Omagh (from An Ómaigh – “the virgin plain”; alternatively Oigh Math / Rath – “seat of the kings”) (pop. 22,200) is the largest town in County Tyrone, and one of the main commercial hubs of the West of Ulster. In addition to its modern shopping malls, pubs, clubs, restaurants and entertainment venues, the town has made an effort to retain its cultural heritage, and is nowadays probably best known as the location of the internationally famous Ulster American Folk Park and the well-regarded Ulster History Park.
Omagh’s long High Street as seen from the hilltop Courthouse . (Photo – www.yourlocalweb.co.uk)
Situated south of the Sperrin Mountains and surrounded by highlands in the other three directions, Omagh lies on the slope of an agricultural hollow where the rivers Drumragh and Camowen meet to form the River Strule, a tributary of the River Foyle. The district has a history of major floods, most recently in June 2007. As a result, dykes were built to keep the water in the main channel and to prevent it from overflowing into the flood plain. Large areas of land, mainly around the meanders, have been developed into large, green open areas and parks with pleasant walking routes and over 20 children’s playgrounds.
Omagh is said to owe its origins to an abbey founded in 792 AD, making it one of the oldest population centres in Ireland. The site may have been the same as that used for a Franciscan Friary established c.1465; upon Dissolution in 1541, the land was granted to Sir Henry Piers.
Military records indicate that in 1497 the then Lord-Deputy, Gearoid Mór FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, had razed “the castle of Omy” in the course of forcing Mac Art O’Neill to submit to the Crown.
In 1602 Lord Mountjoy placed a strong garrison in Omy headed by Sir Henry Docwra, who harrassed the depleted forces of the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill, defeated the previous Christmas at the Battle of Kinsale, taking the whole of his magazines, military chest and other valuables, penetrating as far as Enniskillen, and driving the discomfited Earl to Castle Roe, on the River Bann. O’Neill never recovered, and soon after made his final submission at Mellifont.
On the Plantation of Ulster in 1609, the district was granted briefly to Lord Castlehaven, who failed to use it, and then to James Mervyn, whose descendants remained lord of the manor for over two centuries.
Ihe 1641 Rebellion saw Sir Felim O’Neil march against the castle of Omagh, which surrendered immediately. The town subsequently sheltered refugees.
King James II arrived at Omagh en route to Strabane in 1689, some weeks before his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne. Supporters of King William III burnt the first Anglican parish church and fortified Tower house built by the Mervyn family.
On 4th May 1743 an accidental fire again destroyed the town (then mostly thatched cottages) in just under one hour, leaving only a couple of buildings standing.
In 1768, Omagh replaced Dungannon as the county town of Tyrone.
Omagh acquired railway links to Derry in 1852, Enniskillen in 1853 and Belfast in 1861. By the turn of the last century, Omagh was served by four different rail systems which stretched throughout Ireland. The last of these, the Portadown–Derry main line (also known as “The Derry Road”) through Omagh was closed in 1965.
Omagh was long a garrison town, but its first purpose-built military barracks was not constructed until 1881. The town’s largest military installation, St Lucia Barracks, closed in 2007.
In 1899, Tyrone County Hospital was opened. Today the hospital is the subject of a massive campaign to save its services.
A number of IRA bombs devastated the town centre in the 1970s and 1980s; the worst incident occurred on 17 May 1973, when five off-duty soldiers were killed by an IRA bomb under their car at the Knock-na-Moe Castle Hotel. The hotel was to burn down in an accidental fire twenty years later.
On 15 August 1998, in protest at the consolidating Peace Process, the dissident “Real Irish Republican Army” exploded a car bomb in the town centre, killing 29 people — 14 women (including one pregnant with twins), 9 children and 6 men.Hundreds more were injured as a result of the blast. Sadly, this event brought Omagh more international media attention than any other before or since.
The immediate aftermath of the Omagh bomb atrocity. (Photo – aftermathnews.wordpress.com)
Famous visitors to Omagh after the bomb atrocity included Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish president Mary McAleese, US president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton.
Omagh has benefited from massive UK government investment since 1998, and has enhanced the town centre with a multi-million pound development of Omagh College (a vew campus of South West College) and the Omagh Community House, an architectural landmark.
According to the most recent official census figures, Omagh’s inhabitants from a Roman Catholic community background comprise 68.2% of the population, while the figure for people from a Protestant or other Christian community background is 29.5%. The proportions were not always so.
Omagh at Worship
The town shares its name with the surrounding Barony, but for ecclesiastical purposes (both Anglican and Roman Catholic) Omagh is in the parish of Drumragh, which is also the name of a nearby townland beside the eponymous river, where the remnants of the Mervyn family’s first parish church can be seen; the burial ground is still in occasional use.
Saint Columba’s church (CoI), a neo-Gothic edifice designed by JE Rogers, was completed in 1871 to serve the parish of Drumragh. (Photo by Kenneth Allen) The cavernous interior can seat over 500 people and is illuminated by huge stained glass windows donated by prominent local families. Most of the many plaques and memorials have military themes, as Omagh was for years home to the Inniskilling Fusiliers.
The present church stands overlooking Omagh from the site first occupied by a Grecian style church constructed by the Mervyn family in 1777, to which Bishop Knox of Londonderry added a graceful tower.
Omagh’s First Presbyterian church occupies a site on the Dublin Road used for Presbyterian worship since 1673. The present church building was inaugurated in 1897. (Photo by Kenneth Allen)
Trinity Presbyterian church, one of a cluster of churches located on raised ground adjoining John St, has occupied its current site since 1754; it was known as the Second Omagh Presbyterian church until 1910. The present building, erected in 1856, was last altered in 1901.
Omagh’s Methodist church, adjoining Trinity Presbyterian, was built in 1857 to replace the previous Wesleyan chapel (1811). A Primitive Methodist church was located on the Dublin Road, but the 90 members re-joined the main congregation shortly after the Union in 1878.
The Sacred Heart church (RC) on Castle St was designed by William Hague and dedicated by Cardinal Logue in 1899. It was built on the highest point in the town, replacing the old Brook St chapel of SS Peter & Paul (1829). Although locals still refer to it as”the chapel”, Rowan called it “by far the most ambitious piece of architecture in Omagh“, and its spires are the tallest in town. The impressive Rose Window above the High Altar was provided by emigrants to America as a memorial to the Tyrone-born John Hughes (1797 – 1864), first Archbishop of New York and founder of that city’s famous St Patrick’s Cathedral. (Photo by Kenneth Allen)
Other places of worship in Omagh include the Evangelical Presbyterian church , the Free Presbyterian church, the Omagh Methodist church, the Free Methodist church, the Omagh Baptist church, the Omagh Evangelical church, the church of Christ the King (RC), St Mary’s church (RC), the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), the Omagh Gospel Hall (a company of Christians sometimes referred to as “open brethren”) and Omagh Community church (non-denominational). Naturally there is also an Orange Hall (1869).
There are at least 32 more churches within a 1o-mile radius, of which the most picturesque are probably the CoI edifices at Seskanore, Clogherny, Clanabogan and Cappagh. Most have been photographed by Kenneth Allen.
The Courthouse, Omagh’s most imposing building, was designed by John Hargrave of Cork. It was constructed in two parts between 1814 and 1863 at a cost of £17,000. The structure incorporates the plan of an old Market House around which it was built. The Tuscan columned portico was erected in 1824. The fine interior has been recently restored. From the other end of town, the courthouse can be seen at the top of the hill with the three main church spires of the town behind it. (Photo – www.courtsni.gov.uk)
Omagh Gaol is a complex dating mainly from 1804 – 1825. Many of the original buildings and several of the high walls have disappeared, but surviving edifices include the entrance arch, an old treadmill (the wheel long since vanished), a prison hospital, a laundry, a church and the governor’s residence (recently restored).Sadly, there are no gates now.
Apparently most of the inmates were debtors, but Omagh Gaol was also the scene of several public hangings, the last in 1860; hangings within the gaol continued until about 1880. Perhaps the most legendary execution arose from a bank robbery at Newtownstewart in which the cashier had been killed; the investigating RIC officer assigned to the case, District Inspector Montgomery, turned out to be the perpetrator of the crime, and was hanged in Omagh Gaol in 1873.
Omagh Gaol was eventually closed in 1902. It is not currently open to the public, but the owner has been asked to consider converting the complex into the nucleus of a museum.
The Royal Arms Hotel, formerly the King’s Arms Hotel, operated on High St from 1797 to 1998; the elegant façade has been retained.
Strule Arts Centre, opened in 2007, is good example of urban renewal in a newly created public space, reclaimed from a formerly disused area between High Street and the River Strule.
Grange Park, located near the town centre, is the largest and best known of Omagh’s green open areas.
Omagh Leisure Complex, set in 11 hectares (26 acres) of landscaped grounds near the Grange Park, features a leisure centre, boating pond, astroturf pitch and cycle paths.
Healy Park, the main GAA stadium in the town, has a capacity nearing 25,000, and hosts Tyrone matches and inter-county encounters requiring a neutral venue.
The Ulster American Folk Park
The Ulster American Folk Park at Mellon Road, Castletown, Omagh, is an open-air museum that explores the journey made by many tens of thousands of Irish people (specifically those from Ulster) who emigrated to America during the C18th and C19th.
A range of original and reconstructed buildings feature people demonstrating everyday traditional tasks from the past, in the Irish countryside, on the dockside, aboard a ship (there is a full size replica of the brig Union) and on arrival in Boston or Philadephia.
The park includes the cottage where Thomas Mellon was born in 1813, before emigrating to Pennsylvania when he was five and went on to become a judge and found a Pitsburgh banking dynasty. His son Andrew W Mellon became Secretary to the US Treasury.
The Centre for Migration Studies has a splendid library and in conjunction with QUB and the University of Ulster offers undergraduate, postgraduate and extracurricular courses .
The Appalachian & Bluegrass Music Festival held here in the first week of September every year is one of the biggest in Europe, and the Park also hosts large events at Easter, Christmas, Hallowe’en and on the Fourth of July.
The Creggan area of the Sperrin Mountains is an ancient landscape of Raised and Blanket Bog. Winding gravel paths and boardwalks leading to megalithic tombs cross wetland and woodland habitats, allowing observation of a variety of flora and fauna, including badgers, foxes, red squirrels and many wild birds – some 33 species have been recorded – among them the Whinchat, which has been seen breeding in the young trees at the edge of the bog, an uncommon sight in Northern Ireland. An Creagán Visitor Centre provides bar, food, and conference facilities and self-catering cottages for visitors.
The Silverbirch Hotel and Clonabogan Country House B&B are highly recommended accommodation options.
Notable people associated with Omagh include:
Jimmy Kennedy (1902–1984), inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame for classics such as Red Sails in the Sunset and Teddy Bears Picnic.
Benedict Kiely (1919–2007), journalist, broadcaster, novelist (Countries of Contention, Land Without Stars, Poor Scholar) and memoirist (Drink to the Bird: An Omagh Childhood).
Brian Friel, playwright (Dancing at Lughnasa, Philadelphia Here I Come!) was born in Killyclogher near Omagh in 1929.