The Visitor-Friendly City of Armagh

City of Two Cathedrals, Two Archbishops, and Two Primates of Ireland

Stargazing has history in Armagh—the old observatory is part of it

Bernd Biege

Known as the “Cathedral City,” the City of Armagh, part of the old County of Armagh in Northern Ireland, it is a quiet rural backwater town more or less. But it is a county town of some standing and with some interesting historic fabric interwoven with more modern (and often less inspiring, it has to be said) threads.

What singles the City of Armagh out is its role as the most important place for Irish Christianity. The general area was a very important center even in pagan times, and Saint Patrick himself gave Armagh the imprimatur of the leading role in church politics. The area was vigorously pursued by both the Church of Ireland and the Roman-Catholic Church, whose competing cathedrals seem to eye each other warily from opposing hilltops. Visitors to Northern Ireland should not miss having at least a quick look.

The City of Armagh in a Nutshell

The City of Armagh has only been a city proper since 1994, and with a population of around 15,000, it is the smallest city in all of Ireland. Yet both the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland have cathedrals and archbishops in Armagh, both of these being Primates of Ireland. This has historical reasons and no direct bearing on the city itself. It certainly exudes some civic pride and has nice areas, though sometimes rubbing shoulders uncomfortably with less inviting parts of the city. As Forrest Gump would say, "Armagh is a bit like a box of chocolates."

A Short History of the City of Armagh

The City of Armagh's name is an Anglicization of the Irish Ard Mhacha, literally meaning "Macha's Height." The nearby Emain Macha (or Navan Fort) was an important site in prehistoric times, where the goddess Macha gave birth to twins.

The general area had settlements for the last 6,000 or so years, but only in the 5th century, Armagh came to lasting prominence. Saint Patrick, it is said, established his principal church here and decided that nuns and monks educated in Armagh should spread Christianity throughout Ireland. In the “Annals of the Four Masters” report, Patrick at the same time decided that Armagh should act as the “Ecclesiastical Capital of Ireland,” with the archbishop being the most important cleric on the island.

In the 9th century, Vikings had other plans for Armagh. The monasteries and churches were robbed repeatedly of their treasures by the Vikings. During these dark days, the “Book of Armagh” was created. It is the earliest existing book in Old Irish and still kept at Trinity College Dublin. The importance of Armagh was also highlighted when High King Brian Boru was buried here after his death in 1014. The church treasures were slowly restored—only to be plundered wholesale by Anglo-Normans under John de Courcy in 1189.

The town grew during the middle ages and later became a center of learning with the foundation of the Royal School in 1608 and the building of the Armagh Observatory in 1790. The ecclesiastical side was also not forgotten—while the original cathedral went to the Church of Ireland after the Reformation, the Catholic Church built an imposing new cathedral at the end of the 19th century.

In the 20th century, Armagh was a microcosm of Ireland's troubles—from the Ulster Division's fateful participation in the Battle of the Somme to the Irish War of Independence, during which Michael Collins spoke to up to 10,000 people in Armagh. The Troubles (war in Northern Ireland) brought death and destruction into the city, but these days not many traces of this can be seen.

Places to Visit in the City of Armagh

Maybe the best introduction to Armagh is a stroll around the Mall, a central open area with cricket fields, and some beautiful Georgian buildings. After that—pick and mix from these suggestions:

  • Pride of place (literally, as they are on hills and visible from afar) in the City of Armagh, you must go to the two cathedrals, both dedicated to Saint Patrick. The Church of Ireland Cathedral, built of reddish stone and right in the center of the city, dates back to around 445. It has been, however, extensively rebuilt—without losing its essentially medieval character. The far younger Catholic Cathedral was constructed as a statement of supremacy, one feels, featuring two enormous spires with a height of 64 meters. The styles of architecture and decoration in the two cathedrals are so different that visitors should try to see both.
  • The Armagh Observatory (1790) and Armagh Planetarium (1968) are a short distance from the city center and should be visited by anyone with an interest in astronomy and space.
  • The former palace of the Archbishop of Armagh is now used as council offices, and the adjoining archbishop's private chapel is open to the public, as are the fine gardens surrounding them. The ruins of a medieval abbey are right near the entrance to the estate.
  • The Public Library on Abbey Street was founded in 1771 by Archbishop Richard Robinson and holds some excellent 17th and 18th century English books—of which Jonathan Swift's own, annotated copy of the first edition of “Gulliver's Travels” is a real treasure.
  • Also, try to have a look at the former Market House (1815) now used as a library, and the former Armagh Gaol, sporting a mix of Georgian and Victorian styles.

The City of Armagh Miscellany

Even though Armagh has been cut off from all rail connections since 1957, it still is remembered in Irish railway history—unfortunately for all the wrong reasons: The Armagh Rail Disaster (12 June 1889 on the Newry line) killed 78 people.

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