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Waterford – The Unconquered City

Waterford City, 2023. Photo: Turtle Bunbury.

One ripe spring morning in 853 AD, a fearless blonde by name of Sitric allegedly parked his longboat on the banks of a mist-shrouded estuary, sniffed the air, stroked his chin and yodelled “slå sig nedi” to his merry men. This, as you probably know, is Danish for “make yourselves at home, lads”. Sitric was one of the earliest Scandinavian Vikings to settle in Ireland, establishing a small wooden town on the south coast, where the River Suir meets the Ocean. When asked the name of his new settlement, Sitric looked at the surrounding water and then at the fertile landscape so vaguely reminiscent of his home in Denmark. “Vadre-fjord”, he whispered softly.

County Waterford, highlighted.

Well, that’s not entirely true but, over 1170 years later, Waterford (aka Vadre-fjord) is certainly the principal seaport and commercial hub of South East Ireland. Supporting a population of almost 48,000 (including 8000 students) in 2023, and a further 40,000 within a 10-mile radius, the city has become deservedly popular with those seeking to explore the many historical and natural wonders of the south coast. It is one of Ireland’s most colourful and enigmatic cities, replete with spacious streets and cobble-stone alleyways where visitors can admire Victorian and Georgian buildings one instant, ancient Norman walls and look-out towers the next. The flamboyant quay-side docks, lined with creaky old barges and sky-scraping cranes, underline Waterford’s traditional role as a prosperous gateway to Ireland’s extensive river systems. The modern city centre buildings and industrial hinterland indicate a city galloping enthusiastically through the 21st century.

The Vikings had settlements all along the Irish coastline, at strategic locations such as Dublin, Limerick, Wexford, Strangford, Carlingford and pretty much any other town with a “ford” in its name. But Waterford was their principal headquarters, offering excellent opportunities for the horny-hatted citizens to peg it up-river into the lush countryside and grab as much monastic loot and stray novice nuns as they could fit on their boats. Although Sitric lived in an age when, say, failure to pay one’s Viking taxes was punishable by the removal of one’s nose, his descendants were much calmer individuals and took to worshipping a kindly carpenter’s son from the Sea of Galilee instead. One such Christian Viking was Reginald who, as Governor of Waterford, inspired the magnificent 73 foot high Reginald’ s Tower which is now open to the public and well worth a visit.

In 1170AD, the Vikings came a cropper when the Norman armies arrived across the seas in pursuit of fertile lands. The axe-wielding Vikings were simply no match for the highly skilled and fanatically organised Norman archers who could reputedly loose off upwards of fifty flaming arrows a minute. Waterford was swiftly conquered and the Viking chieftains dispatched to Valhalla. The following year, Strongbow, leader of the Norman forces, married the Irish Princess Aoife in Reginald’s Tower. The party lasted three weeks although some feel it went on for close on 800 years. In due course, Robin Hood’s foe, King John, came to visit, set up a Royal Mint, granted a charter and had the whole “City” fortified with a mighty wall. 21st century visitors can still see remnants of John’s legacy in the medieval walls of Railway Square, Castle Street, Stephen Street and Jenkins Lane. At any rate, with the King’s blessing, the green light for industrial boom went on and, during the Medieval Age, Waterford was a well known port amongst the merchant community of Europe.

During the War of the Roses, Waterford’s walls were hammered by canon balls during an unsuccessful attempt to put a pretend King called Perkin Warbeck on the English throne. The real King, Henry VII, was so pleased with Waterford’s resistance he gave the City a whopping paycheck of 1000 marks and conferred on it the title, Intacta Manet Waterfordia (“Waterford – The Unconquered City”). Further good times followed although the religious mayhem of the 16th and 17th centuries played havoc with the city’s nerves.

In the summer of 1690, the Catholic merchants of Waterford provided the visiting King James II with a bed for the night. This would normally have been a perfectly reasonable thing to do. However, James had just lost a major battle and was actually on his way to lifelong exile in France at the time. His enemy King Billy punished Waterford by planting the city with one hundred Protestant (Huguenot) families from France. And that’s why there’s still a French Church in Waterford today.

Boosted by the opening of trade with cod-plenty Newfoundland, Waterford enjoyed a second golden age in the 18th century. Many of the city’s greatest buildings date to this era and are the legacy of one man, John Roberts. His magnificent City Hall now houses the Municipal Art Collection featuring works by Louis le Brocquy, Paul Henry and Jack B. Yeats. Fans of morbidity might enjoy a 15th century sarcophagus on display in Robert’s Christ Church Cathedral depicting a corpse in an advanced state of decay covered in maggots, worms and frogs.

In 1798 the Quakers founded a school at Newtown in the city; Ralph Fiennes and Sinead O’Connor were among its more famous past pupils. Five years later, Brother Edmund Rice established the world’s first Christian Brother School. A flamboyant aristocrat called Sir Thomas Wyse was particularly instrumental in advancing the city’s business presence during the 1820s and 1830s; his wife Letitia Bonaparte was a niece of Emperor Napoleon. Galloping into the 20th century, the citizens of Waterford did their share in the fight for independence but the city itself, like Ireland as a whole, was in serious decline by the 1950s.

Which is why it’s so uplifting to see Waterford a city on the rise once more. Prosperity is evident at every turn, in the rejuvenation of urban parks, the restoration of old buildings, the pedestrianisation of main streets, the cranes swinging along the quays. From a visitor’s point of view, the city’s wining and dining scene has vastly improved since this century began, both in terms of domestic chefs and newcomers from as far a-field as Italy and Saudi Arabia. Likewise, the pub situation remains well above average with silent pubs, noisy pubs, fancy pubs and simple pubs at every turn. And be sure to try a  the local brew, Phoenix, which proudly boasts a remarkable claim to winning first prize at the World Beer Competition in Belgium in 1958! Or else run with a whiskey from the wonderful Waterford Whiskey distillery.

Jasper Conran’s Rain and Shine tumblers. For more, see here.

But winning medals is sometimes what it’s all about. All Ireland was clinking glasses from dusk till dawn when Cian O’Connor cantered a steed called Waterford Crystal to gold-winning victory at the Athens Olympics last August. The fact the wonder horse was previously imbibed with miscellaneous banned substances should not detract from the merriment of the occasion itself. Either way, the news coverage provided an excellent international plug for the Waterford Crystal factory. The outstanding glass-blowing commerce was started in 1793 by the Penrose brothers but became truly serious after the company won several gold medals at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Just over 150 years later, they were a big enough global enterprise to co-sponsor the 2006 Ryder Cup, which took place at The K-Club in County Kildare. If you want to learn about how to make and cut and blow crystal, head to the factory’s purpose built Visitor Centre.

In July 2005, Waterford became the first Irish port to host the start of the annual Tall Ships race series. Upwards of 80 Tall Ships sailed down the River Suir in formation to launch the event. I have voyaged up the same river on a cruise ship three times, the Island Sky, in 2023 and 2024, and its a magnificent way to arrive into Waterford. On the first of those occasions, we moored opposite Reginald’s Tower, which was especially charming. Also, since I originally penned this article, Waterford has a while heap of excellent museums that I need to add to the mix.

Waterford was named European City of Christmas for 2024.

The original version of this article appeared in Visitor in October 2004.

See more Waterford tales here.


Places to Stay


Richards and Scales 1764 map of Waterford shows St. Catherine’s Abbey as a large monastic site on a small island along the St John’s River.

One of the finest guest houses in Waterford that I’ve stayed in was the Arlington Lodge on John’s Hill, a useful 10 minute stroll from the city centre. Built by merchants and later occupied by the Bishops of Waterford and Lismore, Arlington Lodge is a fine and stately house. It seems to be shut now, 2023, but I enjoyed its beautiful sprawling bedrooms, buxom bathrooms, an award-winning restaurant and a particularly splendid breakfast. I stayed there the night we launched ‘The Irish Pub’ book in the town in 2007. At that time, the attention to detail was well above average and the staff were experts in providing local advice. Click here to access their on-line brochure: Arlington Lode brochure.


Recommended Pubs


For boldness of enterprise and precision of execution, Geoff’s Bar wins the race. Other front-runners are Downes, T&H Doolans and, if you chance upon its doors being opened, Mahers. These pubs are helpfully run in a straight line from John Street down to the Quays.