De-industrialization, heritage, and the recession: Waterford, 2009-2014

Reading Alex Niven’s  Folk Opposition this week, I was engaged particularly by the passages that looked at what Nivens titled ‘Oppositional geography’ where he discusses in the book the remaking of the Newcastle/Gateshead docklands during the years of New Labour and the building of new bridges like The Millenium, Newcastle’s sixth bridge, The Baltic art gallery, and the concert venue, The Sage. All of it, after the positivity of the early Blairite years passed, the recession hit, Newcastle in Niven’s view, ended up with little more than a “cosmetic growth” bereft of a meaningful “social or economic infrastructure”, something which “which was certainly not one of the legacies of cultural regeneration”.[1] This struck a particular chord with me when thinking of Waterford and its fortunes since the beginning of the recession. My knowledge of Waterford history has grown thanks to my PhD research, in the very period when Waterford seems to have very little else to look to for comfort. It’s hurlers haven’t delivered on so much promise, its football club is low down in the League of Ireland First Division, each sport in the city left harking back to what was and what might have been. Like Newcastle, and plenty of other parts of England and the rest of Britain, Waterford is a city whose identity has had to shift as manufacturing (and shipping before it) declined.

With the exception of a handful of projects, the city centre in Waterford was until the recession relatively untouched during the Tiger. Among the changes to the city’s landscape – its physical but also social and cultural geography – was the fairly nebulous concept of the “John Street Village”, that saw most of the city’s nightlife being squashed into one unmanageable area that deprived the rest of the city centre of passing footfall once the shops closed, and the pedestrianisation of what became John Roberts Square. Another contentious development in the early 1990s was that of City Square, built on Arundel Square and which while incorporating some of the city walls found during the development of the shopping centre, still more could have been done to excavate the area. John Roberts Square were both reasonably successful ventures excepting the lack of licensed premises in that part of the city thanks to the afformentioned village, which amounted to little more than a poor mans attempt at Temple Bar minus the culture. Other changes included the building of the Millenium Plaza, which has been quite successful especially on those occasions when Waterford has been host to the Tall Ships Festival, once prior to the recession and once since. Not unlike what Nivens had to say of England’s north-east, many of these changes to the city during the Tiger merely papered over the cracks off the effects of de-industrialization and regional neglect, the true effects of which did not begin to be felt until 2009.

Back in 2009, the first and most visible sign that the recession had come to Waterford was the closing up of the Waterford Crystal factory. I remember the day distinctly: it was late in January and I had just got off the bus from Cork, it was an aptly grim day, and my mother told me that the factory was to close and that the workers had locked themselves in when security came to shut the doors to begin the process of receivership. It was the first sit-in, an occupation of a workplace, that I had ever seen, and was to set a precedent for the coming years in Ireland, and in Waterford.

As well as the site of the factory, this huge tranche of land directly across my street was also home to the Waterford Crystal visitor centre. All through my childhood and especially in summer, coach upon coach with visitors from near and far (it was a perennial lazy school tour/day-out choice too, I remember three such visits!) could be seen entering the factory and the visitor centre to take the tours. Now all of that would stop. In the past number of months, work was begun to demolish the plant for a new redevelopment of the site. In the same period, a major transformation of a moribund part of Waterford began, and the new House of Waterford Crystal, a brand new visitor centre and showroom was opened in the old ESB building on the quay. This same area, now the Viking Triangle [2], being based around a section of the original Viking settlement of the city and centering in particular on Reginald’s Tower, the Bishop’s Palace and the new Chorister’s Hall, each in turn telling a different aspect of the city’s history, inviting you to enjoy 1000 years of history in 1000 footsteps. I should state that each of the three museums are wonderful and display brilliantly many aspects of the city’s history – from our Viking beginnings through our ecclesiastical history when Waterford was described by some as Parva Roma (little Rome) through our Georgian history and on to the history of the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from pig-buyer’s strikes to the Royal Showband. These are all wonderful and important additions to the cultural and the social life of the city. Yet, the clash between heritage and history, the contradictions that are wrapped up in a city which anyone will tell you is economically on its knees and can turn only to its past for answers, is striking.

Demolition of Waterford Crystal begins. Source:

In recent times, Waterford has seen yet more sit-ins and actions from workers in Europrice, The Park Inn, and as part of the campaign run nationally by Elvery’s to retain their jobs. Job losses have been felt in TalkTalk and Honeywell and plenty of other places as well. Work is scarce in Waterford, and each time I’m home, and a little more of the Glass factory is knocked down, and the site cleared, it acts as a reminder that for all the regeneration around The Mall and the Viking Triangle, heritage – so important, and so vital to any city that has as proud a one as Waterford – can not alone save a city. Waterford Crystal may well indeed have had a “unique place in industrial history for its blending of mass production and high art” but today it is both a part of Waterford’s growing heritage industry and a pile of rubble across my street.[3] Important though it is to understand and celebrate that history and heritage, it is worth taking note of Niven’s conclusions about the north-east of England, and to ensure that the strides made by the new developments in the city celebrating its past, don’t become mere window dressing over a deeper problem.

[1] Alex Niven, Folk Opposition, Alresford: Zero Books, p.44

[2] See the report on the Viking Triangle here:

3] Brian F. Havel, Maestro of Crystal: The Story of Miroslav Havel and His Role in Waterford Crystal, Dublin: Currach Press 2005, p.270. See also Eleanor Flegg, “Tradition in Transition”, Irish Arts Review, Spring 2014:


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