At times the M9 might be your own private road. Take the left turn off the thrumming M7 at the sign for Waterford and Kilkenny and the contrast is almost charming: a fine, relaxed motorway that grows ever calmer and more scenic as the road unfolds to the southeast.
“Sure it’s not the road to anywhere. Except Waterford. That’s why no one’s on it,” says Anne, a woman waiting outside Debenhams for her mother to emerge. The last straw for the mother was when the venerable Kelly’s, the clothes shop on the Quay, closed last year. “Now she’ll probably have to go to Kilkenny for the frock” for the granddaughter’s wedding.
Cynics call the motorway the outstanding legacy of the bubble – it provides a speedy exit from Waterford, boom boom. But it holds a grain of truth. A city-centre businessman says his emigrant daughter comes home and without a second thought hops into the car to go shopping in Kilkenny or Kildare Village – “an hour from here” – or even Dundrum, in south Dublin.
Benetton, Warehouse, Pulse and Monsoon have all pulled out of Waterford in recent years, and word is that another UK chain is about to go. “It’s about turnover,” says the businessman. “All these people talk to one another, and the word is that we’re a basket case to be avoided. The image of us is that we’re in decline, that we have very high unemployment and poor disposable spend.”
Des Purcell of Purcell Properties suggests the problem is overstated. “It’s not as bad as what’s been written about it or as what is perceived,” he says. “There’s been overkill and lot of negativity about the city.”
Distress and decimation
But to a visitor the shopping area looks just as the measured, straight-talking city and county manager, Michael Walsh, describes it : “in distress”. Or as the newly elected Independent councillor Eddie Mulligan puts it: “decimated”. Even the autism-charity shop is having a closing-down sale. “Survival is the new success in Waterford,” says Mulligan.
It might be quicker to name the big retailers that remain. "Debenhams, Boots, Argos, McDonald's, Supermac's – and Penneys, who've just spent €10 million on a new extension they're just finishing out," says Purcell in an upbeat tone.
It's not exactly a roll-call of city-centre glamour magnets, though, is it? "It is difficult getting major names to come to the city," he says. "But we know why the shops are shut. It's because the unemployment rate among 18-35s is about 35 per cent in this city. That's the shopping age group, the young ones who'll spend money on the gear, the gin and tonics, the holidays."
Mulligan, whose own paint business closed down 18 months ago, says it’s also about the inadequate size of the premises on offer.
The Celtic Tiger mainstay of a monumental new shopping centre was meant to be the city’s retail saviour. Instead the shambolic entrance to the vast derelict site on Michael Street is announced with a monumental works, with headstones in various stages of completion lying around. The site is in Nama.
Meanwhile, contrary to the national trend, Waterford rents are still declining, and house prices are among the lowest in the country. To cap it all, the most prominent site in Waterford, that of the Ard Rí Hotel, overlooking the city, has been a derelict eyesore for nearly 10 years.
“It wasn’t always this way,” says Purcell. “There was a time when we had 350,000 visitors a year coming to Waterford Crystal” – or the Glass, as it is known around the city. “No other town was so dependent on the flagship names . . . and they’re lost.”
The genial estate agent then does something that becomes deeply familiar in Waterford: he looks to IDA Ireland and finds it wanting. Then he looks to the Cabinet table and sees nobody who cares about Waterford. "Where is the IDA? It must be the best-kept secret in Europe. They're abysmal. They moved their main office from here to Cork. And we have no clout at the Cabinet table. There is a profound sense of anger in the business community that we have not got a fair crack of the whip. They say it's the CEO of a company that decides where to go, but isn't it an amazing coincidence that all the CEOs have such a passion for Cork and Dublin?"
Virtually every conversation in Waterford begins or ends, morosely, with a comparison with Cork, or Dublin, or Limerick, or Galway. The days of Martin Cullen as Waterford’s man in the Cabinet are viewed almost as a Camelot era in hindsight. Is it any coincidence, asks one sensible man, that Galway, similar in scale to Waterford 30 years ago and now outstripping it by a mile, has had a Minister for the past 40 years?
Last March in the Dáil the local Fine Gael TD John Deasy gave a devastating summary of Waterford's plight. In the past five years the numbers on the Waterford Live Register more than doubled. Of the State's five cities, Waterford is second only to Limerick as a black spot, with more than 25 per cent unemployed, according to the 2011 census.
He listed the industries and enterprises that have shipped out in the past year alone – Diageo, Honeywell Process Solutions, Citibank, Essentra Packaging, Intacta Print and B&Q, among others – while pointedly noting Waterford’s “notable omission” from the IDA’s job-creation figures for 2013 while Cork got 141, Galway 705, Limerick 289, Dundalk 504. He quoted one local estimate that about 200 IDA jobs were lost, net, in Waterford in 2013 (including at Bausch & Lomb).
The fear of further job losses is profound. “If Bausch & Lomb go, you can put a f***ing For Sale sign across the bridge,” says a city man. “It would be cataclysmic.”
So far, so familiar, perhaps, for many large devastated towns around the country. Where the tales diverge is in this city’s social and economic history. At one time Waterford seemed to have it all: a swathe of historic buildings declaiming its status as Ireland’s oldest city, a flourishing seaport, an affluent workforce and the prestigious brand of Waterford Crystal as its beating heart.
How did it go so badly wrong ?
As a port city in the 1800s it had a merchant class that reputedly made it the highest consumer of port in the British Empire. But where Cork, for example, managed to retain its merchant princes, Waterford did not. “The city then became hugely dependent on a small number of industries, and they became heavily unionised,” says Dr Frank Dolphin, founder of the outsource-services provider Rigney Dolphin – a large employer in the city’s industrial estate – and chairman of Dublin Midlands Hospital Group.
The touchstones were the Port of Waterford and Waterford Crystal. A former glassworker, now in employment, agrees that “maybe the unions back then were a bit too demanding and not inclined to listen . . . There were other problems, but I’d say the unions carry some of the blame for what happened in the end.”
A Waterford son recalls the dads from the Glass who could afford to take their families on holidays to Majorca, sometimes twice a year, when others had to save for at least two years just for one. The benefits kept on flowing, from cheap cars to televisions, bought at a discount.
The city’s port was rarely out of the news, meanwhile, with stories of “dead men’s wages” and other scams as its fiercely militant union leaders finally embarked on a disastrous strike that continued for 13 years and, some would say, ceded vital trade to Cork that would never return.
In the meantime Waterford elected a Sinn Féin – the Workers’ Party TD in February 1982, a rare flower outside Cork and Dublin.
It all copper-fastened the city’s reputation for high militancy, radical politics and elevated expectations. When the word “reputation” is dropped into discussions about Waterford’s downward spiral, as it often is, this is what it means.
Time ran out
Some believe that the Glass’s time ran out anyway, that the generation that bought expensive hand-cut crystal to put in the dresser had gone, replaced by one “more interested in the gin than the glass”, in Dolphin’s phrase.
But an employer also mused about what would have happened had the Glass employers looked for a 20 per cent pay cut. “We know what the answer would have been.” That’s just as some down the golf club even now, according to another, are muttering that Bausch & Lomb was “more ahead of the curve than elsewhere in benefits and wages, with the extra day off and that sort of thing”.
That old perception of militancy and inflated expectations is proving hard to shake, however baseless it may be. “When was the last strike in Waterford? I can’t remember,” says Dolphin.
Eddie Mulligan can’t remember a strike here, either, but recalls three in Dublin in recent times. (Again that sense that Waterford is unjustly maligned.) “In Bausch & Lomb, everyone there is looking for mediation. I think we’ve moved on. No one is talking about militant action.”
Michael Walsh, the city and county manager, agrees. “I’d say we’re a decade away from those issues.”
But the affluent years of the Glass may have had an even more insidious effect, according to a prominent citizen, in the creation of a complacent, inward-looking class. “In some ways it made the city comfortable, so you lost that dynamism that is needed and you lost your leaders. If you pay one and a half times the industrial wage, the entrepreneurial guy will look to get in there rather than be an entrepreneur. There is a dynamic there that stagnated . . . Cash flow allowed complacency.”
Meanwhile, amid the terrible pain of transition from manufacturing to something else, Waterford is being forced to take a hard look at itself. “We’re not very good at self-analysis and self-criticism. We have to reinvent our image. Just because we do some clever things around historic tours and street theatre, this is not reinventing our industrial image. We collectively have a problem to solve,” says Dolphin. “But Waterford’s biggest mistake is that it looks in on itself all the time.”
Born in Birr, Co Offaly, but working in Waterford since the early 1980s, he believes he continues to be regarded as a blow-in. “There’s still a very strong thing that they need to trace you back 40 generations. Also, Waterford people are fiercely critical of Waterford people,” he says.
"I'm very conscious of the people down there in Bausch & Lomb who are terrified for their jobs, and I don't want to be seen to be sitting on the fence in judgment, but I've sat on all the groups. Why aren't they marketing us? What button are we not pressing? We need to be the best at X – IT, telecoms, pharma – and stick to that. What's our USP?"
Shoots of hope
There are shoots of hope. Local people whom the city and county manager, Michael Walsh, describes as everyday heroes – Heather Reynolds and Brian Barry of Eishtec, for example – are creating serious employment.
In the meantime, Walsh’s grand vision for the city is firmly focused on a potentially enormous tourism dividend from the rich Viking origins that make Waterford the oldest city in the State, celebrating its 1,100th birthday this year.
He talks about using tourism “as a reputational improvement”, a vital rebrand, a public-sector catalyst that could do for Waterford what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao or the docks redevelopment for Liverpool. It’s not pie in the sky.
A visitor wandering beyond the distressed shopping area could get whiplash if he happened without warning upon the Viking Triangle, a stunningly restored mix of ancient and modern buildings, such as the former Church of Ireland Bishop’s Palace, with its cafe and sunny terrace, and the Medieval Museum, with its curving facade of warm Bath stone (designed by the council’s architects).
Millions is being spent on new limestone paving on the south quay and on the regeneration of the narrow streets; another €6 million to €10 million from a generous Government department would help to finish it off.
Waterford needs consistency and resilience, says Walsh. Waterford Business Group, an amalgam of all interests, is making headway. Vacant premises are being loaned out to artists and maintained by the council. The Michael Street shopping centre is set to manifest in more modest form, “a better one, more sustainable in this climate”.
Foreign direct investment is looking increasingly hopeful. “There are a few things happening here that are not known about yet, because we’re not going to say anything until we’re sure of it,” says Walsh, all but tapping his nose. But they need that genie of the technological-university status. It’s the equivalent of a magic wand for almost everyone in Waterford (although they’d prefer Cork to Carlow, frankly).
As for the resilience, take a turn to the right after the headstones on Michael Street and view the marvel that is the pop-up urban garden dreamed up from the dereliction by a schoolteacher, Edel Tobin, and made flesh by John Haggis.