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Dublin: 15 °C Monday 15 September, 2014

Hidden Ireland: Heritage Week and the treasures of Waterford

As part of the Hidden Ireland series, Neil Jackman focuses on the historical gems of Waterford – and what you can see in Heritage Week, kicking off today!

Reginald's Tower, Waterford city.
Reginald's Tower, Waterford city.
Image: Neil Jackman via Abarta Audio Guides

IN A SLIGHT change to the usual Hidden Heritage series, in this article we’re going to focus on the historic city of Waterford.

(And as it’s Heritage Week, we’ll outline some great events there in the next few days at the end of this piece so look out for that.)

From its foundation by Vikings, Waterford has played a hugely important role in Ireland’s story and today you can experience a thousand years of history in a thousand paces by visiting the three sites that make up the Waterford Museum of Treasures in the Viking Triangle.

The first of these sites is Reginald’s Tower, once described by the famous Irish patriot Thomas Francis Meagher in 1843 as being “a massive hinge of stone connecting the two great outspread wings, the Quay and the Mall within which lay the body of the city”, Reginald’s Tower is one of the finest surviving examples of medieval urban defence in Ireland.

The story of Reginald’s Tower begins with the Viking adventurer Regnall who constructed a defensive base (known as a Longphort) where the tower stands today. Regnall was the grandson of the feared Ivor the Boneless, and by establishing his longphort at Waterford he created the foundations for the city. It quickly developed into an important trading hub, and Waterford become a vital part in an expansive trading network that connected it to far flung and exotic places like Baghdad, Greenland, Russia and Byzantium.

Waterford grew in wealth and prestige, and gradually the Viking raiders became entwined with the Gaelic Irish population through alliances and marriage, forming a culture known to historians and archaeologists today as the Hiberno-Norse.

Interior of Reginald’s Tower

The peace of Waterford was not to last though, the city was taken following a siege by the Anglo-Normans in 1170 after many of the Waterford men were slaughtered after falling into Raymond le Gros’s cunning trap at nearby Baginbun in County Wexford (click here for that story). The Normans held the leaders of the city in Reginald’s Tower, but released them following an intervention by their Irish ally, Diarmaid MacMurrough, King of Leinster. The leader of the Normans, Richard de Clare (known as Strongbow) married King Diarmaid’s daughter Aoife in Christchurch Cathedral in Waterford, strengthening the alliance between the Norman invaders and the Irish kingdom of Leinster.

The Hiberno-Norse warriors who survived were expelled from Waterford, but rose in a bloody rebellion in 1174, forcing the Norman nobles and garrison to take shelter in Reginald’s Tower, where they managed to repel the attack and following reinforcement they took back the city. King Henry II in England had began to worry that Strongbow was becoming altogether too powerful and big for his boots, so he sailed into Waterford in 1171 and declared the wealthy Waterford to be a ‘Royal City’, thus denying its lucrative trade to Strongbow.

King Henry had the city refortified in the early thirteenth century, and it is likely that it was at this time that the wooden fort of Reginald’s Tower was reconstructed in stone. He had large stone walls constructed to surround and protect the city with a number of defensive gateways and towers added. Portions of these walls still survive today, and of the seventeen defensive towers that once protected Waterford only six still survive, with Reginald’s Tower being the most impressive and best preserved.

Reginald’s Tower was again at the centre of the action in 1495, Perkin Warbeck a pretender to the English Crown, sailed up the River Suir and began to bombard Waterford to force it to surrender. The people of Waterford retaliated by firing cannon from Reginald’s Tower and succeeded in sinking one of Warbeck’s ships, defending the city with such ferocity that Warbeck retreated. In recognition of the determined bravery by the people of Waterford, King Henry VII gave Waterford the motto: ‘Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia’ – Waterford Remains the Untaken City.

Casement in Reginald’s Tower

However the Tower is not without its scars, and if you look high on the tower to the right-hand side of the entrance you can see a cannonball deeply embedded into the stone. This was fired during the Parliamentary siege in 1650. They had returned to capture Waterford after Cromwell had failed to do so in 1649, Waterford was the last Irish city east of the Shannon to fall to Cromwell’s forces.

Today visiting Reginald’s Tower you can become steeped in all of this history, and see the variety of ways that Reginald’s Tower has served Waterford over the centuries, from being a defensive bastion, a coin mint, an armoury and arsenal, a prison and the home of the High Constable of the city. It is split over four floors connected by a medieval -tyle spiral staircase, with displays on different aspects of the buildings history on each level.

There are some really interesting artefacts on display, as a dog owner I was touched by the 900-year-old beautifully intricate dog collar, it must have belonged to a rightly pampered twelfth century pooch! (Pictured above)

Reginald’s Tower is a truly iconic landmark of Waterford, and today the superb museum is certainly worth a visit! It is under the auspices of the Office of Public Works, you can find information about opening hours, entry fees and accessibility here.

From Reginald’s Tower take a short walk up the Mall to The Medieval Museum (pictured above). This is one of Ireland’s newest and finest museums, and is a superb place to spend a few hours of the day. You enter the beautifully designed museum that combines modern architecture with the medieval Choristers Hall and fifteenth century wine cellars (pictured below).

15th century wine cellar in the Medieval Museum, Waterford

Spread across a number of floors, the Medieval Museum leads you through Waterford’s history from its foundation as a Viking Longphort, through the medieval and Tudor periods and up to the seventeenth century.

Some of the artefacts on display are just incredible and include the unique Great Charter Roll from 1373, the Cap of Maintenance, (the only item of Henry VIII’s wardrobe that still exists), The Great Parchment Book (detailing 300 years of life in Waterford and ends dramatically with the final entry during Cromwell’s siege of 1649). If you go this summer you can also see the famous Lismore Crozier that is on temporary loan to the Medieval Museum from the National Museum of Ireland.

The Cap of Maintenance – the only item of Henry VIII’s wardrobe still existing – is in the Medieval Museum of Waterford.

The number and significance of the artefacts and manuscripts on display is staggering, and it contains perhaps the most breathtaking display of any museum in Europe – the wonderful collection of fifteenth century vestments. They are displayed in a darkened room lit by stars (pictured below), and you can walk around the sumptuous robes to see the intricate detail and lavish design close up.

My picture and words cannot possibly do justice to this incredible display. The museum is also great for kids with a number of interactive displays and panels.

Staircase at the Georgian Museum of Waterford

When you fancy moving forward in history cross the courtyard to the Bishop’s Palace Georgian Museum. Here we enjoyed a really entertaining guided tour by the gossipy housekeeper Mrs Rickards who had just returned from watching the hanging of a man found guilty of murdering the head gardener. She squabbled her way around the beautifully restored Bishops Palace with the butler Mr Whatwhy. They pointed out some of the fascinating objects on display that illustrate life in eighteenth and nineteenth century Waterford.

Some of the highlights included the oldest piece of Waterford Crystal in the world (from 1789), and a mourning cross commissioned by Napoleon’s mother on the Emperor’s death in 1821, you can even see a lock of Napoleon’s hair! I was really interested by the uniform and sword of one of Waterford’s most famous sons, the Irish patriot Thomas Francis Meagher, the man who introduced the modern tricolour to Ireland.

Dining room in the Georgian Museum

The museum has items relating to the modern era upstairs with a fancy pair of hucklebuck shoes from the 1960s on display…

These three museums that form The Waterford Museum of Treasures are an absolute fascinating way of spending a day, I cannot recommend a visit highly enough. If you still have a hankering to see some of the sites of Waterford then the Waterford Crystal visitor centre is just across the road, and the city itself is a great place to wander around to soak in the atmosphere of the ancient city. You can find more information by looking here.

All photographs © Neil Jackman/abartaaudioguides.com

Today is the first day of Heritage Week that takes place from the 17th – 25th August.

  • There are over 1,700 events across Ireland with loads to do for all ages in every locality and the majority of the events are free of charge.
  • For example in County Waterford if you think the kids could do with an afternoon without the Playstation or XBox, you could bring them to a free day at Lismore Heritage Centre where they will learn how monks lived in early medieval Ireland. They’ll get the chance to make ink and decorate beautiful manuscripts with calligraphy (on today at Lismore Heritage Centre free of charge from 11am – 1pm).
  • Also in Lismore you can enjoy free tours of the lovely heritage town (available Monday 19th – Friday 23rd from  3pm – 4pm), or join the experts of Whale Watch Ireland for a free afternoon on a land-based whale watch at Ardmore tomorrow. The kids will love a Treasure Hunt at Dungarvan Castle, also tomorrow, from 2.30 – 3.15pm. Again it is free entry and fancy dress is optional, and there are lots of great lectures and displays.
  • It’s one of the best weeks in the year to get out and explore some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage and meet some of the passionate people who are always delighted to help people discover the stories of Ireland’s past and the wonderful natural fauna and flora that surround us today. Download the free heritage week app or visit heritageweek.ie to discover what is in your area.
  • You can also collect a free Heritage Week guide from your local library that contains all the listings across the country.
  • Does any event in your county catch your eye? Leave a comment below and let people know what’s happening in your locality.

I hope you enjoy my articles on Irish heritage sites, if anyone has any suggestions for places to visit I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below or find us on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. If you’d like to consider supporting us you can do so by downloading one of our audioguides.

They are narrated by professional actors, and contain original music by talented musician Enda Seery to help immerse you in the story. They generally run for around 45mins and can be downloaded from our website hereA number are available free of charge and others cost just €1.99, so if you’d like to hear the story of Glendalough, or what life in Dublin was like when it was a Viking Longphort please do try one of our guides.

This is the latest in a fortnightly series of articles for the Journal.ie you can catch up with all the posts here.

The articles are based on my blog which has over fifty suggestions so far for great heritage sites to visit across the country. Why not pay us a visit to see if we have a suggestion in your area?

How a shipwreck turned into an abbey>
The mystery of the 5,000-year-old tomb on top of a Wicklow mountain>
More hidden treasures in the Hidden Ireland series on TheJournal.ie here>

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