Last weekend, the Waterford Festival of Architecture (previously known as the John Roberts Festival) celebrated its 10th successful annual staging year.
As we all know, the pedestrianised square in Waterford city centre was named in honour of Roberts, the 18th century architect whose work made a significant impact on the shape of the city.
Uniquely, John Roberts was architect for both of the city’s Cathedrals – two building richly differing in character.
In a stroll around the city, Waterford Museum of Treasures Director Eamonn McEneaney filled this column in on the story of the man behind the name?
The area lying immediately outside the ‘Viking Triangle’ (John Roberts Square today) 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, born in 1714, died 1796.
John was the grandson of Thomas Roberts, ‘a Welshman of property’ who settled in Waterford about 1680; his father was a builder.
Aged 17, John eloped with Mary Susannah Sautelle, daughter of a Waterford Huguenot family – they did so because the Roberts family felt that Mary was beneath his station, coming as she did from a poorer family.
The marriage, however, worked out well.
Chenevix, the Bishop of Waterford also of Huguenot stock and a friend of the Sautelles, 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 at the top of Cathedral Square and this came to be their home.
In January 1774 the cathedral committee selected Roberts’ plan for the new Christ Church Cathedral. The rest, as they say, is 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, thus stands at the heart of what has become the Viking Triangle.
The first church on this site was built in the 11th Century, probably around the time the Vikings had became Christians, affiliating themselves to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who appointed the first Bishop of Waterford, Malchus, in 1096.
The Mediaeval Cathedral was the setting for the famous wedding of Strongbow and Irish Princess, Aoife in 1170, a political union that changed the course of Irish history.
By 1210 the Normans had taken over Waterford, building a new Gothic Cathedral, a model of which can be seen in Christ Church today.
The building expanded over the years to include side chapels dedicated to people such as James Rice – a leading figure in Waterford at the time.
The base of one of the Norman Cathedral’s pillars remains to this day and has been exposed for public viewing.
During the demolition of the Gothic Cathedral the famous Waterford Vestments were discovered.
Dating from late medieval times they are the only complete ser of either British or Irish High Mass vestments to survive the Reformation and are now on display at the Museum of Treasures.
By the 18th Century, the progressive City Corporation regarded the Cathedral as being very old fashioned, recommending to the Bishop that a new one 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: it was arranged for rubble to fall in the Bishops path as he walked through the Cathedral to give him a shock or two! It had the desired effect.
In 1773 the Norman Gothic Cathedral came down, but so strongly was it built that gunpowder had to be used in its demolition.
Works on the present Cathedral began in 1773 and was completed in 1779 at a total cost of £5,397.
It has been suggested that the demolition of the Gothic Cathedral was a tragedy, but its successor has been widely hailed as the finest 18th Century ecclesiastical building in Ireland.
Between 1791 and 1796, John Roberts (80 when he designed it) built the Catholic Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, making it the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in either Britain or Ireland.
It should be noted all the ancient Catholic cathedrals became the property of the Church of Ireland during the reformation.
The classical cathedral (which stands on the site of a Catholic chapel) 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.
John Roberts was also responsible for the building of many famous Waterford structures such as City Hall, the Morris family home in George’s Street (now home to Waterford Chamber), the former County and City Infirmary, Newtown School (former home of John and Thomas Wyse) and the court yard of Curraghmore House, seat of Lord Waterford.
Indeed Curraghmore and its surrounding landscape became the subject of a watercolour by Thomas Sautelle Roberts, Roberts’ great grandson, a 19th century painter and founding member of the Royal Hibernian Academy.
Thomas was considered even more famous as Field–Marshal Earl Roberts (1832-1914) who became commander-in-chief of the British Army.
However, it was John Roberts himself who left the most enduring impression on the city of his birth.
He had the intellect and integrity to respect both liturgical traditions, and as a result he created two contrasting cathedrals, each suited to its own philosophy. It is fitting that his legacy is celebrated as we plan for the future. Go Seachtain Eile, Slán.