The very existence of Waterford and the quays are linked to the coming of the Vikings, who arrived in the mid 9th Century to the area. The harbour was first seen as a staging point, from where raids could be launched inland via the Three Sisters river network of the Barrow Nore and Suir and around the coastline west of the county.
It is believed that these “Ostmen”- men from the east, settled into a new permanent home that would become Ireland’s oldest city, ‘Veðrafjǫrðr’, Waterford circa 914. From this location, trade flourished with other Viking settlements in the UK and the European mainland.
Strongbow breached the city walls in 1170 and the following year the Norman King, Henry II took control of the city and much of the country. Waterford was recognised for its strategic importance and would become a vital seaport following the Noman conquest, developing in particular trading links with Bristol, the third-largest town in England. Protected by Royal Charters and a growing influx of merchant classes from abroad Waterford became the leading importer of wine into Ireland – a vital beverage given how poor the quality of drinking water was at the time. Exports included wool, hides, corn, and fish. I say fish here and underline it. Fish. It’s a topic that gets very little coverage in Irish history books and in Waterford we tend to stress the Newfoundland cod fishery, but the Three Sisters abounded in fish and it was an important element in our export trade.
Bubonic plague and political strife saw a decline in fortunes in the 14th Century but by the mid 15th Century trade was again rising. In 1494 Waterford earned the motto “Urbs Intacta Manet “– the untaken city, having repulsed an attempted landing by the pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck (and the earlier Simnel). The arrival of the Huguenots in the 17th Century saw an increased trade in textiles and international links and of course gave us our Blaa!. The provisioning of ships used in the Newfoundland cod fishery was another welcome boost, providing salt, provisions, and “green men” to work the fishery. During this era, the city walls that had been built to protect the town were removed in part to facilitate the expansion of the port and the city quays. A visitor in 1776, Arthur Young, described it as “the finest object in this city”
The 19th century would see some of the greatest changes to the port. In 1816 Waterford harbour Commissioners were founded which would guide the developments of the port up to the present day. It took on the coordination of the port, ballast, dredging, piloting, and access – particularly the provision of faster and safer access to the city via the Ford channel. The Commissioners needed to adapt and embrace the coming of steam power and the creation of much larger ships. Perhaps the greatest expression of the change was the founding of the Malcomson family-controlled Waterford Steamship Company. The family would go on to own or have an interest in, one of the largest fleets in the world. Waterford was their base, and an expression of their confidence in the city was the creation of the Neptune Ironworks from where some of the largest and most technologically developed steamships were constructed and for which Waterford was renowned. Much of the iconic images of the city quays festooned with masts and steam funnels date from the later part of the century and is evidence of very healthy and diverse trade.
There was more than 100 locally-owned merchant sailing ships and many others from foreign and Irish ports involved in the import and export of goods. Almost anything made in industrial Britain could be found in the city and there were large quantities of goods such as tea, sugar, wine, spice, salt, coal, and Welsh slate arriving into port. The exports were vast, totaling millions of pounds, much of it agriculture-based including barrels of beef and pork, sides of bacon, firkins of butter, lard, wheat, oats, and barley and flour. Live exports were also taking place; pigs, cows, sheep, donkeys, and horses. People of course left too; emigration was rife.
The quays were festooned with ships and a myriad of work roles were evident in the city. Ships’ captains, mates, and crewmen, more than 30 pilots to guide the ships, a small army of revenue, and customs officials to thwart smuggling and to try to ensure proper taxes were levied. Horses and carts were required to move goods and people, drovers to lead livestock. Ropewalks were in evidence, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, sailmakers, and shipwrights to maintain the vessels. On the river, hobblers worked to manage the mooring of vessels, while hundreds of lightermen operated their cargo boats loading and unloading, and transhipping along with the river network to inland towns. Ships’ chandlers and provisioning stores lined the quay and streets off it and of course public houses where all could slake their thirst.
The 20th Century would witness some of the largest ever ships to grace the quays, our worst maritime tragedy in the loss of the Clyde shipping’s SS Coningbeg and SS Formby. As the century progressed and shipping trends changed the port relocated 8km downstream to the deepwater base with onshore industrial space at Belview where the port continues to trade.
The once-thriving quay is now a car park in every sense of the word, and let’s be honest those of us who don’t depend on a car are in the minority. But perhaps the day of the car is in the decline, or at least our pandering to it over the needs of humanity. Reclaiming the quay as a boulevard has been gaining traction and I for one would be delighted to see this happen. I would also love to see the river embraced again, for too long Waterford has turned its back on its reason to exist at all. I will borrow from Cian Mannings’s wonderful book to conclude where he quotes Luke Gernon from 1620. “Waterford is situated upon the best harbour and her beauty is in the Quay”