrated to Newfoundland.

The Penal Laws remained in effect for more than a century, until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. But relief was short-term: the Great Famine of 1846 caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands – and brought about a new wave of the population from across the island to Waterford to emigrate, draining the country of its young people. 

Luring the young home
The economic boom of the ’90s has meant unprecedented growth to a country blighted by emigration in the past but which now lures its people home – but to high-tech jobs, not back to the land. In one generation, the Republic of Ireland has emerged from an agricultural-based society to information-based.

We drop into T. & H. Doolins, Waterford’s oldest tavern. Licensed for more than 300 years, the pub comprises two dimly lit, intimate rooms in an 18th-century building on George Street off the pedestrian mall. We’ve stepped into an historical Irish pub with a wall that was built more than 800 years ago by Norman invaders. Yet in true Waterford fashion, where history is not a museum but a living embodiment of modern times, Doolins is where singer Sinead O’Connor began her career.

After a few rounds of Guinness and Harp and the craic (pronounced crack – Gaelic for good conversation and good times), we head up John’s Hill to the Arlington Lodge. Once the seat of the Bishops of Waterford and Lismore, Arlington has been transformed by owner Maurice Keller into a luxurious country house hotel of great charm. He greets us at the door and ushers us into the William Morris bar for a nightcap of Jamieson’s, a singalong and more craic. It’s the new Ireland in a land of history. A cosmopolitan city of Viking origins. 

Jack Burtchaell, Walking Tours:
Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre: 
Waterford Museum:
General tourism information:
Arlington Lodge: