Well as most people know the pedestrianised square at the centre of Waterford is named in honour of one John Roberts, an 18th century architect whose work made a significant impact on the shape of this city. I think most know him for his unique achievement in being the architect for both of the city’s Cathedrals – yet both so different in character. I thought after last week’s tourist trail around Blackfriars that this week we would proceed to Discover Waterford’s nearby city’s central square. So what’s its story and that of the man behind the name? Let’s follow the lead of our local historian par excellence and director of Waterford Treasures Museum, Eamonn McEneaney in exploring its history and that of who John Roberts was and of his work in Waterford.

On Tour

So from Blackfriars, return to High Street and walking via Blackfriars Lane make your way to the nearby square – John Roberts Square. This area lying immediately outside the old Viking town, was developed during the Anglo-Norman expansion of the 13th century. It was fully pedestrianised to its present layout and design in 2000 and dedicated to the famous architect and builder. John Roberts (1714-1796) was the grandson of Thomas Roberts, ‘a Welshman of property’ who settled in Waterford about 1680; his father was a builder. At the age of 17 John eloped with Mary Susannah Sautelle, daughter of a Waterford Huguenot family. They were forced to elope because the Robert’s family felt that Mary was beneath his station as she came from a poorer family. The marriage worked out well- they had 22 children although only 8 survived to adulthood.

Bishop Chenevix, the Bishop of Waterford, was also of Huguenot stock and a friend of the Sautelles, so he employed John to finish the work on the new bishop’s Palace, which had been started by bishop Este in the early 1740s. Chenevix also gave the couple a lease on the old Bishop’s Palace which stood on the top of cathedral Square and this came to be their home. (More of this later).

In January 1774 the cathedral committee selected Robert’s plan for the new Christchurch Cathedral; no doubt the bishop’s support helped to sway the decision. 

The Cathedral’s History

I think that at this juncture it should be of interest to have a quick review of the history of the old cathedral and the decision to build a new one designed by Roberts.

The Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, Christ Church was built on a site of Christian worship which dates back to 1050 and probably before.

The Vikings

The first church on this site was built in the 11th Century, probably around the time the previously pagan Vikings had become Christian and had affiliated themselves to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He appointed the first Bishop of Waterford, Malchus, in 1096.

The Mediaeval Cathedral was the setting for the famous wedding of English knight, Strongbow and Irish Princess, Aoife in 1170. This political union was to change the course of Irish History forever.

The Normans

By 1210 the Normans had taken over Waterford and they built a new Gothic Cathedral in 1210. There is a model of this structure in the Cathedral today. This expanded over the years to include side chapels dedicated to people such as James Rice who was a leading figure in Waterford at the time.

The base of one of the Norman pillars of the Norman Cathedral is still remaining and has been opened up for viewing.

During the demolition of the Gothic Cathedral the famous Waterford Vestments were discovered. Dating from late medieval times they are the only complete set of either British or Irish High Mass vestments to survive the Reformation. Part of the set has been restored and is on display at Waterford Museum of Treasures.

18th Century

However by the 18th Century, the progressive City Corporation of the time regarded this Gothic Cathedral as being very old fashioned and recommended to the Bishop that a new one should be constructed.

It is said that Bishop Chenevix was none too happy with the idea so a little ruse had to be used to ‘help’ him change his mind. Some potential builders had arranged for rubble to fall in the Bishops path as he walked through the Church, sufficiently close to give him a shock or two!

After a couple of narrow escapes Chenevix decided that a new Cathedral was a must.

In 1773 the Norman Gothic Cathedral came down, but so strongly was it built that gunpowder had to be used in its demolition. The present Cathedral was begun in 1773 and was completed in 1779 at a total cost of £5,397.

At times it has been deigned a tragedy that the magnificent Gothic Cathedral was demolished, but the present building has been described the finest 18th Century ecclesiastical building in Ireland (by Mark Girouard, a noted architectural historian).

Building a Reputation

John Roberts went on to build the Catholic Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity between 1791 and 1796. It is the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in either Britain or Ireland (all the ancient Catholic cathedrals became the property of the Church of Ireland during the reformation). Roberts was 80 years old when he designed it. His custom was to rise at 6am every morning to superintend the workmen. One morning he rose at 3am by mistake and found the cathedral empty. He sat down, fell asleep and caught a chill from which he died. The classical cathedral that he left almost complete is basically a rectangle with an apsidal east end. Shallow four-bay recesses on the north and south sides may be taken as the architectural descendants of transepts. Today, eight large crystal chandeliers – a gift from Waterford Crystal- light the interior. The cathedral stands on the site of a previous Catholic chapel, built following a successful petition to the Corporation in 1700.

John Roberts was also responsible for the building of City Hall, the Morris family home in George’s street (now the Chamber of Commerce building), the former County and City Infirmary, Newtown School (former home of John and Thomas Wyse), the forecourt of Curraghmoe House, near Portlaw, home of Lord Waterford. Indeed Curraghmore and its surrounding landscape became the subject of a watercolour by Thomas Sautelle Roberts, John’s son, who became an important 19th century painter and founder member of the Royal Hibernian Academy. John’s great-grand-son was arguably even more famous as Field -Marshal Earl Roberts (1832-1914) who became commander- in- chief of the British Army serving in Ireland, South Africa (Boer War) and in India- Bob of India as he was widely known. He and later his son were both recipients of the Victoria Cross – a unique father and son achievement. He was a hugely influential figure of his time. He was Best Man at Edward VII’s wedding and also lived for some years in a house opposite Newtown School (Newtown Park). A clock presented to Lord Roberts stands in the foyer of the Granville Hotel on the Quay.

In Conclusion

However, it was John Roberts the architect who left the most enduring impression on the city of his birth. As an architect he stands tall among his 18th century peers. As a builder, he was known in his day as Honest John Roberts. As we read above it is to his lasting credit that he was asked to build both cathedrals in his home city. He had the intellect and integrity to respect both liturgical traditions, and as a result he gave the two buildings absolutely different characters, each suited to its own philosophy. To again quote Mark Girouard:…The Protestant Cathedral is cool and northern, redolent of lawn sleeves and communion service; the Catholic cathedral, with its forest of huge Corinthian columns, is warm, luscious and Mediterranean. Do you know that the city hosts a regular John Roberts Festival – check it out?

PS. Yes indeed a man worthy of honour and recognition in his native city. Why then are a number of houses in Cathedral Square in a state of dereliction- the walls of the Roberts house are covered in ugly graffiti? Time someone cleaned up their act! We will return to debate the issues around the pedestrianisation of the Square someday soon. Go Seachtain Eile, Slan.