Our column special of a few weeks ago featuring the walls and towers of Waterford proved very popular with readers and received much favourable comment – thank you. Many expressed surprise at their extent and their storied past which shaped the history of this our longest established Irish city. Let’s get out and market ourselves more. As space did not allow full justice to be done to the pivotal place of Reginald’s Tower in that story, I return to it today, as promised to tell how and where it all began.
The name Waterford is derived from an Old Norse word Vedrarfjiordr that can be traced back to the late 9th century. Vedrarfjiordr is believed to be derived from either Fjord of the Rams, probably a reference to the export of sheep from the area, or more prosaically, from windy fjord. This latter meaning probably refers to Waterford as being a safe haven for Viking ships sheltering from a windy Irish Sea.
The Vikings, realising the strategic and trading importance of the three rivers which empty into Waterford Harbour, built a longphort or dock at the confluence of St. John’s River and the River Suir.
Waterford City was founded in 914 AD and developed into a significant urban area during the 10th century. Waterford is arguably the oldest area of continuous urban settlement in Ireland. Reginald’s Tower marks the site of the first defensive structure built by the Viking settlers. The Tower is mentioned in the Irish Annals as early as 1088 thus making it the oldest civic building structure on this island. In the 1080s, a Viking fleet at Waterford had become a major force in the tangled web of Irish and Welsh political intrigue when Diarmuid O’Brien, King of Munster, negotiated that the fleet go to Wales to assist Gruffydd ap Cynan to recover the Kingdom of Gwynedd in Wales.
A hundred years later it was the turn of a dispossessed Irish king to seek help from beyond the sea in order to regain his lost kingdom. Thus it was that in 1169 a group of Anglo-Norman mercenaries landed in Wexford at the invitation of Dermot McMurrough and by 1170 they were at the walls of Waterford. After a bloody battle the city fell to Strongbow and his armour clad Anglo-Norman supporters. Strongbow was made heir to the McMurrough lands in Leinster and as previously agreed married Dermot’s daughter Aoife.
This marriage which took place in Waterford’s Reginald’s Tower, symbolises the long and sometimes tortuous birth of a new Ireland. The historians at nearby Christchurch dispute the location of this famous wedding and insist that the great deed took place in their original church on the same site as today’s cathedral. In 1171 the King of England, Henry II, arrived in Waterford and anxious to exercise his control over a process of conquest that was taking place almost despite him, began to demand the submissions of the Anglo-Norman knights.
The submission of Strongbow and his followers was received by Henry at Waterford. Henry II recognised Strongbow as McMurrough’s heir to Leinster but the strategically important port cities of Dublin and Waterford, which Strongbow had captured, were retained by the King. Henry II elevated Waterford to the status of a royal city – a status that was to change the course of the city’s history dramatically.
Consequently in the years after the invasion, many English and French merchants settled in Waterford. This new merchant class with its trading contacts in England and on the continent was to make Waterford medieval Ireland’s chief port for the import of wine and a major exporter of wool and hides. The city flourished during the 13th century and many new monasteries, friaries and churches were built.
New stone-built defences protected its citizens and a sophisticated form of local government developed whereby the citizens elected a mayor on an annual basis to rule over the city.
Reginald’s Tower is the oldest civic urban structure in Ireland and has played a pivotal role in the country’s history. The precursor of this tower is believed to be Dundory, a Viking fortification built on this site during the 10th century. This early fort formed the apex of the triangular Viking settlement and was in all probability a port for Viking longboats. It was strategically located on the high ground between a tidal inlet or branch of St. John’s river in the south east (since drained and now known as the Mall) and the River Suir to the north.
During the medieval period the tower continued to be surrounded by water both to the north and the south east. When the Anglo-Normans attacked Waterford in 1170 the tower was of strategic importance and its capture heralded the fall of the city. The Hiberno-Norse (Irish-Viking) ruler of the city Ragnall MacGillemaire was held prisoner by the Anglo-Normans in the tower and it is from him that the tower receives its name.
It was in this tower that Strongbow, the leader of the Anglo-Norman invasion force, met Aoife, the daughter of Dermot McMurrough, King of Leinster. Their marriage was to change the course of Irish history forever. In later centuries the Tower took on the functions of a royal castle.
King John visited the tower in 1210 and ordered new coins to be struck here. Richard II visited the tower in 1394 and again in 1399. On 27 July 1399 Richard left Reginald’s Tower as King of England and Wales; on his arrival in England he was captured by the future Henry VI and forced to abdicate.
In 1463 the Irish Parliament established a mint in the tower. In 1495 cannon in Reginald’s Tower successfully turned away the forces of Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to the throne of Henry VII. This act of loyalty earned the city its motto “Urbs Intacta Manet” – “Waterford remains the unconquered city”.
In 1690 following his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, King James II of England is alleged to have climbed to the top of the tower to take a last look at his lost kingdom before embarking for exile in France.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the Tower was used as a store for munitions and in the early 19th century it functioned as a prison. In the late 19th and first half of the twentieth century it became the residence of the Chief Constable of Waterford. The Tower was opened to the public for the first time in the 1950s. It has been extensively refurbished over the past decade looking very well for its 1000th birthday party back in 2003 and looks set to reign over its city for another thousand years.
Another kind of history ar fad: In 1948 when we previously won the Grand Slam, the pint of Guinness cost one shilling (but £6 was the average industrial wage), a match programme 3d, match tickets about half a crown, Summer Olympics were in London, Jesse Owens was world 100m record holder, Frank Sinatra featured on the first ever LP, Rory Gallagher was born a week earlier, the state of Israel was founded, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in India, Apartheid was introduced in South Africa, a Republic was declared in Ireland, Waterford won the hurling All-Ireland and yours truly was just 2 days old! Well we’ve done the Slam again so what other momentous events await us and the world in 2009?