The first cathedral to stand on this site was built in 1096 by the Vikings, who had recently converted from paganism to Christianity and affiliated themselves with the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was he who appointed Malchus as the first Bishop of Waterford, in fact one of the first in Ireland.
Less than one hundred years after its construction, the Cathedral hosted an event which would change the course of Irish history forever, with the marriage of Strongbow, an English knight, to an Irish princess named Aoife in 1170. This political union granted Aoife’s father, the deposed King of Leinster, troops from England to reclaim his throne and ensured Strongbow would inherit his kingship upon his father-in-law’s death.
By 1210 the Normans had taken control of Waterford and built a new Medieval Cathedral. This was expanded through the years to include side chapels dedicated to leading Waterford figures such as James Rice, who served as city mayor 11 times in the 15th Century. The base of one of the pillars of this Norman Cathedral still remains and has been opened up for viewing.
In the 18th Century, the progressive City Corporation of the time came to regard the Norman Cathedral as rather old-fashioned and recommended to the Bishop that a new one be constructed. Bishop Chenevix resisted this proposal, and it is said that a ruse was devised to encourage his change of mind. As he was walking through the Cathedral some rubble was strategically dropped in his path, close enough to shock the clergyman, who was soon found to support the construction of a new church. The Gothic Norman Cathedral was torn down in 1773, or rather blown down, as the building was so strongly constructed that the use of gunpowder was required in its demolition.
Construction on the new Cathedral began in in 1773 and was completed in 1779, at a total cost of £5,397. It was designed by John Roberts, whose imagination had given shape to much of Georgian Waterford. Roberts also designed the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Barronstrand Street, giving Waterford the unique distinction of being the only city in Europe where the Protestant and Catholic Cathedrals were conceived by the same man.
This cathedral has been described by architectural historian Mark Girouard as the finest 18th Century Ecclesiastical building in Ireland. It was built in the Neo-Classical Georgian style which was de rigueur. Roberts was fond of this style, reminiscent of Ancient Greece and its elegance was in contrast to the ornate Gothic interiors of most of the churches in this time. The spectacular stucco plasterwork ceiling is very similar to what could be seen in many 18th Century palaces and stately homes across Europe.
What you see today varies slightly from this original construction, as a disastrous Organ Gallery fire in 1815 devastated the magnificent Elliot organ and much of the surrounding woodwork. The cathedral was closed for three years for repair and reconstruction. Some further improvements were deemed necessary in 1891 by Sir Thomas Drew, a leading architect of the time. The square pews and galleries were removed and the ground floor windows blocked up. A new case was built for the organ and it was taken down from its gallery and squeezed into the left-hand corner of the Cathedral. In 2003 the organ was restored and a new gallery was built to house it in its original position.