Waterford, Crystal Clear

Today, I took a train from Kilkenny to Waterford, leaving at about a quarter to noon. It’s not much more than a half-hour trip, so I got to my Waterford hotel a little after 12:30. Checking in and having some lunch left me time to visit the Reginald Tower, the Waterford Crystal Factory, and Christ Church Cathedral, along with doing a little walking around.

Before getting into that, let me just say that I swear—swear by all that is and isn’t holy to me—that I didn’t look at the address of my hotel in Waterford when I booked it. To me, the hotel was then just a description on a hotel search engine and a dot on a map showing me the general location. I didn’t zoom in to look at the address. Honest.

My hotel is on Canada Street. My home away from my home and native land.

River Suir
River Suir

Rivers Run Through It

The hotel sits beside the confluence of the mighty River Suir and the meek John’s River. I assume that, because Waterford is close to the sea, the River Suir widens out at this point. A working port sits on the bank opposite the main part of the city. The city side of the river also hosts some industrial port activity, but much of it is marinas.

I don’t recommend that anyone adopt the Joel Klebanoff taxonomy of bodies of flowing water. But to my mind, while John’s River is certainly more than a creek, I wouldn’t call it a river. Maybe a large stream.

John's River at low tide
John’s River at low tide

Having said that, because of the closeness to the sea, the River Suir and John’s River might be affected by tides. The wet, muddy shores along John’s River near my hotel suggest this might be true. And walls with water stains up them sit beyond the mud on either side of the river. Those walls probably contain the river some of the time, as opposed to the river always meandering through the mud as it did when I saw it.

The River Suir’s banks also bear evidence that it might be higher at other times.

Update …

I wrote the above paragraphs before going out for dinner. I now have proof that my theory was correct. The restaurant I chose is close to the River Suir. I stopped by the restaurant earlier today and they told me they don’t take reservations. When I got there this evening, they told me I had a half-hour wait for a table.

John's River at hight tide
John’s River at hight tide

I spent the time walking by the River Suir. When I looked at it, I saw the water flowing in the direction I thought was upstream. I assumed I had my directions wrong. So I pulled out my phone and looked at Google Maps. I was right. The water flowed away from the ocean. Obviously, the tide was coming in.

I received further confirmation on the way back from dinner. Heading back to my hotel, I walked along the John’s River for a piece. The mud no longer showed. And the water rose up the walls, covering the watermarks I saw before.

That far downstream, both the River Suir and John’s River are tidal rivers.

Reginald’s Tower

Reginald’s Tower is named after the first Viking leader of Waterford, Regnald. Regnald built an oaken tower on the site in 914 CE. In the late 12th century, a Norman stone tower replaced it. A couple of floors were later added to the top of the tower to accommodate cannons when they made their way to town.

Reginald's tower
Reginald’s tower

Why, you may ask, is it called Reginald’s Tower if his name was Regnald. I don’t know, I may answer. A sign outside the tower suggests that there is some uncertainty as to whether his name was Reginald or Regnald. I suspect that this uncertainty flowed from the fact that those Vikings came from Norway and pretty much took over the place until assimilating with the locals. I don’t imagine English was their mother tongue. Confusion over the name probably ensued.

Waterford is the oldest city in Ireland. The Reginald Tower is said to be the oldest still-standing building in Ireland, and the first to be built using mortar.

Today, the tower serves as a museum. On its top floor, a 12-minute continuous-loop video gives the history of the tower and immediate area. That floor and the others also contain various artifacts from the area dating from over the centuries.

The way up to the top is a not particularly challenging, stone spiral staircase, unlike the death-defying climb I took yesterday at the tower beside St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny. They don’t allow the public up on the roof of Reginald’s Tower. So I don’t have any pictures of vistas from there. Sorry.

While I would not want to have lived in the conditions of the Middle Ages, I did appreciate one thing about those folk. When I went into the museum, the person at the ticket desk warned me to mind my head going through the doorways into the rooms. He said that people 800 years ago weren’t as tall as people today.

He should have said, “Most people today.” I did duck my head reflexively a couple of times, but I didn’t need to. Let’s just say I’m not a giant among men. Not even close. In that regard, it seems I would have fit right in with people in the Middle Ages.

Cannonball in the wall of Reginald's Tower
Cannonball in the wall of Reginald’s Tower

The outside of the museum bears a decoration courtesy of Oliver Cromwell. But he didn’t intend it as a decoration.

Cromwell tried to blast the tower. A little below the top, a little over from the entrance, one of Cromwell’s cannonballs remains embedded in the wall.

It’s hard to see. I asked the person at the ticket counter about it. He told me you have to go across the street to see it. The angle’s not right to see it when looking up from immediately beside the tower.

I don’t think I was the first person to ask that question. He immediately pulled out a laminated picture of the tower, with lines connecting some of the exterior features of the tower and up to the cannonball. He said that once I spotted it I wouldn’t be able to unsee it. And he was right.

I circled it in red on the zoomed-in shot here.

Waterford Crystal Tour

A glass blower. Trust me, he did also spend time blowing with his bare mouth on the tube. I just didn't get a picture of it.
A glass blower. Trust me, he did also spend time blowing with his bare mouth on the tube. I just didn’t get a picture of it.

I’m in Waterford. How could I not take the Waterford Crystal factory tour?

That was a trick question. Of course, there are myriad ways I could not have taken the Waterford Crystal Tour. They might not have offered tours. Tours might have been suspended for some reason during my time in Waterford. They might have barred short, neurotic men from the factory for safety or other reasons. Or I might have simply chosen not to go. I have it on good authority that this is a reasonably free country, after all.

And those are only a small sampling of the possible ways. I won’t bother getting into some of the less likely conditions that could have kept me from taking the tour, such as a rift in the space-time continuum ripping me away from that place and moment.

But none of those factors proved to be in play. I chose to and did take the factory tour.

I have an even greater respect for Waterford Crystal as a result. That was probably their goal.

Here’s what I learned:

A crystal cutter
A crystal cutter

Two members of the Penrose family started the Waterford Crystal factory in 1783. I forget when and to whom they sold the company, but I think they ran it for only a few decades, at most.

The factory operated continuously until 1851. It then closed because the Great Famine deprived them of several workers due to emigration or death. I’m not sure if that alone would have been enough to shut the factory. However, the king imposed a high excise tax on luxury goods. What with the poverty at the time, crystal-making was no longer financially viable.

The factory didn’t resume production until 1947, when a Czechoslovakian (there was a Czechoslovakia then) gathered together some of the best glassmakers he could find, brought them to Waterford, and reopened the Waterford Crystal factory.

It’s now owned by the Fiskars Group, which also owns Royal Copenhagen and Wedgwood, among other companies.

A crystal moon walker
A crystal moonwalker

Waterford Crystal makes all of its clear crystal in Waterford, but none of its coloured crystal. They have only one furnace for making the crystal in Waterford. They can’t contaminate it with dyes. Instead, they have a factory in Slovenia. They make their coloured crystal there.

The tour took us through each of the different production areas of the factory while people worked there. I’ve probably forgotten a few sections, but the ones I remember are, blowing, marking (where they carefully mark lines on the crystal as reference points for the people who etch the designs on it), cutting (where they etch the designs with diamond saws and other tools), quality control, and sculpting.

A crystal 9/11 memorial
A crystal 9/11 memorial

They perform the vast majority of all of these processes by hand. The factory has two auto-cutting machines, but those machines etch designs into only about 8 percent of the output. Highly skilled workers, who spend years training and apprenticing, cut the rest by hand. Waterford uses the machines when they need to etch a shape that a human couldn’t possibly do, such as a perfect circle. They also use the machines when they create new designs. The machines produce the first pieces of those designs. After that, human cutters use the machine-cut crystal as a model and do the etching of subsequent pieces by hand.

A crystal saxophone replica
A crystal saxophone replica

Blowers create the shapes of crystal pieces like bowls, goblets, wine glasses, vases, and such. But Waterford also creates shapes that can’t be created by glass blowing alone. For example, it has on display a piece depicting one of the Americans who walked on the moon, a 9/11 memorial, some pieces in the shape of musical instruments, and a large teddy bear. Those are either blown pieces glued together or pieces sculpted out of blocks of crystal rather than being blown.

After seeing the work done by hand, and learning that, rather than mass-producing their wares, highly skilled workers craft almost all Waterford crystal manually one piece at a time, I now know why Waterford Crystal is so expensive.

The tour began and ended in the retail area. The price signs displayed two prices: Retail and tax-free. I’m not sure how the tax-free deal works. I think foreigners can claim a refund of the value-added tax.

The least expensive item I saw in the store was a set of two, fairly plain, small snifters for €81 at the tax-free price. The most expensive I saw was a crystal replica of a saxophone. I forget the exact price, but it was in the tens of thousands euros, I think a little over €30,000. A tad rich for my blood. Or for my arm and leg.

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral exterior
Christ Church Cathedral exterior

The Christ Church Cathedral of Waterford is not particularly old as old European churches go. It dates from the second half of the 18th century.

And the cathedral resides a very long distance on the wrong side of the border of being “grand,” “majestic,” or “dramatic,” but it has some interesting features.

The room-sized area just inside the door doesn’t have any pews. Instead, it has a small gift shop and some above-ground tombs. Suspended between the columns separating this area from the sanctuary area is a double-sided pipe organ.

You can see the organ’s pipes from either area. Understand, they are not the same pipes seen from different sides. A wood wall sits between two sets of organ pipes.

Christ Church Cathedral sanctuary section
Christ Church Cathedral sanctuary section

But, wait, there’s more.

The church affixed QR codes to the walls at various points. (I’m not an expert on such things, but I doubt the QR codes were part of the original construction.)

Scanning the QR codes with my iPhone took me to web pages telling me about the items in front of me. One of them is the stone tomb of James Rice.

Rice’s tomb wasn’t always there. He lived in the 15th century, well before the construction of the cathedral.

And, no, they didn’t construct the cathedral around the tomb. I’m astounded that you’re so inane as to suggest that. but you might not be as far off as it seems.

In 1880, they moved the tomb into Waterford’s Christ Church Cathedral. Before that, it resided in a medieval cathedral and was moved two times.

Christ Church Cathedral as seen from the sanctuary side
Christ Church Cathedral as seen from the sanctuary side

One section of the floor of the cathedral is cut away to expose a small excavation that displays the foundations of at least two churches that existed on that site before the current one. The text is ambiguous as to whether one of those churches was the medieval cathedral from which the tomb was moved the first time.

During his life, James Rice became wealthy overseas, but he also served as Waterford’s mayor eleven times. So, a big shot.

But Rice had something of a macabre streak, it seems. Before he died, he instructed that his body should be dug up (it was initially buried) a year after he died and used as a model to create an effigy for the top of his eventual tomb. The effigy is of a partially decomposed body with worms and a frog feasting on his stomach. (Note to my executor: You don’t have to do that with me. You’re welcome.)

I was sure I had taken a picture of Rice’s tomb, but when I went to post it here I found I hadn’t. Sorry about that.

Walking Around

I didn’t have a lot of time to walk around today, so these are only my first impressions. Because I came right from Kilkenny, I find it impossible to not compare the two.

Subject to the caveat that I haven’t walked around much here yet, Waterford seems a lot grittier and less charming than Kilkenny. I saw some pretty streets here already, but none that come close to the quiet quaintness of many of Kilkenny’s streets.

What’s more, Kilkenny’s river is much more attractive than Waterford’s river because Kilkenny’s has more vegetation on the banks and no industrial activity.

I’ll do more walking around tomorrow and let you know if that impression changes.

Here are some pictures from my walks.


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