Waterford gained a new fan in the guise of Austria’s Ambassador to Ireland, Mr Walter Hagg, who waxed lyrically about the city following a two-day visit last week.
Speaking exclusively to The Munster Express, Ambassador Hagg spoke in glowing terms of the city and county’s natural beauty, and of the hospitality he received during his stay.
“A year or so ago, as I drove through Waterford for the first time, I was struck by the beauty of the landscape, the Suir River, the hills around it – it’s magnificent – and I was really happy to be able to visit Waterford properly,” he said.
“I was deeply impressed by the beauty of its monuments, by the history which you feel every moment as you walk around its streets; I was not astonished to hear that it is considered the oldest town in Ireland.”
Following a Mayoral Reception at City Hall, Ambassador Hagg was taken on a tour of Waterford Museum of Treasures by its curator, Eamon McEneaney.
“I was fascinated by my visit to the museum, together with the curator who is a walking encyclopaedia,” he proffered. “It was fascinating to listen to how he described the history here, this rich history.
“What is also fascinating is how this Irish city was also a Viking foundation, was also very English and later on, there were the Catholic and Protestant influences of course, and it is from these concepts from which many valuable lessons can be learned…
“Observing the 1500 or so years of history recorded here, we can also learn about problems of migration.
“The Irish were here, then the Vikings came – how did the Irish interact with the Vikings?
“There was not always war – there were peaceful dealings between both cultures in business, other contacts, etc – these are points of interest to not only the people of Waterford, but across Europe, in countries where migration and immigration plays such a huge role.
“Apart from Dublin where I live, I have to say I have Waterford to be the most fascinating town which I have visited in Ireland.”
On Thursday evening last, Ambassador Hagg attended a concert performed by the Vienna Mozart Trio, held in the magnificent surrounds of Christ Church Cathedral.
“It was a most wonderful concert,” he said. “The Vienna Mozart Trio is well-known to me, they have performed in Dublin and many other parts of Ireland for many years – I try to promote them and help them to perform in other countries.
“I am proud to have these excellent musicians of world renowned performing in Waterford again. They have very passionate friends here in the Chamber Music Society – they cherish them very much, and I must say that Christ Church was breathtaking.”
It was difficult to keep a lid on Ambassador Hagg’s enthusiasm for the city during our interview – and it was welcome to hear an external voice speak of Waterford in such glowing terms.
“I was delighted to spend two days in Waterford – it’s a city with great character and it’s different to other towns and cities that I have visited in Ireland – it’s fascinating and beautiful and I was privileged to spend some time here.”
Waterford Crystal inevitably entered the discussion, with the Ambassador revealing that the famed company was all he knew of Waterford before coming to Ireland.
“I was delighted to have an opportunity to see more closely what Waterford Crystal has produced over the past two centuries,” he continued.
“I was deeply impressed by its beauty and was privileged to receive a piece from the Mayor to mark my visit and we’ll certainly spread the word about Waterford Crystal.
“I heard about what happened to the company, but I am also impressed that the people of Waterford didn’t lie down and decide ‘that was it’. A new dawn, albeit slimmed down new era for Waterford Crystal will soon begin, and I wish it well.
“I know how famous Waterford Crystal is across Great Britain and United States and to hear of the 300,000 people who visited this city each year just to see the manufacture of crystal, illustrates that very point.”
The kindness of the Waterford people, indeed of Ireland as a whole, “is really striking,” according to Ambassador Hagg.
“In other countries of Europe, often you find people are often overburdened by stress and do not even have the time to share with you a small smile – that is definitely not so in Ireland. It’s something you should be proud of in Ireland – so don’t lose that!”
Being in Ireland during recent and sometimes fractious European Referenda campaigns has proven a fascinating experience, he added.
“The European elites, those who deal with Europe and politics, many questions were asked,” referring to Ireland’s initial rejection of both the Nice and Lisbon Treaties.
“How was it possible, they asked, that Ireland, the country which has gained the most from its membership of the European Union, that they said ‘no’ twice to important European treaties.
“There was a certain perplexity caused by this. People didn’t understand why and how this was possible.
“But, having said that, also in other countries, among those who are less familiar with the political world, with Europe, there is also a lot of scepticism of Europe – in my country, there is a considerable scepticism.
“So Ireland was not the only country where people were asking themselves questions about Europe.
“What happened following the first referendum was an interesting lesson for us, but the fantastic and spectacular ‘yes’ achieved in the second vote, with almost 67 per cent in favour, was an outstanding lesson – that we have all learned a lot.
“Ireland’s partners in the European Union, did whatever they could to ensure the Irish remained in the boat through the concessions made before the referendum, for example, all of us keeping our Commissioner was very much appreciated in Austria.”
Ambassador Hagg referred to the centuries-old relationship between Ireland and Austria; the origins of which are traced to Irish monks who travelled there to found monasteries 1200 years ago.
“Austria and Ireland may be very far away from each other, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was this movement of Irish elites which emigrated to many European states, such as France but also to Austria.
“In the ancient Hapsburg monarchy, we had, between 1620 and 1918, around 2,500 Irish officers in our armed forces, and we had even one Irishman, Edward Taaffe from County Sligo, who became our prime minister.
“Of course, there were also all the monks who travelled from Ireland to Austria in the eighth and ninth centuries and founded a lot of monasteries. All of this is not forgotten.
“Ireland did a lot for Europe and a lot for Austria and there is a genuine and warm friendship between our two countries.”
Just two days in our city made Ambassador Hagg Waterford’s newest fan.
Perhaps extending similar invites to other foreign diplomats based in Ireland might be considered by both local authorities on the back of such a positive experience.