Exploring Waterford's Viking past

The Waterford Quays.

This article is from the June/July issue of sister publication Irish America magazine. To enjoy more articles from the issue, click here.

The popular perception of Vikings is tinged with terror. The Irish tend to think of them as ferocious marauders who pillaged monasteries a millennium ago. But there was more to the Vikings than most people realize and their contribution to Irish society has long been under appreciated. This is certainly true in Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city, which is celebrating its 1,100th anniversary this year. Founded by the Vikings in 914, the citizens of this southeastern city are eager to mark their Viking heritage and this historical milestone in style.

“This year marks a significant landmark for Waterford,” says Gary Breen from the tourism promotion body Fáilte Ireland. “Waterford has completed significant tourist attractions and put in place a calendar of celebratory events under the banner of ‘Waterford 1100’.”

“We wanted to bring home to everyone the dramatic founding of our city by Vikings and Waterford’s unique identity in retaining its Norse name – Vadrarfjordr – which eventually became Waterford,” says Eamonn McEneaney, Director of Waterford Treasures, three historical sites at the heart of the city that house historic and archeological artifacts.

Vadrarfjordr is believed to derive from either Fjord of the Rams, in reference to the export of sheep from the area, or Windy Fjord. It’s easy to imagine Waterford being a safe haven for Viking ships sheltering from rough Irish seas.

Shelter wasn’t all that attracted them to Waterford. The strategic and trading importance of the three sisters rivers, the Nore, the Barrow and the Suir, that empty into Waterford Harbor also played their part in the Vikings’ decision to build a longphort (or dock) at the confluence of St. John’s River (another small river) and the River Suir. This marked the birth of Ireland’s first city.

Waterford composer Eric Sweeney and poet Mark Roper will bring the landing into a new creative field as part of the commemorative events this year with a new Irish opera to the stage. “The Invader” will tell of a charismatic warrior, beautiful yet terrible, who emerges from the darkness to change things forever.

By 1080, the Waterford Vikings were entangled in the intrigue of Irish politics. The King of Munster Diarmuid O’Brien enlisted their help in sending a fleet to Wales to help a dispossessed king there to recover his lands. (A century later, it was a dispossessed Irish king named Dermot McMurrough who called on help from overseas. He brought Anglo Norman mercenaries to Wexford in 1169 and, after a siege led by Strongbow, Waterford fell to them in 1170.)

Reginald’s Tower was the first defensive structure built by the Viking settlers. Mentioned in the Irish annals as early as 1088, it’s the oldest civic building in Ireland. It’s been used as a mint, a prison, and a military store, but is now one of the Waterford Treasures, exhibiting artifacts that tell the story of Waterford’s Viking heritage. Waterford was Ireland’s second largest city (after Dublin, which was also ruled by the Norse) throughout the medieval period. In the 15th century, it repelled two pretenders to the English throne and as a result Henry VII gave the city its motto – Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia or “Waterford, the loyal city.”

More turbulent times followed the Protestant Reformation, when the British monarchy severed its links with Rome. Waterford remained Catholic and even participated in the Confederation of Kilkenny – an independent Catholic government, which lasted from 1642 to 1649.

However, the city could not placate both the monarchy and papacy forever. Oliver Crom-well besieged the city in 1649, but it held out against him. In 1650, his son-in-law Henry Ireton succeeded where he had not, and Waterford fell. Many Catholic merchants were ex-pelled from the city and fled to France and Spain where some established themselves in the wine business. The Medieval Museum, another of the Waterford Treasures, houses artifacts from this time. The building itself consists of a 13th century chorister’s hall and a 15th century mayor’s wine vault. Its exhibits include a bow from the Anglo-Norman siege of the city and the largest collection of royal charters surviving in Ireland.

The 18th century saw an upturn in prosperity for Waterford. The rise of its great industries of ship building and glass making date from this time. By the mid 19th century, Waterford had four ship building yards and the first steam ship ever to sail into a Russian port was built here. It carried a gift of Waterford glass which was presented to the Tsar in St. Petersburg. Vikings aside, it is this glass that has spread Waterford’s name worldwide. Waterford Crystal was founded by brothers William and George Penrose in 1783. “They were important developers and principal exporters in the city,” says David McCoy, the Sales and Marketing Director with the House of Waterford Crystal. “Their vision was to create the finest quality crystal for drinking vessels and objects of beauty for the home. More than two hundred years later, the reputation they established for creating glass of unsurpassed beauty and quality has transcended the centuries.”