The North Quays in Waterford City, Ireland were once bustling with activity, playing an important part in the growth of shipping and industry in the region. Waterford’s deep natural harbour and convenient location in the south east of Ireland made it attractive to importers and exporters. Shipping was a major driver of the city’s economy for much of its existence however in the later part of the 20th century, the industry declined and shipping activity was moved away from the city’s commercial core to a new freight facility downstream.
Waterford has had a proud maritime heritage, dating back to the foundation of the city in 914 when the Vikings founded Veðrafjǫrðr, roughly translating as Ram Fjord. The Normans arrived by sea in 1170 under the leadership of Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Also known as Strongbow, he married Aoife, the daughter of an Irish chief, in Waterford. King Henry II arrived in 1171 and declared Waterford a royal city, making it the oldest city on the island of Ireland.
Waterford’s maritime connections saw it grow in importance during the medieval period. It also suffered greatly at times during this period as the Black Death and the Great Plague decimated the population. It also survived a major siege in 1649 during Oliver Cromwell’s brutal invasion of Ireland. The city was seen as strategically important to the invasion with the port being of particular interest for the importation of arms and supplies from continental Europe and its geographical position commanded the entrance of the rivers Suir and Barrow. Many indentured labourers were exiled during Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector, leaving aboard ships in Waterford bound for Montserrat and other islands in the West Indies.
In the 19th century, shipbuilding was a major industry. The owners of the Neptune Shipyard, the Malcomson family, built and operated the largest fleet of iron steamers in the world between the mid-1850s and the late 1860s, including five trans-Atlantic passenger liners. They took many Irish emigrants to America after the famine.
One of the final remnants of Waterford’s proud shipping heritage was the R&H Hall mill on the city’s North Quays. Built in 1905, the building was built by William Friel and designed by French engineer Francois Hennebique, using steel-reinforced concrete. The system was quite revolutionary at the time and the building was cutting edge for its time. It dominated the skyline in that part of the city. At one time, R&H Hall was one of the biggest employers in the city and ranked alongside companies like Waterford Crystal in terms of economic importance.
R&H Hall was founded in Cork in 1839 and quickly became one of the leading suppliers of animal feed in the country. Expansion and mergers led to a presence not only in Waterford but also Belfast, Dublin, Ringaskiddy and Foynes. As the size of the vessels used for the import and export of grain grew, so did the needs of R&H Hall. The reliance on bigger deep sea ports favoured locations at Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Belfast. Waterford was eventually phased out and the facility closed.
Two other companies operated on the site – Waterford Flour Mills, famous for the production of Everest Self-Raising Flour, and Flake Maize Limited. Odlums eventually took over the flour mills which had been built in 1935. IAWS bought R&H Hall in September 1990, merging it with Unigrain and James Allen. Odlums was purchased by Origin Enterprises, an offshoot of IAWS.
In 1992, the Port of Waterford was moved 4 km (2.5 miles) down the river to Belview, removing cargo shipping from the city’s quays. Much of the North Quays became abandoned and have remained so since, although the national bus company, Bus Eireann, do have a parking garage on the site. The facility was sold by IAWS in 2005 to an investment group which included McNamara Construction, a Cork company that was quite active in Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom years. Their plans to develop the site suffered as a result of the global recession which affected Ireland particularly bad.
Following the stalled attempt at redevelopment, the area was designated a Strategic Development Zone by the Irish government with the hopes of attracting development. It was the first such designation outside Dublin. In early 2017, the Saudi Arabian Fawaz Al Hokair Group were revealed as investors willing to bring retail, commercial and residential development to the site. Their local arm, Falcon Real Estate, has been working diligently with Waterford County Council to help secure government funding for the infrastructure needed to move the project forward.
The first silo was demolished on 10 May 2016. The final building to be demolished was the one designed by Francois Hennebique. It had famously featured a gigantic poster covering it however it was torn off by wind in the storms of early 2014. For the moment, the North Quays lies vacant, awaiting a new era of development. It is overlooked by the Ard Ri hotel, another abandoned building which will rely on the North Quays development progressing. Both developers are working in tandem to bring a new lease of life to that part of Ireland’s oldest city.