Armagh occupies a site where the hill country of south Ulster slopes north to the extensive fenlands of Lough Neagh. In an embayment in the drumlin hills of Armagh known as mag Macha (plain of Macha), a cluster of drumlins next to the River Callan surrounds an outcrop of breccias rock (limestone and sandstone), the earliest building stone used in the region. These drumlins provided a crossing place over the River Callan and the neighbouring marshes and several routes converged there.
Eamhain Mhacha (or Navan Fort), at the western edge of Armagh, is believed to have been used as an ancient pagan ritual or ceremonial site. According to Irish methology it was once the capital of Ulster, until it was abandoned during the 1st century. The site was named after the godess Mcha, and as the settlement grew on the hills nearby, it was also named after the goddess — Ard Mhacha means “Macha’s height”. This name was later anglicised as Ardmagh, which eventually became Armagh.
According to tradition, when Christianity spread to Ireland during the mid-400s, Armagh became the island’s “ecclesiastical capital”, as Saint Patrick established his principal church there. Saint Patrick was said to have decreed that only those educated in Armagh could spread the gospel. According to the Annals of the Four Masters in the year 457:
‘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’
In 839 and 869, the monastery in Armagh was raided by Vikings. As with similar raids, their goal was to acquire valuables such as silver, which could often be found in churches and monasteries.
The Book of Armagh came from the monastery. It is a 9th century Irish manuscript now held by the Library of Trinity CollegeDublin. It contains some of the oldest surviving specimens of Irish.
Brian Boru is believed to be buried in the graveyard of the St Patricks Church of Ireland cathedral. After having conquered the island during the 990s, he became High Kings of Ireland in 1002, until his death in 1014. It was Brian Boru that granted the plenary primatial right of ArmaghThe dissolution of the monasteries in and after the 1540s deprived Armagh of any significant status. In 1586 the English military commander, Sir Henry Bagnel, described it as ‘a small village, having the church and other friaries there, for the most part broken and defaced. Already both the English and Irish had contributed to the destruction of whatever buildings remained. The English used Armagh as a forward base against the O’ Neills, even after their defeat at the battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598. By 1603 their strategy succeeded when they constructed a new base beyond Armagh at Charlemont that outmanoeuvred Hugh O’ Neill, earl of Tyrone, and compelled him to evacuate his chief fortress at Dungannon, finally bringing the Nine tears War to a close.
There was no doubt that Armagh would be designated by the scheme for the plantation of Ulster to become the chief town in the county of Armagh. It occupied a commanding position on one of the major routes from Dublin Into the heart of Ulster to become the chief town in the county of Armagh. It occupied a commanding position on one of the majopr routes from Dublin into the heart of Ulster. Its central situation within the county made it a convenient place for the meeting of gentry and would confirm kit as the ideal locationfor administration and courts. Armagh was incorporated as a borough in March 1613.
When Ulster society collapsed as a result of the outbreak of rebellion in October 1641, Armagh as the county town became the major place of refuge for the British settlers. The leader of the Irish, Sir Phelim O’ Neill, who lived at nearby Caledon, negotiated a peaceful surrender of Armagh and appointed a resident, Thady Crawly, as sovereign of the town. However six months later on May 1642 Sir Phelim O Neill burnt the cathedral and town after the Scots army took Newry.
In spite of much destruction Armagh survived and the poll tax of 1660 records a population of 409 inhabitants, and the hearth tax of 1664-5 numbers 94 houses containing 117 hearths. However improvements were set back by the Williamite wars. In 1689 King James II, on his way to Derry, stopped in Armagh. He described the town as ‘pillaged by the enemy and very inconvenient, as well as for himself and his train’
Development From 1700’s
In the early eighteenth century Armagh steadily recovered and in 1714 a ‘return of undertenants of the town and liberty of Armagh’ recorded 183 households. Armagh was still the county town occupying a strategic position on the major roads of south Ulster. The patronage of a succession of very influential primates of all Ireland ensured that Armagh benefited from Government help in the development of the town. By the latter end of the centuary the Mall, the superb terraces of Charlemont place, Beresford Row, Observatory, the restoration of the cathedral and the buildings in its precincts including the library and County Infirmary had been completed by Archbishop Robinson and his architect, Thomas Cooley. Armagh has been an educational centre since the time of Saint Patrick, and thus it has been referred to as “the city of saints and scholars”. The educational tradition continued with the foundation of the Royal School in 1608 and the Armagh Observatory in 1790. This was part of the Archbishop’s plan to have a university in the city. However this never materialised.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century Armagh had acquired the appearance and character of a regional capital, the centre for polite society in south Ulster. It was stated by Sir Charles Coote that the approaches to the town ‘convey to the stranger the most respectable ideas of this district, which are by no means lessened as he enters the city, the streets being principally rebuilt on a regular elevation, and the houses neatly slated, almost all of them having marble window stools, door cases, and parapets of eve courses’ In 1834 Inglis described Armagh as ‘exhibiting unerring signs of improvement. New and handsome rows of houses are seen in several directions, and in the appearance of the private houses and the shops there are evidences not merely of wealth, but of what some would call gentility for want of a better word’
In 1835 William Crolly was appointed Roman Catholic archbishop of Armagh. He had a considerable reputation in his previous ministries in Down and Conor for erecting churches, schools and charitable institutions. His first project in Armagh was to build St Patricks College as a diocesan seminary in 1838. On St Patricks day 1840 he laid the foundation stone for the new cathedral. Crolly wanted to ‘build a cathedral which, in its majestic proportions, would frown down upon thevarious conventicles, as he used to say, that represented shadesof Protestant opinion in the city beneath; and to crown the work he hoped to live to see a convent erected near the cathedral fpr the educationof poor children of the town’ The construction of the cathedral was delayed for several years by the famine and the death in 1848 of the architect, Thomas J duff. Work recommenced in 1854 when J J McCarthy was appointed architect. It was dedicated for worship in 1873 but the magnificent interior decoration was not completed until early in the 20th century. The cathedral was finally consecrated in 1904.