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Reginald’s Tower - Once, Twice, Three Times a Prison.

Reginald’s Tower, all of us are familiar with this city landmark, in many ways a symbol of the city itself. Over its 800 year history the tower has watched kings rise and fall, survived several sieges and played various roles in Waterford’s development - but did you ever notice the bars on its windows and wonder how they got there?

The first tower was probably built sometime after 914 when Reginald (or Røgnvald as he was more likely known to his friends) founded the city of Waterford. It is commonly accepted that this original tower did not stand on the site of the current fortification and was instead a little further back from the edge of the river, closer to the site of Greyfriars Friary. The current tower was likely built between 1253 and 1280 and formed the apex of the area known as the Viking Triangle, a heavily fortified section of the city surrounded by thick city walls.

While its primary function was always defence, the first time this noble tower acted as a prison was all the way back in 1170 when Strongbow and his forces took the city following a short siege. When the forces entered the city the only source we have for the events that followed (Gerald of Wales) states that following the battle Strongbow celebrated his win, married the fair Princess Aoife and had the King of Waterford, Sitric, and his son, Sitric (an imaginative lot, aren’t they?), imprisoned in Reginald’s Tower. As Gerald of Wales tells the story of the battle’s aftermath in just one (very long) sentence, we don’t actually know how long the two Sitrics were resident in the tower, but it was likely not very long.

It would have been normal, in the usual course of events, to put the former leader to death in order to consolidate your control over your newly conquered city. However as the death of the two Sitrics coincided with the arrival of Diarmuit Mac Murchadha is is possible that there may have been an element of revenge from the former King of Leinster who of course had been deposed just four years previously. It is also likely that he was not overly fond of the Hiberno-Norse population of the island after the fate that befell his father at the hands of the King of Dublin. The elder Mac Murchadha was allegedly lured to Dublin under the promise of peace where he was brutally killed and buried with a dog as an insult. Diarmuit no doubt learned his lesson about leaving dangerous enemies alive to tell the tale, and what better message is there to send than not only killing the king, but also ending his line by putting his son to death as well.

During the medieval period the tower allegedly acted as a prison for those accused of defrauding the mint. Following the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s mints were established in the country by John, the youngest son of King Henry II of England. He was appointed Lord of Ireland by his father and visited Waterford twice, in 1185 and again in 1210. It was John who established the first royal mint in Waterford.

Due to their importance, the royal mints were very strictly regulated. A pound weight of silver was used to make 240 silver pennies exactly, no more, no less. However for those working in the mint there was always the temptation (as well as the ability) to make a couple more coins than was strictly allowed out of the pound of silver, keeping the extra coins for themselves. The penalties for defrauding the state in this way severe and aside from imprisonment, you could suffer a worse fate such as having your hand cut off to mark you out as a thief.

In 1463 during the reign of King Edward IV coins had not been minted in Ireland for almost 200 years. And so it was ordered that ‘coins be struck and made in the city of Waterford at a place called Reginald’s Tower’. The man appointed to take charge of the mint was the Galway-born gold and silversmith Germyn Lynch. Lynch was relatively well-paid, but temptation to defraud was clearly hard to resist, and he was caught defrauding the state on a number of occasions. In fact he was caught defrauding the mint no fewer than five times throughout his career, and yet he continued to be re-appointed. He was finally dismissed in 1483 when he was over sixty years of age. After this no further coins were minted in the tower and it returned to its defensive use, successfully repelling the forces of Perkin Warbeck in 1495.

By the nineteenth century sieges were well and truly a thing of the past and the city walls which once formed the great wings of the tower were largely gone. The tower stood alone on the quay, an iconic symbol of the city’s medieval past but used only to store munitions. Then in 1819 a new purpose emerged and the local papers announced that ‘[t]he Round Tower [was] to be fitted put as a Bridewell and House of Correction.’

The tower mostly played host to petty criminals put there for public drunkenness or disturbing the peace. Prisoners were kept segregated with male prisoners on the first floor and the women on the uppermost floor of the tower. Over time the top floor became known as the ballroom thanks to these female prisoners because ‘[they] were in the habit of indulging in jigs, reels and country dances to while away the tedious hours.’ Some were career criminals of a sort and one particularly infamous woman, Mag Callendar, made the Waterford Mail in 1850 when she was sentenced to one month in the tower for begging and being drunk and disorderly on the quay - however its not her crime that made the papers but rather the fact that she had been imprisoned there on 150 previous occasions!

It is tempting to think of the tower as a sort of safe haven for people like Mag, a place they got locked into on purpose for a warm place to sleep and guaranteed food, however the conditions there were not exactly what one might think of as homely. In 1837 the death of one prisoner led to an inquest which found the prison to be in an appalling state. Of particular note was the ‘utter bareness and discomfort of its few apartments’ as well as the fact that ‘the lower part [was] allowed to remain in a most noisesome condition, which causes a stench and effluvis the most insalubrious that can be imagined.’

In 1861 the prison was closed and the tower instead became the residence of the High Constable of the city. In fact the tower acted as the official residence of the High Constable until 1901 when the last of them, James O’Mahony died. His daughter, Nelly O’Mahony, lived there until 1947 when she died and another woman moved in. Then in 1954 the tower found a new purpose as a museum, a role it still plays today (though the museum itself has changed hands and artefacts since then). Who knows what uses lie in its future, but one thing is for sure, Reginald’s Tower, ever-watching, ever-changing, will surely
outlive us all.