Mediaeval Waterford has been described by Canon Power: “Waterford, like Dublin, was really, for five centuries, in everything except air, water and the ground on which it stood, an English town domiciled in Ireland. It was confined within a strong and lofty wall with towers at invervals and with stout gates which were guarded by day and closed at night. Sanitation was bad, epidemics and diseases rife, water supply precarious and public lighting practically unknown….” The good Canon’s ancestors spent much of their spare time attacking the city, but it remained almost proverbially attached to the crown, receiving various charters in return and the proud title of “Urbs Intacta”, the city untouched by Irish influence.
In this situation the Dominicans were as English, whether by blood or inclination, as any of the citizens. Yet they were not isolated from their confrères in other parts of the country, since general meetings of the Irish Dominican vicariate were held at Waterford on three occasions: in 1277, 1291 and 1309. Nor were they isolated from the continent, since of their number, Geoffrey of Waterford, spent most of his time in France.
Geoffrey is remembered as a writer, or more strictly as a translator of three Latin texts into the French dialect of 13th-century Picardy. He is portrayed in one of the mosaics in the apse of the present church in Bridge Street. The ordinary work of the community was preaching, but since their church was so small, they must often have preached in other churches or in the open air. Two other Dominican foundations soon appear: in Rosbercon in 1267 and Youghal in 1268.
Waterford was twice destroyed by fire: in 1252 and again in 1280. It was a hazard of city life at the time, since the streets were so narrow and many of the houses roofed with wood or thatch. How the Dominican site was affected by these fires we do not know, except that their church at least appears to have survived. A curious murder-trial was held at Waterford in 1311. The accused, even though from Waterford, considered himself English and pleaded in his own defence that “it was no felony to kill an Irishman and not of free blood.” Unfortunately for him his victim was in fact a Dane. The corporation decreed in 1382 that it was an offence to call another citizen an “Irishman”, the punishment being a fine of one mark to be paid to the victim. Their real objection, naturally enough, was to “Irish enemies” and to such Old English as followed Irish law. In 1345 Waterford was attacked by the Old English family of Poer or Power who “burnt, destroyed and spoiled” almost all the countryside around the city, but at a heavy price: some of them were hanged, drawn and quartered, and their heads and limbs displayed at various vantage points around the city. In 1368 the Powers attacked again, aided by the Irish O’Driscolls of Baltimore, and on this occasion had more success. This old vendetta was carried on in fits and starts until a fleet from Waterford finally crushed O’Driscoll at Inishsherkin in 1538.
Apart from fire and war there was also plague, especially the Black Death of 1348 which claimed almost a third of the population of western Europe. Pockets of infection remained for more than a century. From 1348 the English colony in Ireland, largely because of the plague, went into steady decline. The proud city of Waterford became somewhat less “English” then before.
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