The South Ulster town I loved so well

It’s not very often that this column tries to escape from politics, especially by heading across the border!  But earlier this week I took a break from a rather uninspiring election campaign in the Republic and spent a day in Armagh, where I lived for nearly 14 years when I was running the Centre for Cross Border Studies.

The small city of Armagh – really a south Ulster market town – is one of the largely undiscovered jewels of Irish tourism. A travel writer in 1829 called it “probably the most beautiful inland town in Ireland”, and – with the exception of Kilkenny – that description remains an apt one to this day. Its origins are far more ancient than Dublin’s. Ireland’s only female ruler, Macha, ruled from the fort of Eamhain Mhacha (now the Navan Fort visitor attraction outside the town) either in the 5th century BC (according to Geoffrey Keating) or the 7th century BC (according to the Annals of the Four Masters). St Patrick built not only his first church there in 445 AD but also a monastic school of theology and literature which was to become famous throughout Europe. In the 9th century the Vikings attacked and sacked it regularly as one of Ireland’s principal centres of wealth and population (in 832 three times in a single month). After the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, Brian Boru, the Clare-born High King of Ireland, who was both a hardened warrior and a skilled peacemaker, was buried in the cathedral grounds (his burial plaque is prominent on the Church of Ireland Cathedral’s northern wall).

This mixture of a rich religious and intellectual life and regular bloody military incursions was to continue for another 600 years. In the 12th century Norman leaders like Sir John de Courcey and Philip of Worcester frequently attacked and pillaged the city and its churches. In 1162 the Synod of Clane decreed that nobody should be the director of a monastic school in Ireland who was not a graduate of Armagh. In 1598 Hugh O’Neill’s forces defeated the English two miles outside the city at the Battle of the Yellow Ford, the heaviest defeat inflicted on the English army in Ireland up to that point. In 1646 Owen Roe O’Neill did the same to a largely Scottish army at the Battle of Benburb, just across the nearby Tyrone border. Four years later Archbishop James Ussher, the Church of Ireland Primate, published his enormously influential study (still cited by some US creationists), drawn from a literal reading of the Bible, which put the date of the earth’s creation at 22 October 4004 BC.

Armagh’s role as a key ecclesiastical and intellectual metropolis was in decline for much of the 18th century, but came to life once more towards the end of that century. The background to this was a pre-Industrial Revolution ‘golden age’, when the rural areas around the city became briefly one of Ireland’s economic powerhouses based on the spinning and handloom weaving of linen.

The Church of Ireland Primate from 1765 to 1794 was Archbishop Richard Robinson, son of a wealthy Yorkshire family. He took the unusual decision, for an aristocratic Anglican cleric of the time, to live in Armagh.  There he spent much of his large personal fortune attempting to create a Georgian city along the lines of Bath (he also applied unsuccessfully to George III for approval for a university). He brought in leading architects like Thomas Cooley and Francis Johnston to design and build fine public buildings like the Primate’s Palace, the Public Library, the Royal School (where the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Castlereagh were pupils), the Armagh Observatory (now the oldest working astronomical observatory in these islands) and the County Infirmary (which 200 years later would become the home of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and the North South Ministerial Council). He and his successors oversaw the lay-out of a new Georgian core, centred around the Mall, a pretty elongated city square-cum-public park. Here on sunny summer afternoons, with its shady walks, war memorials and cricketers on the green, one could more easily imagine oneself in an eternally peaceful English village than a historically fought-over Irish border town.

In the 1880s, according to George Henry Bassett’s encyclopedic Guide and Directory to County Armagh, the city, with a population of just over 10,000,  was a “comfortable and somewhat genteel neighbourhood” complete with a London-style gentlemen’s club, rugby and tennis clubs, and one of the finest markets in Ulster. The magnificent decorated Gothic Catholic cathedral, finally consecrated in 1904 after its foundation stone had been laid 64 years earlier, served a noticeably poorer Catholic community.

The partitioned Ireland of the 20th century did not serve its ecclesiastical capital well. In the early 1920s there was even a proposal to the Boundary Commission that it should be joined to the Irish Free State by a Danzig-style corridor. It was a town deeply divided by class and religion, with the usual discrimination in housing and jobs practised by the unionist majority on its council.  During the ‘Troubles’ more people died in County Armagh than in any other county of Northern Ireland outside Belfast. In a 1983 Irish Times report I quoted local priest Father Raymond Murray saying that the policing of an alienated Catholic population by the nearly 100% Protestant RUC and UDR had given the city “a terrible and emotional civil war tinge.”

All that has changed, thank God. Under the surface Armagh is still divided by a kind of polite sectarianism, much less obvious than its rougher relation up the road in Portadown. But it has now largely returned to its 18th and 19th century state as a peaceful and picturesque Ulster town, well deserving of a visit from people throughout the island who are interested in Irish history, religion, mythology, literature, archaeology and architecture. Its Public Library, on the hill beside the Church of Ireland cathedral, is for me simply the most beautiful small library in Ireland (‘The Healing Place of the Soul’ is the Greek inscription above its door). Beside it is one of the island’s most charming small museums, No 5 Vicars’ Hill, containing an array  of Roman and Greek coins, archaeological artefacts, paintings (including by Reynolds and Hogarth), maps, and ancient ecclesiastical documents from the private collections of Archbishop Robinson and his 19th century successor, Archbishop George Beresford. The town is coming down with museums and libraries: the County Museum and the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum on the Mall and the Tomás Ó Fiaich Library under the Catholic cathedral are also well worth a visit. The Armagh Observatory – whose astronomers have included  internationally celebrated figures like Patrick Moore and Ernest Opik – and its public Planetarium (one of only two in Ireland) are another highlight.

The conundrum is why more people – particularly from south of the border – do not visit this lovely town. Its central place in 2500 years of Irish history – even if much of that centrality stems from our religious past – should be a source of great continuing interest in a country still fascinated by its history.

A particular barrier is the lack of civic energy among Armagh’s local politicians and other prominent citizens, leading to a certain incapacity to do anything imaginative about publicising the city’s many attractions (despite tourism, rather than industrial promotion, having been the local council’s top priority in recent years). Armagh is not Derry or Newry, which contain people – notably business people – who would lay down their lives to improve their local places. It is a complacent town, maybe even a little superior: former town clerk Don Ryan remembers that when he arrived in the 1960s: “Other places jumped up and down to try to tell the world they were there, but Armagh never felt the need to do that…In those days they would have regarded themselves as  a cut above most other centres in Northern Ireland.”

Another problem is the lack of good accommodation, restaurants and night life. The largest hotel, the Armagh City Hotel, is modern but character-less (although its pleasant cafe is a relaxed meeting place across the communal divide). Most other hotels and guest houses are simply shabby. In my 14 years there I never found a good restaurant (although I am told that a local man and his Polish wife have recently opened a nice place in Vicar’s Hill). Armagh is famous for bringing down its shutters and going home at 5.30. When I was looking for a convivial pub I used to go to Sheils in Tassagh (near Keady) or over the Tyrone county line to Tomneys in Moy. Dubliners these days wouldn’t dream of spending a weekend anywhere with such inadequate accommodation, food and entertainment.

Maybe this is changing a little.  I hope so. There is already a platform of three excellent festivals: the William Kennedy Piping Festival (an initiative of the amazing musical, artistic and sporting Vallely family) in November; the John Hewitt Summer School of literature and politics in July, and the Charles Wood Summer School of choral and organ music in August. Another good sign is the formation of a local Armagh Ambassadors group – ranging from teenagers to people in their seventies – who have a “suppressed passion” for the place and have pledged to promote it more imaginatively in the future. If they want advice about how to ‘sell’ their lovely little city here in the Irish capital, my details are on the web.








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3 Responses to The South Ulster town I loved so well

  1. kateennals says:

    Great blog, Andy. Hope you don’t mind, I shared on FB.

  2. Deirbhile Nic Craith says:

    The INTO had a very successful Education Conference in Armagh in November 2014. I promised myself to return as a visitor. Perhaps this year.

  3. Alan Ford says:

    Macha is a great story – the ultimate female revenge on the Ulstermen who mistreated her – they will all suffer labour pains for five days and four nights.

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