This week we conclude our short series of Discover Waterford where we become tourists in our own city, exploring its storied past. Recently we ventured into the world of John Roberts and his son Thomas, then delved into the foundation of the Blackfriars and lastly we traced the history of Garter Lane and its origins as the centre of Quakerism in Waterford. I am glad to say each piece proved popular.

Today in conclusion we focus on other aspects of the Waterford urban landscape. Firstly a brief word about the People’s Park. We wrote of this wonderful amenity in some detail before and it’s a topic worth revisiting in the future. It was laid out in 1857, its 150th was celebrated 2 years back with an extensive make-over in terms of landscaping and play amenities with the Victorian bandstand as its central feature – the modern fountain has its fans and detractors, but personally speaking I like it.

Most of its trees are in situ since its opening back in the mid-19th century. Their range in variety is extensive and Declan McGrath’s great book Waterford City Wildlife has a detailed listing. The park is connected by an iron bridge to the city courthouse, which was built on the site of the medieval St Catherine’s Abbey. Opened in 1849, it was regarded as one of the significant achievements of the reformed Corporation that administered the city from 1842 onwards. It was extensively restored in the 1980’s while the court sittings were transferred to the then vacant Meeting House in O’Connell Street, as we described in our recent piece about it.

Your Plaza or mine?

Well it’s our Plaza now basking in the venerable name of William Vincent Wallace – some tourists may wonder whether this is the Braveheart hero, maybe his folks came from hereabouts way back. But no, please note the Vincent bit as it is dedicated to our very own William Vincent, born in nearby Colbeck Street (1812). He was one of Waterford’s most colourful sons, famous for his operas Maritana, Lurline and Amber Witch. He is regarded as one of the greatest nineteenth-century composers of English opera. He married three times and lived the life of an adventurer, travelling the world extensively, sometimes giving concerts in out-of-the-way places and accepting sheep and poultry as payment in kind.

He went whale-fishing in Australia, crossed the Andes by mule and gave concerts in Jamaica. Wallace performed as a violinist in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans, and he was a founder member of the New York Philharmonic Society. He died in France in 1865, aged fifty-three.

As part of the preparations for the arrival of the Tour de France in 1998 it was decided to finally clear the big old sheds on the Quay as they had become unsightly and their removal would enable the opening up and development of the Quay.

The shop and business fronts along the Quay got a long overdue facelift as well. As the site was now available for amenity development the Corporation built a stunning new Plaza there as the city’s millennium project. Appropriately it had a maritime theme in its design and therefore, with Maritana particularly in mind, it was dedicated to William Vincent Wallace. It functions as an amenity area where the going and coming of the river can be savoured and performances enjoyed – especially during Spraoi.

Incidentally, a quick story: this space is usually listed in abbreviated form as the WVW Plaza in the Spraoi open-air programme. So, one year I was intrigued to hear two teenagers enquiring as to where the Volkswagen (VW) Plaza was – I wondered briefly had the ever-intrepid TV managed to get a new major sponsor on board, and then the penny dropped!

By the way, to link back to our piece on the Park, the fine tall modern building on Canada Street comprising suites of offices and apartments overlooking the Peoples Park is called Maritana Gate of WVW fame – no, Tom Murphy is not opening an office there for the sale of a particular model car! And the skate-boarders, once the scourge of the new magnificent plaza, have now been well catered for in their great new facility in the Park. It’s well up and leaping by now, as they say.

Flow on lovely river

The river defines Waterford and has shaped its history and development as a port and city. We will conclude this journey of discovery in the good company of the director of the award winning Waterford Treasures at the Granary. The ancient Irish Annals, An Leabhar Gabhala, the Book of Conquests, has this to say about Waterford harbour:

A sweet confluence of waters, a trinity of rivers,

Was their resting place,

They unloaded the women and the sensual idol.

This refers to the three rivers that meet the sea in Waterford harbour: The Barrow, Nore and Suir. Traditionally they were collectively known as The Three Sisters because the word ‘suir’ derives from the Irish word tsiuir, which means ‘the sister’ (this in turn comes from the French). Between them these three great rivers drain a quarter of the landmass of Ireland. In its long journey to the sea from where it rises at the Devil’s Bit Mountain in County Tipperary, the River Suir wanders through some of the finest land in Ireland. (I brought a detailed account of its journey to the sea previously). Waterford, as the main port to satisfy the needs of its wealthy hinterland, grew rich on river-borne trade. Much of this carried on by the ever enterprising Quakers, incidentally.

In his famous work The Faerie Queene, the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser turns away from the contemplation of fictitious landscapes to praise the rivers of Ireland:

The gentle Shure, that making way,

By sweet Clonmel, adorns rich Waterford.

All which longed sundered do at last accord,

To join in one ere to the sea they come,

So flowing all for one, all one at last become.

It is interesting to note Spenser’s rendering of the correct Irish pronunciation of the word ‘suir’, which he must surely have learned from the lips of the locals.

The city’s open airy look

Waterford harbour has acted as an entry point to the south-east of Ireland from time immemorial. Long before the Norse times, seafarers crossed St George’s Channel from Wales to Waterford and conversely, men of the Decies, sailed out from here and settled in south-western Wales bringing with their tradition of Ogham stones to mark the graves of their chieftains. The journey upriver from Hook Head and Dunmore east is among the most scenic in Ireland as one passes headland and inlet and under the watch of Duncannon Fort and Passage – the latter being one of the oldest ferry-point in Ireland.

Onwards one enters the magnificent reach of river beyond Ballyhack to Nook and Buttermilk point, which looks like a dramatic Norwegian fjiord, and then to the meeting of the waters at Cheekpoint (Fairy Point in Irish). The journey past here is nothing less than a journey through history. Invaders, kings, princes, merchants have all landed here. Emigrants have departed from here to places around the globe. Castles, abbeys, age-old fishing weirs, great houses, comfortable farms, simple boat landings and commerce crowed in upon the waterway.

All through the ages, it has been the river at Waterford and the views of Waterford from or across the River Suir which has most impressed travellers. One writer summed it up thus: “The Suir is a wide river, as wide as the Thames at Westminster Bridge, three times as wide as the Seine or Tiber, five times the width of the Liffey at O’Connell Bridge. It is this width of stream, which gives the city its open airy look, a handsome well situated city”. Take a bow as we await 2011 with eagerness to enjoy anew the magnificence of our river as a handsome setting for the return of the Tall Ships.

The art of the matter

Back down river at beautiful Dunmore is the annual art exhibition of watercolours by the Dunmore East watercolour group.

No doubt some of the enchanting riverscapes alluded to above will have been captured on canvas. The standard of exhibits is usually of a high order – check it out at the sailing club this coming weekend 29/5 to 1/6 – the opening 7-9, is on this Friday evening. The exhibition is supporting the Waterford Hospice Movement.

Ouch and about!

Notice observed in a staff canteen: This department requires no physical fitness programme.

Everyone gets enough exercise jumping to conclusions, flying off the handle, running down the boss, knifing friends in the back, dodging responsibility and pushing their luck – as I said, ouch!

Go seachtain eile, slan.