From fancy glass to rugged stone, this Irish city has a long and surprisingly Nordic history
If the name of Waterford, Ireland, brings anything to mind, it’s most likely to evoke the high-end crystal that bears the name.
But an old Norse history lurks in the name Waterford, or Vadrarfjordr (Veðrafjǫrðr), which probably means “windy fjord,” or, as a plaque in the city proclaims, “haven from the windy sea.” Waterford is the only Irish city to retain its Viking place name.
The city just off Ireland’s “Copper Coast” is the republic’s oldest, Vikings having established a settlement nearby in 853. The original settlers were driven out by the native Irish, but Vikings re-established themselves in Waterford in 914.
Even some 1,100 years later, marks made by those Vikings remain. The most impressive of these is Reginald’s Tower, located in Waterford’s “Viking Triangle.” The tower, like the city itself, is the only urban monument in Ireland to retain its Viking name. The tower’s name is derived from an Anglicized form of the Irish name Raghnall, which is in turn a Gaelicized form of the Old Norse Røgnvaldr. The tower’s name seems to refer to one of the many Viking rulers of the town that bore the name.
Reginald’s Tower as it exists today was probably built in the 12th century, on the site of the first Viking tower that formed one apex of their triangular settlement. In medieval times it was just one of 17 towers that encircled the city. Of the six surviving towers, Reginald’s is the largest. Many stretches of the old city walls still remain, though not the section near the Viking Triangle.
What makes Reginald’s Tower more exciting than your average medieval ruins is the fact that the building is still in use as the Waterford Viking Museum, which houses a collection of Viking-era weapons, coins, and other artifacts. Unfortunately, I did not have time to tour the exhibit while there, but I can only imagine that the combination of the artifacts in a genuine ancient setting makes for a unique experience.
In the small plaza just outside Reginald’s Tower, a 40-foot replica of a Viking longship has been beached among café tables and informational plaques. It’s shockingly unguarded, and I suspect no one would much mind if you needed to climb aboard for a photo op. Only Nils Anders tested that theory, he being the smallest of us on the trip.
If you’ve seen all this and still feel a hankering for the Middle Ages, a very short walk away from the river from Reginald’s Tower will lead you past Greyfriar’s French Church, a 13th-century Franciscan friary that is now home to the Waterford Municipal Art Collection, and directly to the door of the Medieval Museum. This museum, which I also did not have time to visit (I was on a tour; forgive me), includes several authentic medieval structures, including the 13th-century Chorister’s Hall and the 15th-century Mayor’s Wine Vault. It also includes an impressive collection of artifacts, including the only surviving piece of clothing worn by Henry VIII.
But okay, you say, what about the Waterford Crystal? Yes, it is in fact made in the city, and one of the largest tourist
traps attractions in the place is a very imposing showroom. Part museum, part store, this is listed as number one on most lists of things to do in Waterford. It is full of shiny things, and even a few Viking tributes if you look closely.
But if you have time, do shop around. We were told—but had neither the time nor the inclination to follow up on—that killer deals could be found in second-hand shops outside the big showroom. Some of the pieces you’ll find, so we were told, might not bear the famous name on them, but they just may have been made by the same hands.
For our part, we went off to sample Waterford’s pubs, which, if you have only a short time to spend in Ireland, is actually how I’d recommend you spend it! Especially in Waterford we found the pubs to be friendly and filled with good live music (though traditional Irish music proved surprisingly difficult to find, unless one counts U2). And of course pints of “the black stuff,” as the national drink of Ireland, Guinness, is more often called. I think my Viking ancestors would have approved.
This article originally appeared in the March 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.