Armagh (from Ard Mhacha – “Height of Macha”) (pop. 15,000), a locus of religious and political power since pre-Christian times, was very important in the C6th AD, when Saint Fiach called it “the seat of empire”; seven centuries later Giraldus Cambrensis referred to it as “the metropolis”; and even as late as 1580, Philipp Klüwer claimed (erroneously) that it was “the head of the kingdom”, adding that Dublin was then next in rank to it.
Armagh is the only city in the world dominated by two identically-named hilltop cathedrals, the respective ecclesiastical headquarters of the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, both headed by prelates claiming direct Apostolic Succession to Saint Patrick and bearing the titles Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
Navan Fort / Emain Macha, on the edge of the modern city, is believed to have been used as an ancient ritual or ceremonial site dedicated to the Celtic deity Macha, who with her raven sisters the Morrigan and the Badb formed the triple goddess of sovereignty, war and horses. According to Irish mythology it was the capital of Ulster until it was abandoned during the C1st AD.
The adjacent hill may have been named in honour of the deity, but other sources claim it as the burial place of the Nemedian queen also called Macha, whose husband Nemed, son of Agnoman of Scythia, is supposedly interred at Ard Nemid on Cork Harbour’s Great Island.
When Christianity spread to Ireland during the C5th AD, Saint Patrick established his “Great church” on what he called “my sweet hill” at Armagh. According to the Annals of the Four Masters:
“Ard Mhacha was founded by Saint Patrick, it having been granted to him by Daire, son of Finnchadh, son of Eoghan, son of Niallan. Twelve men were appointed by him for building the town. He ordered them, in the first place, to erect an archbishop’s city there, and a church for monks, for nuns, and for the other orders in general, for he perceived that it would be the head and chief of the churches of Ireland in general.”
The settlement soon had several ecclesiastical institutions; one, the Monastery of SS Peter & Paul, later run by the Augustinian Canons Regular, received numerous endowments from Gaelic chieftains, including extensive tracts of land. Attached to it was one of the most celebrated seminaries in Europe, from which many learned men, not only of Irish origin but from all parts of Christendom, were despatched to diffuse knowledge throughout the known world; it is said that at one period 7000 students were congregated there.
Armagh was destroyed by accidental fires in 670, 687, and 770 AD (when it was struck by lightning), and later suffered severely and repeatedly from Viking raids. A band of Danes landed at Newry in 830 AD, stormed Armagh and made it their headquarters for a month, plundering and reducing it to ashes before being driven out. In 836 AD, a Danish chieftain called Trellises / Thorgis, having laid waste Connacht and a great part of Meath and Leinster, devastated Ulster,as far as Lough Neagh, and then advanced against Armagh, taking it with little difficulty, forcing Bishop Farina and his clergy to seek refuge in Cashel. Thereafter the city changed hands several times between various Gaelic factions, and the Norse invaders, with reinforcements from abroad, again took and plundered Armagh c.852 AD. The annals of Armagh for the subsequent century comprise a bloody list of further Scandinavian incursions, Gaelic reprisals, and numerous atrocities on all sides as the city suffered all the horrors of savage warfare.
The Dalcassian chieftain Brian Boru, who had defeated all rivals by 1002 to become Ard Ri / High King of Ireland and self-styled Emperor of the Irish, presented a collar of gold weighing 120 ounces at the great altar in 1004. In 1014 he succeeded in uniting most of Ireland’s Gaelic factions in a decisive victory against the Norsemen at the Battle of Clontarf, where he was killed, and his remains were deposited in Armagh with those of his son Murchard, who fell in the same battle.
By the end of the C11th the See of Armagh was a Byzantine nest of plot and intrigue, with the Bachal Isu (episcopal staff of Jesus) changing hands for money and favours between competing lay primates claiming the title of comarba Pátraic (“Successor of Patrick”).
Máel Máedoc Ua Morgair (1094 – 1148), aka Saint Malachy, (the first and for many centuries the only officially canonised Irish saint), Archbishop of Armagh from 1132, was responsible for massive religious reforms across the island, eradicating corruption amongst the powerful abbots, changing the way monasteries were run by introducing continental practices, imposing the Roman liturgy, and generally bringing the Irish church under Papal rule, thus reinforcing the primacy of Armagh. This primacy was emphasised in 1162 when, at the instigation of Archbishop Gilla Meic Liac mac Diarmata, aka Gelasius, a synod at Claonadh decreed that only those who had studied at Armagh could teach theology.
In 1170, another synod of the Irish clergy called by Archbishop Gelasius came to the conclusion that the foreign invasion and internal distractions of the country were divine retribution for the practice of purchasing Englishmen from pirates and selling then as slaves; and it was therefore decreed that every English captive should be liberated. Alas, neither God nor the fates were propitiated.
John de Courcy, the Norman knight who invaded Ulster in 1177, plundered Armagh in 1179 and 1206. His successor, Hugh de Lacy, was guilty of even greater sacrilege, permitting his followers to spend ten days looting the town.
Archbishop Máel Pátraic Ó Scannail / Patrick O’Scanlan was responsible for the foundation of a Franciscan Friary in Armagh in 1253, and the virtually total reconstruction of the Cathedral.
The Bruce invasion of 1315 saw the entire see “lamentably wasted” and the archbishop “reduced to a state of extreme destitution” by the reiterated incursions of the Scottish army.
Medieval Armagh was left as little more than “an insignificant collection of cabins, with a dilapidated cathedral covered in shingles“. The Archbishops chose to live in Drogheda, and it was not until the 1530s that matters improved, with Archbishop George Dowdall proposing the town as the location of a new University of Ulster.
The conflictive Shane O’Neill, after his defeat by the Earl of Sussex at Dundalk, withdrew to Armagh, which the lord-lieutenant entered in October 1557 and “wasted with fire and sword”, sparing only the cathedral. Shane ostensibly made his peace personally with Queen Elizabeth I in London in January 1562, but Archbishop Loftus learned and informed the government of his renewed hostile intentions, in revenge for which O’Neill launched a special expedition against Armagh in 1566, during which his forces “foully defaced the Church and City of Armagh” and committed such “dreadful havoc” that the locals were reduced to “a state of great wretchedness“. Shane was eventually defeated by his regional rivals, the O’Donnells, and murdered in June 1567 by his former Scottish allies in Antrim, the MacDonnells. His death was greeted with jubilation in London.
In 1575, Lord Deputy Sydney marched into Ulster against Turlough Luineach O’Neill, who had been Shane’s tanist / designated successor, and fixed his headquarters at Armagh, where negotiations were held resulting in a peaceful outcome – for the time being. Three years later, Turlough Luineach / Terence Lenagh was made Baron of Clogher and Earl of Clanconnel (titles that died with him).
One of the first actions taken by Hugh Roe O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, in what was to become the Nine Years War, was to take possession of Armagh in 1594, but events elsewhere soon forced him to withdraw. He subsequently tried to starve the garrison, but “was baffled by the treachery of his illegitimate son” Con, who, having deserted to the English, discovered a private road by which Sir Henry Bagnall “was enabled to send in such a supply of men and provisions as completely frustrated the earl’s efforts“. After their 1598 defeat at the Battle of the Yellow Ford, within two miles of Armagh, the English evacuated the city. Shortly after his victory over the Gaelic princes at the Battle of Kinsale, Lord Mountjoy arrived in Armagh and with a garrison of 900 men oversaw the campaign of harrassment that ended with O‘Neill‘s surrender and subsequent flight abroad.
The Plantation of Ulster saw numerous Scottish colonists settle in Armagh, commemorated by the name of Scotch Street, near the eastern entrance of the town.
The 1641 Rebellion instigator, Sir Phelim O’Neill, was driven out of Armagh, but before leaving, his men set the Cathedral on fire, and slew a number of inhabitants.
At the start of the Williamite War, the Earl of Tyrconnel, then lord-lieutenant under King James II, placed a strong body of troops in the town; but they were surprised and disarmed by a local uprising in favour of the coronation of Prince of Orange as King William III. The Jacobite soldiers were permitted to retreat to Louth, and Lord Blayney took over, but was soon driven out in turn, and forced to retreat to Derry, then the last refuge of the Williamites. Following the unsucessful Jacobite siege of that city, the last Stuart king spent a few days at Armagh en route to his ultimate ignominious defeat at the Battle of the Boyne 11 months later. The next occupant was King William’s Dutch Marslall Duke Schomberg, who made the town a base for provisioning his troops.
Archbishop Robinson in Armagh Public Library.
The 1765 appointment of Richard Robinson (1708 – 1794), Bishop of Kildare, to the top job in the Church of Ireland transformed Armagh’s waning fortunes. Primate Archbishop Robinson spent vast amounts of money on transforming the by then shabby and delapidated town into a jewel of Georgian architecture, focussing his ambitious energies on his own Palace, an Infirmary, a Gaol, the beautful Mall, and especially his Cathedral’s Library and an Observatory, intended as the nucleus of a proposed University.
Described by Robert Walpole as “a proud but superficial man“, and accused by John Wesley of caring more for buildings than people, Archbishop Robinson was created Baron Rokeby in 1777; upon his death the title passed to his eccentric cousin Matthew Robinson.
In 1778, with British Army troops engaged in wasfare overseas, Lord Charlemont accepted command of Armagh’s first corps of Irish Volunteers, augmented in 1781, 1782, 1788 and 1796 to repel a feared French invasion and “to help the government to quell disturbances among the natives”. They did garrison duty during the 1798 Rebellion, but were disbanded by the lord lieutenant in 1812 due to ill-feeling “engendered through the act of one of the Lieutenants, John Barns, who had signed a petition to Parliament in favor of Catholic Emancipation“.
The Great Famine damaged County Armagh less than other parts of Ireland, but nonetheless took its toll, with a 15% loss of population (6000 households) by 1851. The City Workhouse, designed for 100 paupers, was full by the end of 1846, requiring a temporary fever hospital to be built to acccommodate another 400 souls.
Armagh railway station, opened on 1st March 1848 with a line to Belfast, was later linked to Monaghan (1858) and Newry (1864). (The Newry line was closed in 1933, and all other lines to Armagh were closed on 1st October 1957).
The Armagh Rail Disaster occurred on 12 June 1889. A train hired for a Methodist Sunday School seaside outing to Warrenpoint ran into difficulties on a steep hill; when uncoupled to enable the engine to pull the front wagons to the top, the rear carriages rolled backwards to collide with an oncoming regular train, killing 80 people, 22 of them children, and injuring 180. This was the greatest rail disaster in Europe until then, and still ranks historically as by far the worst in Ireland and the fourth worst in the UK.
The War of Independence saw an RIC sergeant attacked by the IRA with a grenade on Market Street on 14 January 1921; he later died of his wounds. On 4 September 1921, Michael Collins and Eoin O’Duffy addressed a large meeting in Armagh attended by up to 10,000 people.
The 1969 – 1997 Troubles were a period of great tension and unrest in Armagh. A full list of casualties is available here.
Despite its claim to be the Oldest City in Ireland, Armagh was from 1614 to 1840 classified as a mere borough (admittedly called the City of Armagh), administered by a Sovereign and Burgesses, and then demoted to a medium-sized town (but still the county town of County Armagh!) until 1994, when Queen Elizabeth II granted it the status of a city (albeit the least-populated in Northern Ireland, and indeed on the whole island). Now governed by the Armagh City & District Council, it is still classified as a town by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).Armagh has a long tradition as an administrative centre. Northern Ireland’s Southern Health & Social Services Board and the Southern Education & Library Board have their headquarters in the city, and the North-South Ministerial Council secretariat, comprising members of both Northern Ireland’s and the Republic of Ireland’s civil services, is housed in a hideous building on the site of Armagh‘s former City Hall.
Rarely overwhelmed by tourists, Armagh has currently got only two hotels (the modern Armagh City Hotel and the more traditional family-run Charlemont Arms); alternative accommodation options include the highly rated Armagh City Youth Hostel, the centrally located De Averell Guesthouse & Restaurant or the charming Fairylands Country House B&B on the ouskirts of the city.
Good food can be enjoyed at the Manor Park French Restaurant, winner of the 2010 Award for the Best Restaurant in County Armagh, Poppy Smith’s, and Ularu, the only Australian eatery in Northern Ireland.