New Geneva, a (failed) Genevan colony in Waterford, designed by James Gandon

Recently I came across the placename Geneva Barracks, near Passage East in Waterford. Obviously a slightly unusual name, I wondered was it an Anglicisation of something – but in fact it turns out to be quite a literal name with a very interesting story, totally new to me.

From An Taisce:

New Geneva Barracks was identified as the proposed site for a planned colony for artisan and intellectual Genevan settlers, who had become refugees following a failed rebellion against a French and Swiss government in the city. Ireland had been granted a parliament separate from London in 1782 and it was thought that the creation of the colony would stimulate new economic trade with the continent. James Gandon, who designed the Custom House, was comissioned to create a masterplan for the site overlooking the Waterford Estuary. The plans for the colony eventually collapsed, however, when the Genevans insisted that they should be represented in the Irish parliament but govern themselves under their own Genevan laws. It then became a barracks following the United Irishmen Rebellion in 1798.

Wikipedia has a bit more on Gandon’s plan:

James Gandon, the celebrated architect, was commissioned to prepare a plan for the town which would have been almost rectangular in shape with a vast shallow crescent 2,700 ft long overlooking Waterford Estuary. A rectangular site for a church was to be positioned at each end of the crescent which was to be backed by streets and terraces of houses. A central square was to have been overlooked by a central church with an apse and was surrounded by terraces of houses which were said to have been ‘under construction’. There were to be two other open squares, one to the south overlooked by the Academy with the Market in the south west corner of the ‘city’. Another courtyard to the north was to be overlooked by the Town Hall. A prison or hospital was to be located at the north west corner of the city. The city has many similarities with the French city of Richelieu. The Barracks wall which exists today bears little resemblance to this ambitious plan. The original James Gandon drawing of the proposed city still exists.

There is even more on Padraig Rooney’s site:

Ami Melly was the de facto leader of the Genevan exiles. An advance group disembarked at Waterford. They wanted representation in the Irish parliament (Temple’s “very unreasonable in their demands”), a franchise even the Catholic Irish didn’t have at that time. They also demanded the right to their own laws. Thus the project fell foul of Swiss and Anglo-Irish intransigence: neither side was prepared to make concessions. The august tradition of Swiss democracy came up against English colonialism in its back yard. “Some few of the Genevese came over to Ireland, but they soon returned, rather chilled by the prospect before them,” Egan tells us.

It was not just watchmaking that the people of Ireland missed out on. P. M. Egan’s county history cites a local farmer who reminds us of Waterford’s lost industry of silk weaving:

You see, sir, these people that came here were great silk waivers,’ and they expected, of course, to go on well at their trade. Myself doesn’t know, but as I hears. They set a lot of mulberry trees to feed the silk-worms, but sure you know they wouldn’t grow, the climate was too damp, so they gave up the place and went back again to their own country.

There’s more at the Wooly Days blog. I am looking, so far unsuccessfully, for an illustration of Gandon’s town plan online.

The site became a barracks, one of some notoriety in the memory of the 1798 rebellion. Here is a local story from the National Folklore Collection’s Schools Collection :


In the year 1798 when the soldiers were in Geneva Barracks, there was a cowboy working with a neighbouring farmer named Pat Gough. There were some Croppies prisoners at the time in Geneva Barracks.

One night the cow-boy made a rope ladder and went out to Geneva Barracks and got up on the wall and lowered the ladder down and helped eight Croppies to escape.

When he had the last one up he shouted down, “Is there any other down there”, and a voice answered “There is one other.” This was an officer and he wanted to shoot the eight Croppies and the cow-boy.

He had a gun under his coat and when he was half way up the ladder the cow-boy saw the gun and let the ladder drop and he and the eight Croppies escaped.

The Croppy Boy , one of the famed ballads of 1798,  features Geneva Harbour in its last verse – although a lot of versions I have come across seem to replace it with Duncannon (or, quite geographically incongruous, Dungannon):

At Geneva Barracks that young man died
And at Passage they have his body laid
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy

Among the Dungannon versions seem to be the Dubliners’ and the Clancy Brothers. Here is Delia Murphy giving Geneva Barracks  it’s due:


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