Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Waterford days: Once upon a time in the South-East

Despite atrocious weather, the people of Waterford celebrated the August bank holiday weekend with the annual Spraoi festival which culminated last night with the parade which this year had a wild west theme. The persistent rain did not affect the party atmosphere which was heightened by Waterford’s win in the all-Ireland hurling quarter final over its old rivals Cork in Croke Park yesterday with the parade delayed by a half hour to allow the many people making their way back from Dublin cross the bridge into town in time for the start.

Spraoi (pronounced "spree") is an Irish word meaning a celebration or party. The three day Spraoi is Waterford’s largest festival and has been an annual August event since 1993 featuring music, street theatre and performance. The highlight is the Spraoi Parade, which can attract an audience of 50,000 people and involves several hundred costumed performers with giant props and floats, pyrotechnical wizardry, lights and special effects. Each year the theme is different and last night’s wild west theme featured a noisy and colourful convoy of stagecoaches, wagons, trains, and movable saloons.

Waterford is one of Ireland’s oldest and best preserved Hiberno-Norse towns. The name comes from “Vedrarfjord” meaning windy fjord and the town is served by a magnificent harbour. Three major Irish rivers, the Barrow, the Suir and the Nore all drain into Waterford Harbour. Though the Desii people from Co Meath are supposed to have inhabited Waterford around the 2nd century, the first recorded settlement on the south bank of the Suir was founded by Viking raiders in the ninth century. The Danes led by King Sitric founded the first longphort (shore fortress) around 853AD. By the late Viking age, the town was densely populated, well defended, Christianised and prosperous. More by neglect than by design, many of Waterford Viking and middle age walls are still extant.

The most famous building in Waterford is Reginald’s Tower. The tower is the oldest civic urban structure in Ireland and has played an important role in Irish history. The present structure dates from the 12th century and the earliest building on the site is a Viking fortification built on this site during the 10th century. The tower formed the apex of the triangular city settlement and was a port for Viking longboats. The tower gets its name from the Hiberno-Norse ruler of the city Ragnall MacGillemaire who was held prisoner there by the new Anglo-Norman invaders in the 12th century. It was here where Strongbow, the Anglo-Norman invasion force leader, married the daughter of Dermot McMurrough, King of Leinster. Their dynastic alliance would fatally intertwine British and Irish history and leave consequences still felt today.

Strongbow was the first in a line of British invaders who would turn Reginald’s Tower into a royal castle. King Henry II arrived in 1171 with an army of 500 knights and 4,000 men-at-arms. King John visited Waterford in 1210 and ordered new coins to be struck. Richard II visited the tower in 1394 and again in 1399. Returning to England from his second visit he was captured by the future Henry VI and forced to abdicate.

In 1487 the city refused to obey the direction of the Earl of Kildare to recognise Lambert Simnel as king and then eight years later defenders in Reginald's Tower successfully turned away the siege forces of Perkin Warbeck, the Yorkish pretender to the throne of Henry VII. These acts of loyalty to the English crown earned the city its motto "Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia" - "Waterford remains the unconquered city".

However Waterford was eventually conquered in the 17th century. The majority Catholic city had supported the confederate and Royalist cause in the Civil War. The Parliamentarian New Model Army arrived to besiege Waterford in October 1649. Cromwell had already gained a fearsome reputation in Ireland for his bloody sacking of the towns of Drogheda and Wexford. But Waterford initially withstood his siege as Cromwell’s army had to retire to winter quarters, where many of his men died of typhoid and dysentery. In 1650, parliamentary army leader Henry Ireton arrived to restore the siege and got his artillery within range of the city walls. The Mayor of Waterford pleaded with Royalist general Thomas Preston to surrender the city which he eventually did in August 1650.

Despite the ever present threat of wars and plague, Waterford was now a prosperous seafaring and trading town, third only in importance to Dublin and Cork. Trading with Newfoundland brought much wealth into the city. Much of Waterford’s finest architecture dates from the 18th century including the Catholic and Protestant cathedrals designed by locally born John Roberts. Roberts left an astonishing stamp on the city of his birth. He was born in 1712 the son of a local builder. Though he may have learned some basic skills from his father, not much is known about his formal education. It is likely he went to London to be partially trained as an architect.

In 1746 Roberts returned home where he was requested by Bishop Richard Chenevix to complete the new Bishop's Palace. This was his first major work in the city and led to further commissions in Waterford. In 1785 he built the residence of William Morris, now the Harbour Commissioners' headquarters and the Chamber of Commerce. In 1787 he was commissioned to build a new Leper Hospital on John's Hill. Roberts also built the Assembly Rooms on the Mall in 1788, which is now the Theatre Royal and City Hall.

The other major influence of the 18th century was the birth of the Waterford crystal industry. In 1783, Quaker brothers George and William Penrose founded the Penrose Glass and began to make crystal which they claimed would be "as fine a quality as any in Europe ... in the most elegant style." The brothers were able to live up to this extravagant claim. They used old secrets of mingling minerals and glass to create a crystal of beautiful and mysterious qualities. Their reputation quickly spread. King George III ordered a set of Waterford Crystal sent to his residence at a fashionable resort, where "it has been much admired" by court society. However in 1851, the then owner, George Gatchell, was forced to close the Waterford factory, largely because of crippling British excise taxes.

The tradition lay dormant until after the second world war when a new Waterford Crystal industry emerged led by a Czech immigrant businessman. Charles Bacik escaped the Communists to re-establish a glass works in the city. Bacik hired a fellow Czech the 25 year old Miroslav Havel who had been trained in glass-making at the prestigious Academy of Art and Industrial Design in Prague. After Bacik sold his interest to a group of Irish entrepreneurs, Havel stayed on to guide the rise of Waterford Crystal by adapting antique Waterford designs to modern production processes. He developed the beautiful suites of cut crystal glasses that created a brand identity now known to millions of consumers throughout the world.

Despite the world renowned crystal, Modern day Waterford has declined somewhat since its glory days as a medieval port. Once second in importance only to Dublin, it has since been overtaken by Cork, Limerick and Galway. Today the city’s population is over 50,000 and is the second fastest growing city in Ireland. Waterford has a renewed optimism with the long desired second crossing over the Suir due for completion in 2009/2010 set to give the city the much-needed bypass of through traffic from Rosslare to Cork and will add to the attractiveness of the old heart of the Viking town.

No comments: