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History is all around you as one wanders the streets of Ireland’s oldest city. Friendly, welcoming faces beckon to you with bright smiles. The residents sure make up for the traditional Irish weather - grey clouds. Harry, the owner of a barbers shop, tells me with a lopsided and only half committed grin. “Oh, we do see the sun from time to time, you know.”
Throughout the medieval period, Waterford was Ireland's second city after Dublin. In the 15th century Waterford repelled two pretenders to the English throne: Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. As a result, King Henry VII gave the city its motto: Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia. Waterford remains the untaken city.
Waterford is most famous for the crystal glass but scratch just below this and you’ll discover the real Ireland. The city is the oldest on the Emerald Isle having been founded by the Vikings in 914. It was the Vikings who gave the city its name from the old Norse word Veðrafjǫrðr, meaning "ram fjord". The River Suir provided excellent port facilities and even in Irish Waterford translates from Port Láirge, meaning Lárag's port.
Viking raiders from Scandinavia first visited the area as early as 853 and established long ports. They remained for half a century before being driven out in 902 by native Irish. Twelve years later the Vikings returned led by Ottir Larla (Jarl Ottar) until 917, and after that by Ragnall ua Imair and the Ui Imair dynasty. This family would create the foundations for what would become Ireland’s first city, Waterford. In April 2003 an important site combining a 5th-century Iron Age and 9th-century Viking settlement was discovered at Woodstown near the city, which appears to have been a Viking town that predates all such settlements in Ireland.
In 1167, Diarmait Mac Murchada, the deposed King of Leinster, failed in an attempt to take Waterford. He returned in 1170 with Cambro-Norman mercenaries under Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (known as Strongbow); together they besieged and took the city after a desperate defence. In furtherance of the Norman invasion of Ireland, King Henry II of England landed at Waterford in 1171. Waterford and then Dublin were declared royal cities.
The salty sea air rests in the nostrils as one strolls alongside the River Suir, the river that gave birth to Waterford and it continues to be the focal point of the city to this day with large commercial ships using Waterford Port, where until the late 1860’s large transatlantic liners were built at the Neptune shipyard, which is now just a memory. Another far more recent memory is of Waterford Glass. In 2009 the company which had been in the city since 1783 upped sticks and moved to Europe, shattering the heart out of the community. The Waterford Crystal visitor centre in the Viking Corner, however, opened in June 2010 after the intervention of Waterford City Council and Waterford Chamber of Commerce and brings back something of the better times. Today the centre is the region’s most popular tourist attraction and is at the centre of a tourist dream as nearby is historic Reginald’s Tower (Ireland’s most historic medieval monument), City Hall, the theatre, Christ Church Cathedral and that sparkling visitor centre all within a short distance of each other. Exploring Waterford is best done on foot with the River Suir as your starting point.
Waterford’s Viking Triangle is at the heart of the 10th Century fortifications and in addition to the attractions is home to a wide variety of restaurants in the High Street and Henrietta Street, taking advantage of the charming character of the area. If you get a chance; do join one of the daily walking tours of Waterford’s 15th Century city walls. Waterford retains more of its city walls than any other city in Ireland with the exception of Derry, whose walls were built much later.
Music lovers tend to head towards the mile long Quay as near to Reginald’s Tower can be found William Vincent Wallace Plaza, as a memorial to the Waterford born composer. Shoppers, meanwhile, can stroll through John Roberts Square; a pedestrianised area named after the city's most celebrated architect, John Roberts, and was formed from the junction of Barronstrand Street, Broad Street and George's Street. Locals tend to call it Red Square, a reference to the red paving slabs under foot. A short distance to the east is Arundel Square, where more shops, restaurants and boutiques can be found.
A visit to Ireland would not be complete without a drop or two and T H Doolans is Waterford's oldest public house can be found just outside the old 'Viking Triangle'. The pub has been serving drinks for well over 300 years although the building itself on George’s Street is over 500 years old and interestingly includes part of the original city walls, which are almost 1000 years old. Sitting inside the pub it is a curious thing to see the city walls in the lounge.
A day visit hardly does the city justice with its wealth of attractions that includes Christchurch Cathedral, Theatre Royal, Waterford Municipal Art Gallery and the wonderful Waterford Museum of Treasures built in 1876.
If you can, do visit in the summer months and try to coincide with the Waterford Festival of Music. This festival of live music covers all genres and was first established in 2011 when 10,000 people attended. Every year since the crowds have grown and the music gets better. The August Bank Holiday weekend sees Waterford’s streets come alive with colour and creativity when the annual Spraoi festival (pronounced Spree). Organised by the Spraoi Theatre Company the festival takes over the city centre and attracts audiences in excess of 80,000 people.