What would you say if I told you that a small, obscure port city quietly nestled in south east Ireland was responsible for the nation’s national flag, the bread roll touted by the BBC as “the bread that changed the way the Irish eat breakfast”, world-famous crystal and the only Irishman ever proposed for pope (who also created St. Patrick’s Day!)? What if I told you that here, in Ireland’s very oldest city, you could find the only surviving piece of clothing of Henry VIII or a lock of Napoleon Bonaparte’s hair? Have I piqued your interest? Yes? Keep reading…
We’ll take them in order.
Ireland’s national flag of green, white and orange was created by Thomas Francis Meagher (whose astonishing life story warrants a whole new article), later a US Civil War hero/revolutionary. He flew the tricolour for the first time in history in this city during the 1848 rebellion (and was swiftly arrested and sent to Tasmania).
The bread roll known as the “blaa” has been awarded Protected Geographic Indication status by the European Commission and has unofficially lent its moniker to the county and its citizens i.e. the Blaas!
Waterford Crystal was founded in 1783 in the city. Famous pieces include the Times Square Ball that drops each New Year’s Eve in New York City and the shamrock bowl presented to the US President from the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) each 17th March in Washington DC.
Speaking of that day of worldwide jubilance, it was Ireland’s most famous Franciscan, Fr. Luke Wadding, who in between being twice proposed for pope (he rejected the job on both occasions), put the day on the calendar as a Catholic feast day.
Henry gifted his hat to the city as a reward for its fidelity and Napoleon Bonaparte’s niece married a native; politician, educator and diplomat Sir Thomas Wyse!
Welcome to Waterford.
The city of c. 50,000 inhabitants today was historically Ireland’s second city after Dublin. It is the nation’s oldest city, founded in 914 AD by the Vikings.
In more recent times, it thrived as a hub for shipping and trade. However, the 20th century and decline of these industries led to challenging times. It needed regeneration. This was achieved in a variety of ways, one of which was the establishment of a museum showcasing the city’s rich heritage and instilling civic pride into its people. Waterford Treasures was born.
Fast forward to the present day and the museum has achieved considerable success. It is now a number of buildings situated in the “Viking Triangle” – Ireland’s first museum district. The Viking Triangle was the original city founded by the Vikings, making it an ideal historical quarter. Here you will find the three museums that together comprise Waterford Treasures and tell the story of the city from its foundation to the present day.
Reginald’s Tower is the oldest civic building in Ireland and houses the city’s Viking treasures. It is operated by the Office of Public Works and, as such, is a separate ticket.
The architecturally stunning, buttery coloured Medieval Museum is Ireland’s only purpose built medieval museum and the only building on the island with two medieval chambers (dating from the 13th and 15th centuries) incorporated into its construction. Your tour begins in these underground chambers, after descending the tower, some of the steps of which are 750 years old! Once you have gawked at the gold dentures containing real human teeth from 1870 en route to the lift or the stair case (three flights for the brave!) you will find yourself on the top floor entitled Urbs Intacta: The Untaken City 1170 – 1650. This floor chronicles the story of the port city of Waterford, its wealth and status as a royal city, one of only four in Ireland, alongside Dublin, Limerick and Cork. The floor begins with a little Irish History 101 of sorts – the marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. This union was a defining moment in Irish history as it was the first time that Britain and Ireland were formally joined together deeply impacting the following centuries. Waterford is also home to some of the best preserved medieval walls in Ireland and you can learn more about them on this floor before moving on to take in some enormously impressive pieces. Adorning the museum are models of the city to help guide you through time and grow with this historic place.
The Great Charter Roll of Waterford dates from 1373 though some of it is considerably older with one charter dating from 1215. At this time Waterford was the so-called ‘Wine Capital of Ireland’ and the charter roll was assembled to be shown to King Edward III in order to retain that title. It was threatened by the nearby port of New Ross. Waterford emerged victorious from this – the longest trade dispute in Irish history – and retained its monopoly of the wine trade. The Great Charter Roll is considered Ireland’s most important medieval manuscript, containing the earliest depiction of an Irish city, and was viewed by Queen Elizabeth II herself during her 2011 state visit. Such is the Great Charter Roll’s importance that it is included in the Irish Times’ ‘History of Ireland in 100 Objects’ and is an absolute medieval must see!
Henry VIII, best known for his tumultuous love life, wed six times and as the rhyme concerning the fates of his wives goes; ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.’ In 1536, Waterford’s mayor was a man named William Wyse, who happened to be a childhood friend of Henry. Waterford, a royal (and loyal), city had defended the crown during a 1534 rebellion and Henry chose to reward the city by gifting it his cap of maintenance and bearing sword. Incredibly, the cap is the only surviving piece of Henry VIII’s clothing anywhere in the world today!
The Great Parchment Book of Waterford contains city records from 1356 to 1649 and is written in three languages: Norman French, Latin and 15th century English along with two words of Irish (Port Láirge – the name of the city as Gaeilge)! The most important page is displayed on a wall and is a powerful statement of the deeply held Roman Catholic faith of Waterfordians. This page is dated 1566 – a time of huge hardship for Catholics as Elizabeth I had made herself Head of the Church in England and Ireland. As such, Irish Roman Catholics were torn between Elizabeth and the pope in Rome. This is a perfect segue for us to continue downstairs where we will delve into the ‘age of faith’ that was the Middle Ages.
The first floor exhibition is entitled The Art of Devotion: 1096 – 1690 and chronicles the story of Christianity in Waterford. Have a look at the wonderful collection of medieval church statues and relics displayed in the gallery. You will find Luke Wadding (1588, Waterford – 1657, Rome), Ireland’s most famous Franciscan who led an extraordinary life, covered in this exhibition. Wadding was a theologian, philosopher, Irish politician, ecclesiastical and international statesman, the only Irishman ever proposed for pope and the man who gave us St. Patrick’s Day (it was made a feast day thanks to his efforts!). His death mask can be found here.
Undoubtedly, the major highlights of the Medieval Museum are the magnificent cloth-of-gold vestments dating from the 15th century. They were made in Florence, Italy, of the most luxurious fabrics and then sent to the Belgian city of Bruges to be embroidered using 18 carat gold thread. Back in Waterford the vestments were put to use at High Mass – that is until the Cromwellian invasion in 1649. They were hidden beneath the floor of the medieval cathedral for safekeeping but were subsequently forgotten about… for 123 years! Not only that, but their discovery was entirely accidental! The vestments were only found when the medieval cathedral was being demolished and a hole was accidentally blown in the floor – an incredible stroke of luck! Just like the Great Charter Roll, the largest of the vestments – the Magi Cope – is also included in ‘A History of Ireland in 100 Objects.’
These are just a few of the highlights of the award-winning Medieval Museum. I have not even mentioned the 13th century souvenirs (French pilgrim badges), the staggeringly long cathedral rent roll (indulgences paid to the church for those terrified of purgatory) or the medieval engagement ring (the golden ring brooch – dated to 1210 it is the oldest ring brooch found to date in Europe!).
Directly across from the Medieval Museum stands the regal Bishop’s Palace, built in the 18th century, known to posterity as the ‘Georgian era’, named after King George’s I to VI, who reigned throughout it. Today this elegant house is the home of Waterford’s Georgian treasures and contains some remarkable pieces. Your tour will begin when you step into the hallway and become immersed in 18th century opulence. Susanna Penrose, fully attired in traditional Quaker dress, sits in a corner “playing” her mechanical piano. Once she notices you, she rises, grabs hold of her diary and begins to regale you with tales of Georgian life and the story of her father and uncle – founders of the world-famous Waterford Glass factory (today, the House of Waterford Crystal). This experience concludes with a mesmerising 4D presentation, when Susanna finally opens up her diary and allows you to get lost in her 18th century world through the thoroughly modern 21st century medium of 4D glasses and headphones.
Alternatively, you can download the Lingar app and self guide through the Bishop’s Palace. The app provides you with descriptive information on the objects and ornaments you see. These include music boxes, delft and cutlery, centuries-old books, Susanna’s intricate shell cabinet and the world’s oldest piece of Waterford Glass – the Penrose Decanter (1789). You will find ostentatious Spanish church silver sent home by Waterfordians resident in Andalucia escaping the Penal Laws. You can gasp at a huge bronze mortar whose owner, an apothecary, must have known the recipe for the elixir of life as he died in 1791 aged 112!
When you arrive at the top floor of the Bishop’s Palace, you will have walked forward in time to the 19th and 20th centuries. Here you can explore Waterford life, from the founding of the Christian Brothers by naturalised Waterfordian (Callan, Co. Kilkenny native) Br. Edmund Rice, through to World War I; its impact on Ireland and the Irish that fought, the struggle for independence and a variety of social, cultural and political memorabilia covering music, film, leisurely pursuits, toys and so on!
Back on the ground floor, you’ll find a bright and airy café if at this point you are (understandably) feeling ‘historied-out’ and need to refuel. Glass artist, Sean, who produces the shamrock bowl the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) presents to the US President each St. Patrick’s Day, also has his workshop here.
King of the Vikings is the world’s very first Viking virtual reality adventure and it can be found in quite an incredible setting – in a replica Viking home, thatched roof included – and within the grounds of the ruin of the beautiful 13th century Franciscan friary. Follow your Viking into the house where you will once again don Oculus Rift headsets and step back in time…
Looking to get your steps in even while on holiday? That’s real commitment – and the museum has you covered! The Epic Tour of the Viking Triangle will see you through 1,100 years of history in just about the same number of paces covering six national monuments ranging in date from 1190 to 1783 and in societies from the Vikings to Victorians!
I hope I have demonstrated that Waterford Treasures is a progressive, educational and thoroughly engaging collection of historical attractions showcasing the illustrious, proud and, often, trying past of the oldest city in Ireland. The Irish Museum of Time is due to open its doors this year, and museums specialising in silver and death are coming together too.
Veðrafj?rðr. The Déise. Port Láirge. Waterford. Call it as you like, but when in Ireland, do come and listen to its tales. You won’t regret it.
Opening hours are seasonal. Please visit www.waterfordtreasures.com and www.kingofthevikings.com for all information.
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Maria-Assunta Lawton is from Ireland and specialises in cultural heritage marketing. Maria graduated from the Waterford Institute of Technology with a BA(H) in Marketing (Tourism) and has been Marketing Co-ordinator at Waterford Treasures for the last three years.