(Edmond Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 1590)
Waterford’s geographical position means that the harbour has been one of the main gateways to Ireland for people and ideas since prehistoric times. Closer to our time it was the Vikings, those great sailor explorers, who established the port town, Vedrarfjordr, which over time became Waterford. The foundation of the coastal trading towns is the Vikings’ legacy to Ireland. Through Norman and medieval times the port developed and the people of Waterford prospered. The kings of England when they visited Ireland between 1172 and 1399, all landed here. In medieval times Waterford was a cosmopolitan and sophisticated place, its prosperity based on its monopoly of the import and export trade. Wool, hides, grain were exported and iron, salt and wine and luxury goods such as figs, dates and silk were the imports. Waterford dominated much of the trade between Ireland and its nearest European neighbours.
Travel in these times was slow and arduous. It was safer to take a boat from Waterford to Dublin rather than pass through areas where the Gaelic Irish held sway or were likely to attack travellers. Waterford was also a hub for local trade on the Three Sisters rivers, in hides, woolfells and freshwater fish such as salmon. The first bridge was built in Waterford in 1793 but ferryboats and ferrymen remained important, even into the 20th century.
There were many favourable comments on Waterford’s quays –
"Waterford, a city that stands very pleasantly on the River Suir, having the finest Quay in Europe."
(Dr. Richard Pococke, 1752)
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the expansion of Waterford port as industrialisation gathered pace with the processing of agricultural produce from the surrounding areas, much of it destined for Newfoundland. Passengers also left from the docks to work the cod fisheries or as domestic servants in Newfoundland or for mainland America. By about 1800 Waterford was a booming port, one of a far-flung and diverse trading network of 400 ports in Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Iberia, the West Indies, mainland America and Newfoundland. Specialised trades boomed in Waterford such as glass manufacture started by the Quaker Penroses in 1783.
In the 19th century Waterford’s had the biggest shipbuilding yards in Ireland. Waterford-built ships sailed the seas from Plymouth to the Cape of Good Hope, from China to India and St. Petersburg. Five transatlantic passenger liners were built at Waterford for the London-Le Havre-New York line. Another booming industry was that of Denny’s Bacon - two thirds of the exports of Irish bacon and ham in 1860 were exported from Waterford. In the two World Wars Denny & Son kept the Allies fed.
A regular passenger, cargo and mail packet service operated between Waterford and Milford, Wales from 1750 onwards. In the 19th century passenger and cargo services expanded to all over England, to Wales and Belfast. The passenger service from Waterford to Wales continued until 1959 on the Great Western,a ship that is fondly remembered. It left Adelphi Quay for the last time in 1966 to a great send-off. River paddle steamers carried passengers, livestock and goods daily from New Ross and Duncannon to Waterford. Weekly trips to Dungarvan and Youghal for livestock brought the paddle steamers into open sea.
Waterford harbour today remains the nearest major Irish port to mainland Europe, from its location downstream in Belview since moving there in the 1990s. The quays today have been freed up for more leisure activity such as the Tall Ships 2011 event when Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city, relived its well-deserved title – Waterford of the Ships.
Re-produced courtesy of Waterford Treasures.