A few weeks ago we moved house from Dublin to Dungarvan. The journey was divided in three discrete stages: a train to Waterford, a wait of three hours, a taxi to Dungarvan. This gave me just enough time for a tiny tiki-tour of one of the oldest towns in the Republic.
Considering that Ireland was still in the strictest level of lockdown, the train ride was surprisingly unhellish. Half of the seats were covered with ‘do not sit’ signs to aid social distancing, there were very few passengers anyway and those of us who were there wore masks. A train attendant came through every half an hour or so to check Covid-era compliance. I had two conniption-fit moments: once when I heard a cough and once when a man at the front of the car seemed to be having a mask-free phone call, but overall we felt about as safe as you can possibly feel on public transport during a pandemic.
Every so often a recorded male voice announced the name of the next station in Gaelic. After the third such announcement I thought I was going mad because, no matter where we were, it sounded like the man was saying (in English) that we were ‘Neither here nor there’. Was this mere Irish whimsy? Was it a tribute to Samuel Beckett? Or had the past year effect genuine existential despair? When I mentioned it to John, he pointed out that the man was actually saying ‘Irish Railroad’ in Gaelic: Iarnród Éireann.
At around noon, we arrived in Plunkett Station in Waterford, named for Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916). He was one of the heroes of the Easter Rising, an armed insurrection against British rule in Ireland. On Easter Monday 1916, a group of rebels occupied key public sites in central Dublin demanding an immediate end to British rule in Ireland. Even though the insurrection was crushed, it made the creation of the Republic of Ireland almost inevitable. This was partly due to the heavy-handed reaction of the British Crown: leader were executed by firing squad and many civilians who had nothing to do with the operation were massacred by police, the bloody repression drawing outrage and sympathy around the world. Plunkett was one of the executed leaders whose courage and martyrdom is particularly celebrated even today.
Born to a wealthy Dublin family, Plunkett contracted tuberculosis at an early age and spent part of his youth in warmer climes such as the Mediterranean and Algiers, where he studied Arabic literature and language. Deeply interested in Irish culture, he was a member of the Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League), which promoted the Irish language. It was at a bilingual (English and Gaelic) school that he met Grace Eveleen Gifford, a caricaturist, and fell in love.
Plunkett was a key member of the Military Committee of the Irish Republican Brotherhood that planned and carried out the Easter Rising. A few weeks before the planned attack, he had an operation on glands in his neck and subsequent meetings with the Military Committee were often held at his bedside. His condition worsened and doctors predicted he only had a fortnight to live. However, despite his weakness, Plunkett showed up at the General Post Office on April 24, still bandaged but sporting a white silk sash and sabre. The Rising continued until April 29, when Patrick Pearse surrendered unconditionally to Brigadier-General Lowe. In the days that followed, 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested, including Plunkett. A series of court-martials began on May 2.
After his arrest, Plunkett was held in Kilmainham Gaol. On May 3 he was allowed to marry Grace in the prison chapel. Seven hours later, he was executed by firing squad. He was twenty-eight at the time. Grace never married again.
Moving past this mural, we climbed a ramp and found ourselves on one side of the river Suir looking across at Waterford on the other. The bridge we trundled our suitcases over in the middle of a freezing gale was Rice Bridge, named after Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762-1844), a Catholic missionary and educationalist who was beatified as a saint in 1966. Although he started out life as a businessman, the death of his wife inspired Rice to devote the rest of his life to prayer and charitable works particularly in Waterford. In 1802 he and two colleagues opened the Congregation of Christian Brothers in the city. The order became particularly known for its schools. Unfortunately, in the latter part of the twentieth century, it became notorious as a sort of child-abuse franchise. Notable former pupils include Gabriel Byrne, Siddhartha Mukherjee, John C. Reilly and John Philip Holland, who developed the first submarine to be formally commissioned by the US Navy.
Getting off the bridge, John and I inched our way towards the bus station, only ten minutes’ walk from Plunkett Station but a very cold and wet ten minutes they were. When we got there, we stowed our luggage for a small fee (a service not available at the train station) and decided to explore the town a little. It soon became clear, though, that the weather was not ideal for touring. Not only did John’s mask make his glasses fog up, but the rain blew right in his face and made seeing impossible. What’s more, the cold was biting at his arthritic knee. So we decided that he should head back to the train station across the river, where there was hardly anyone in the station and where he could sit in the warmth for a couple of hours without dying of hypothermia. Meanwhile, I would scout the town for points of interest and see about getting a taxi.
A Plethora of Plaques
So began my whirlwind tour of Waterford. I strode up a steep hill and saw mainly a bunch of closed-up houses. Turning left at the top of the hill there was a commercial street, mainly closed except for a supermarket and a couple of cafes (takeaway only). Outside the supermarket was a line of taxis—bingo! Relieved that I knew how we would get to Dungarvan, I continued with a lighter heart.
Coming to ‘Patrick Street’, I took a picture for my brother, whose name is Patrick for our maternal grandfather Patrick O’Reilly. It turned out this was a plaque-rich street. Not only did it have a medieval gate, but also a plaque informing me that I was standing outside the place where William Hobson was baptized. Hobson (1792-1842) is a name that most New Zealanders will know because he was the country’s first Governor General and a co-author of the Treaty of Waitangi, the document with which the British Crown neatly swindled Maori of vast swathes of their land. It remains contentious in 2021. I wasn’t aware that he’d also founded Auckland, but you learn something new every day. This is the sort of thing I like about exploring new places–finding unexpected echoes and familiarities that tilt the mental kaleidoscope.
At the bottom of the street, I found another echo. Last year we lived for several months in Belfast, home of the Titanic (“She was all right when she left here” is a real town slogan). In Belfast, understandably, there are dozens of plaques and monuments to the local victims and survivors of the accident. It was a little strange, then, to see one here in Waterford. I had to think a moment to remember where I was. Patrick O’Keefe, said the plaque, was a heroic survivor. As it turns out, he appears to have helped another couple of guys out of the freezing water before going on to make a new life for himself in New York.
Close to this plaque was another one that rang no bells at all. The admirers of William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865), a nineteenth-century composer, had erected a fancy stone plaque to his memory. The whole Wallace family emigrated to Australia when William was a newlywed man in his early twenties. In Sydney, they opened Australia’s first music academy and William became known as the ‘Australian Paganini’ for his virtuosity on the piano and violin. At some point, he ditched his wife and went walkabout across the globe. He hied off went on a whaling voyage in the South Seas, where he encountered the Maori tribe Te Aupouri. Then he wandered around South America, Jamaica and Cuba, apparently giving concerts everywhere he went. In 1841 he conducted a season of Italian opera in Mexico City. He then spent time in New Orleans, New York, London and Austria.
Not twenty steps along and I came to another plaque, this one duplicated in Gaelic. It was in commemoration of Thomas Francis Meagher, ‘Young Ireland Orator and American Civil War Hero’, which is quite an impressive boast.
Young Ireland was a political and cultural movement committed to Irish independence. Impressed by the bloodless February Revolution in Paris, Meagher William Smith O’Brien and Richard O’Gorman led a delegation to congratulate the new French Republic and to get some tips. Shortly afterwards, in late July 1848, the Young Irelanders gathered in a little town called Ballingarry and unfurled the tricolor flag for the first time. The struggle was very short-lived. They exchanged fire with police for a few hours and then the leaders were arrested. Meagher and his fellow revolutionaries were arrested and sentenced to being ‘hung, drawn and quartered.’ It was after this trial that Meagher delivered his famous Speech from the Dock.
To lift this island up—make her a benefactor to humanity, instead of being as she is now, the meanest beggar in the world—to restore to her, her native powers and her ancient constitution—this has been my ambition and this ambition has been my crime. Judged by the law of England, I know this crime entails upon me the penalty of death; but the history of Ireland explains that crime and justifies it. Judged by that history, the treason of which I stand convicted loses all its guilt, has been sanctified as a duty, and will be ennobled as a sacrifice.
Due to public outcry and international pressure, the ridiculous sentence was changed to exile to Van Diemens Land. From there, he eventually ended up in the United States of America and became a citizen. When the Civil War broke out, he decided to serve the Union and began recruiting men. Many young Irishmen in the States were falling over themselves to volunteer for his Company, “the fighting 69th”. He fought with mixed success, having victories at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861) and the Battle of Fair Oaks (June 1 1862) but when his company was decimated at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April-May 1863), he resigned his commission.
Yet another of Waterford’s famous sons was the Franciscan friar Luke Wadding (1588-1657), who was an avid historian and supporter of Irish Catholics in the Eleven Years’ War (1641-1653), the single most destructive war in Irish history. The conflict began in 1641 when Irish Catholics tried to seize control of the English administration in Ireland. They wanted an end to anti-Catholic discrimination, greater self-governance and an end to the Plantations of Ireland (whereby the English goverment replaced local populations with Protestant Scots). Wadding helped found the College of St. Isidore in Rome for the education of Irish Priests, and it was mainly thanks to his efforts that St. Patrick’s Day was made a feast day.
The Viking Triangle
Waterford was founded in 914 CE by Vikings who called it Veðrafjǫrðr – ‘Wetherford’or ‘ram crossing’, maybe because sheep were sent out from its port. The site offered a safe, defensible harbour and was fed by at least four rivers, which made it a strategic area for trade. Because of that early settlement, Waterford is known for its ‘Viking Triangle’, which is the roughly triangular area downtown where the Norwegian visitors based themselves.
At the tip of the triangle closest to the Suir is Reginald’s Tower, the oldest civic building in Ireland, first mentioned in annals in 1088. The tower seems to have first belonged to the Vikings and then to have been destroyed and rebuilt by the Anglo-Normans when they took over. Though no one knows exactly who Reginald was, he may have been Ragnall Mac Gilla Muire, one of several men captured when Richard de Clare invaded Waterford in 1170.
Little remains of the Vikings, but there are some modern touristy reminders of their presence. Next to Reginald’s Tower is a replica of a Viking longboat and a bronze 3-D map of the ‘Triangle’. Not far away is a plaque marking the former site of Turgesius Tower, built about 1000 CE. And there’s also a modern sculpture vaguely reminiscent of longboat sails.
The Medieval Museum
In the middle of town is a big cathedral called Christ Church and right next to it Medieval Museum devoted to medieval Waterford. Of course, thanks to the novel coronavirus it was safely closed. It is intriguing to wonder what treasures are hidden in the darkness. Thanks to the internet, there is a virtual tour, which gives a tantalizing peek of what is in store.
From the outside, there is a stylized Normanesque couple cordially inviting you to sit on them.
And another inviting you to see the world from their point of view:
When I got back to the train station, John was looking worried. He was the only one in the vast station apart from the station master, who had given him strong hints that his presence was unwelcome. Because there were no trains due that day (he reasoned in his tidy stationmaster brain) there ought not be any waiters-around. Any waiters-around in those circumstances were more properly classed as loiterers. John had explained the situation to the stationmaster, viz that it was extremely outside and he had nowhere to go until 3 o’clock. The stationmaster had grudgingly agreed to let him sit in the otherwise completely empty station for two hours at the most.
Feeling, not for the first time, like orphans of the storm, we headed back to the bus station to get our luggage and a taxi. Ah well, probably more comfortable than travelling in a longboat in the tenth century.