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Armagh – Ireland’s ancient Christian capital

It was once the very centre of Europe with its great teaching monastery and missionary abbey – now you can’t even get a direct flight there. Armagh City, the ecclesiastical centre for both the Catholic and the Church of Ireland is today a tranquil, untroubled city, dreaming perhaps of its glory days in the fifth century when St Patrick established his mission there.

Several centuries before Gutenberg had invented movable type and so revolutionising the world, Irish monks were beavering away in their attempts to save Western civilisation. Rome lay sacked, London was a muddy backwater, and Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and assorted barbarians had laid waste to much of Europe’s literary and ecclesiastical treasures.

Fortunately the great monasteries of Ireland helped preserve some of this academia. One book surviving from this era is on show at Trinity College, Dublin. The great Book of Armagh was written by Ferdomnach, a scribe at the School of Armagh, 1,200 years ago. The manuscript, containing some of the oldest surviving specimens of Old Irish, is believed to have originally belonged to St Patrick.

A Quick History Lesson

Emhain Mhacha (Or Navan Fort) on the edge of the modern day city is believed to have been an ancient pagan site, named after the goddess Macha.

Once the capital of Ulster, according to mythology, it was abandoned in the first century AD. When Christianity came to Ireland during the mid-400s, Armagh became the island’s “ecclesiastical capital”.

Christians always found it helpful to align themselves with former pagan sites. St Patrick accordingly established his principal church here, and subsequently decreed that only those educated in Armagh could spread the Gospel.

Where to visit

St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral

Armagh has a claim to be the oldest recorded settlement in Ireland. The prestige and antiquity of the town possibly inspired St Patrick to choose it as his HQ about AD445. His first church, Druim Saileach (Sallow Ridge), is thought to have been built on a site now occupied by the Bank of Ireland on Scotch Street.

Today’s Church of Ireland cathedral has been destroyed and rebuilt 17 times and substantially restored between 1834 and 1840, and is stuffed full of swag.  A slab on the north transept wall commemorates Brian Boru.

The Cathedral Library contains an astonishing range of stuff. A long manuscript dating back to about 1360 is written in colloquial Italian. The writer, Brother Stephanus, testified that he took it down faithfully as a direct dictation from St Catherine of Siena while she was in the throes of a mystical ecstasy.

Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels while Dean here. A copy of the book – corrected in Swift’s own hand – takes pride of place beside the ‘Claims of the Innocents’, basically pleas of mercy to Oliver Cromwell. (Some chance)

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland) Cathedral Close, BT61 7EE, 028 3752 3142, www.stpatricks-cathedral.org

The Catholic Cathedral of St Patrick

The Catholic Cathedral of St Patrick stands on a hilltop within walking distance of the Church of Ireland cathedral. Construction began in 1840, taking 70 years to complete the lofty building with its imposing two spires.

Inside intricate coloured mosaic covers every square foot of walls and ceilings – and some 20 Irish saints and 50 angels are represented in marble. The red hats of Armagh’s five deceased cardinals hang from the ceiling, and outside in the tranquil, leafy graveyard are buried Ireland’s Catholic Archbishops of Armagh.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Catholic), Armagh, BT61 9DL, 028 3752 3638, www.armagharchdiocese.org

The Palace Demesne

Armagh boasts some of Ireland’s finest Georgian-Regency architecture – the Archbishop’s Palace, the Royal School, College Hill, the Observatory, plus some very fine private dwellings, particularly in The Mall.

This was a venue for horse-racing, cock-fighting and bull-baiting until the 18th century. But the influential Archbishop Robinson decided it wasn’t fitting at all to have such a rough element in this ecclesiastic, academic city. So he transformed it into an elegant Georgian park, most of which survives today.

In the Palace Stables Heritage Centre and Palace Demesne, a restored Georgian stable block set on the Palace Demesne, you’ll experience Georgian history being brought to life by a host of characters just arrived from the 18th century.

The Franciscan Friary in the palace grounds, founded by Archbishop O’Scannail in 1263, was destroyed in 1561 by Shane (the Proud) O’Neill.  Some of the ruins remain.

Franciscan Friary – Palace Demesne, the Palace Demesne Armagh, BT60 4EL, 028 3752 1801, www.visitarmagh.com

Armagh Planetarium

Armagh Planetarium is comprised of a Hall of Astronomy, an Eartharium, and an Astropark.

In the Hall of Astronomy the Digital Theatre boasts the world’s most advanced digital projection system, Digistar 3.You can travel to the International Space Station, outwards to Mars in the 3D stereo room and see stereoscopic animations of Solar System exploration.

Armagh Planetarium, College Hill, BT61 9DB, 028 3752 3689, www.armaghplanet.com

Armagh Observatory

Beside the Planetarium is the original Observatory, founded by Archbishop Robinson in 1790. The historical main building is an architectural gem surrounded by beautiful gardens. Visitors have free access to the dome which houses the main telescope. BBC’s Patrick Moore was curator here for many years.

Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Armagh, BT61 9DG, 028 3752 2928, http://star.arm.ac.uk.

St Patrick’s Trian

Saint Patrick’s Trian Visitor Complex features three major exhibitions, basically giving you a potted history of Ireland and particularly the influence of Armagh.

An audio-visual presentation portrays ‘Belief’ throughout the world, with particular emphasis on Armagh as the Christian capital of Ireland.

The Book of Armagh is also on show, albeit only digitally. The interactive displays allow the visitor to find out about this ancient manuscript through touch screen computers.

St Patrick’s Trian, 40 English Street, Armagh BT61 7BA, 028 3752 1801, www.saintpatrickstrian.com

Armagh County Museum

One of the most distinctive buildings in the city, Armagh County Museum’s collection reflects the lives of those people who have lived, worked or are associated with the county. Everything from military costumes to wedding dresses are on show, and an impressive art collection includes works by many famous Irish artists.

Armagh County Museum
The Mall East
Armagh
BT61 9BE
028 3752 3070,
www.armaghcountymuseum.org.uk

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Where to drink
Armagh city is well equipped with drinking establishments, but if you fancy a run in the country (with designated driver or chauffeur) head half a dozen miles south of Armagh city to the town of Tassagh and Basil Shiels Bar & Lounge (80 Dundrum Road, Tassagh, BT60 2QE, 028 3753 8259). This is a unique experience even by Armagh’s exemplary drinking standards. Renowned for selling only bottled beers and spirits (no draught). This adherence to the old ways is a reflection of the character of the hostelry. McKenna’s Bar (21 Lower English Street, Armagh, BT61 7LJ, 028 3752 2645) is the place to get deeply involved in a discussion on GAA sports with the locals, while Damper Murphys (48 Lower Irish Street, Armagh, BT61 7EP (02837 528199) is simply a lovely old city pub.

Where to eat

Friary Restaurant
2 Friary Rd, Armagh, BT60 4FR
028 3751 8888
www.armaghcityhotel.com

Bistro-type restaurant which attracts a good mix of people – locals, business people, theatre-goers and tourists. Traditional fare – steaks, salmon are done to a turn. Main courses from £10.

Manor Park Restaurant
2 College Hill The Mall, Armagh, BT61 9DF
028 3751 5353

An attractive early nineteenth century stone-fronted building beside the entrance to the Observatory is home to this famous French restaurant. The menu includes local seafood, beef and lamb, and also Blacklion duck.

The Pilgrim’s Table
40 Upper English St, St Patrick’s Trian, Armagh BT61 7BA
028 3752 1814

A terrific place for lunch or snacks if you’re visiting the Trian. The menu changes regularly but includes items like potato and leek soup, steaks, sandwiches, salads and Irish bread. Arrive early for fresh scones hot from the oven.

Where to stay

Armagh City Hotel
2 Friary Road
Armagh, BT60 4FR
028 3751 8888,
www.armaghcityhotel.co.uk

This is a fondly regarded establishment in the area, with much frequented, pub and restaurant attached. There’s live music at the weekends (bands etc), and traditional sessions during the week. Prices from £37.50 pps

Charlemont Arms Hotel
57-65 English Street
Armagh, BT617LB
028 3752 2028
www.charlemontarmshotel.com

The Charlemont Arms Hotel is a friendly family-run hotel in the very centre of the historic old part of the city. Perfect for visiting Armagh’s sights.

Currently offering a tremendous deal: £89 for B&B plus two course dinner.

The School House
Armagh Road
Tandragee, BT62 2AB
028 3884 0249

A five star converted cottage with luxurious fittings, elegant furnishings and state-of-the-art kitchen etc, there’s only one unit, which sleeps eight (four bedrooms). Tandragee is some 12 miles from Armagh city. Cost £500 per week.

Teppee Valley
20 Shanecrackan Road
Markethill, BT60 1TS
02837 552092
www.tepeevalleycampsite.co.uk

For something a bit more offbeat, Tepee Valley campsite in Markethill — about 10 miles from Armagh city on the southern edge of Gosford Forest— offers a range of glamping options – a tipi, a festival tent, a yurt, a Gypsy wagon or a round-log cabin. Two night break in a log cabin: £100, Gypsy caravan £120.

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