Getting into the sea: a new view on Waterford’s past

As a child, summer to me always meant the seaside.  Tramore. Bunmahon. Benvoy. Woodstown. Dunmore. The Saleens. The Back Strand. Annestown. The Guillamene. Some beaches were for bathing, some for walking, some for cockle picking, some for swimming, some for spinning to in the car. Some were hardly beaches at all. The smell of sea salt. Salt and Vinegar. Fishing nets and boxes. Trawlers. A whole world of sounds and smells. I’ve always loved looking out at the ocean. Imagining what lay beyond the horizon.

Waterford city was established as a viking settlement early in the 10th century. A little earlier than that, there was, we now know, another important settlement at Woodstown. Waterford city has always been influenced by the sea. Things have long come in and out of the quays in the city be it people, goods or ideas. From Waterford you can draw lines to Denmark and Norway, to Britain, Newfoundland, and many more places, and in those lines trace the history of the city running north, south, east and west.

I didn’t really begin to think seriously about Waterford as a place connected to the sea until quite recently. Part of the reason why I began to think of the city, and the surrounding coastline as connected to something much bigger was driven by what I learned about the Atlantic world from reading Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many Headed Hydra. This book completely reshaped my way of thinking about how places on coastlines are connected by the history of sailing. In some ways, it was realising what I knew intuitively to be true, but I finally had, thanks to this book, a better idea how to express that same knowledge. It made the history of Waterford bigger, rather than smaller, by placing it into an even bigger context than a national history, placing it into an international history where the only barriers between places were ocean names. it is a part of a maritime history going in all directions.

I first encountered this way of organising history through that classic of twentieth century history, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel. But Rediker and Linebaugh’s work, a work of radical and revolutionary labour history  on the Atlantic in the early modern period, offered a very different way of understanding maritime history. I’ve since read many of Rediker’s books in particular, including The Slave Ship and Outlaws of the Atlantic.

This new frame through which to understand local, and indeed Irish history, has been extremely helpful to me. It’s also helped me to understand better some aspects of my family history, as you can see here. I’ve now moved to Norway, and it is through the sea which I am beginning to understand the history of this part of the world. I’ve just finished Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross: A new history of the Viking Age and am just about to move on to Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are.

Both books have provided invaluable (and occasionally overlapping) insight into how to think better not just of the history of the seas north of Britain and Ireland, but how to reorient yourself entirely when thinking of how life was organised in the past. As Pye himself writes early in The Edge of the World: “The sea could kill, and yet it was the easy route: the connection, not the barrier.” He goes on, a few pages later, picking the theme up again:

Since the sea was not a barrier like the land, the world had a different shape. We would it hard to recognize. Suppose you crossed from Domburg to the trading port at Ipswich on the east coast of England, newly opened in the seventh century, your cargo might be pots from the Rhineland or glass or the hefty lava quernstones used for grinding in mills. Stand on the banks of the River Orwell and look out at the world. If you think in terms of the time it takes to get to places, then Bergen in Norway is closer than York in England… The coast of Jutland is closer, and better connected, than an English midlands city like Worcester. You could be over the water and in the port of Quentovic, on the border between modern France and modern Belgium, in half the time it took to get to London overland…

Reading this, and attempting a similar reorientation – imagining that the sea was a shortcut rather than a roundabout way of getting places at a time when roads were very poor, suddenly the history of a city like the one I grew up in makes more sense. The settlement by Vikings early in the tenth century, the religious vestments which were made in the medieval period to a design from Bruges with silk from Florence, the trade with Spanish and Portuguese ports including Barcelona, Bilbao, Cadiz, Farrol, La Coruna, and Lisbon in the 17th century; the fishing trade links with Newfoundland in the late 18th century, and the continued trade out of Waterford port right up to and including the twentieth century. The next time you find yourself at a quayside, a river mouth or a beach, it might be worth thinking, wherever you are of the hundreds and thousands of shipbuilders, chandlers, sailors, fishermen, dock workers, and more characters besides over the centuries who lived lives determined by what in various poems of the past world were called whaleroads and who saw the sea as the connection not the barrier.


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