Armagh; The Orchard County. Known for its re-bust nature, historic scenes and, of course, its many acres of orchards, Armagh hides away in the south of Northern Ireland but this little-big city packs a punch.

The county is home to around 175,000 people, scattered throughout her many towns and villages and is the second most southernly county of Northern Ireland.

The Armagh Name

Like many places across the Island of Ireland, names have adapted and changed as times moved on, however, Armagh did not stray too far from its original name or meaning. 

Commonly referred to being placed upon 7 hills, Armagh is derived from the Irish word Ard; meaning height in English. This, paired with Macha, an Irish surname, created the name we know today as Armagh.

The Curse of Macha

Why is Macha associated with Armagh and why was the city named after it? Before Christian times, Ireland’s pagan countryside was filled with tales of folklore, myths and legends. These stories and tales lived through the word of mouth due to poverty and lack of education throughout the land, thus, instilling such stories in the heart of everyday life for the local people. Macha features in one of these stories. It is well known that Ireland was once ruled by many kings in different kingdoms across the land, who looked after their people and helped build the areas we see today; Celtic tales of gods and goddesses were well known. The particular story of Macha and her curse starts with a great feast which was organised by the King of Ulster, Conor McNessa. Important guests from across the land travelled to attend the feast, including Crunnic and his wife- The unknown goddess Macha.

Crunniuc spent the evening boasting of her incredible abilites , including the speed in which she could run; This angered the king and in doing so, he ordered Macha to prove herself against his Arabian horses.

Macha was concerned by this because at the time of the race she herself was heavily pregnant and such an event could end her life. The king did not care for the woman’s health and threatened Crunniuc’s life if she was not to take part.

To everyone’s dismay, Macha ran the seemingly unfair race and outpaced the kings horses, however, this would be the last thing she did, as the event took such a toll on her body she gave birth. Birthing twins at the site, Macha placed both a curse and blessing on Ulster and Conor McNessa, symbolising the birth of both children.

The men of Ulster were blessed with great strength and power, however, if Conor was to be happy with her death then the men of Ulster, in their greatest hour of need and when the province is under threat, will feel weak and vulnerable like that of a woman close to childbirth.

Many years later and if Conor is still in place, the Curse will strike the heart of Ulster during one of the most famous tales from the Ulster Cycle, the Táin Bó Cúailnge or Cattle Raid of Cooley. You can find out for yourself the final outcome by visiting the Navan Centre and Fort, also known as Emain Macha.

The Irish Saint

Possibly the most famous of visitors to Armagh is Saint Patrick. Patrick spent many years in Ireland during his crusade of bringing Christianity to the land, which brought him to Armagh. Despite being known to build the first church in Armagh, it is not the one most people think; Patrick did build the Church of Ireland Cathedral, however, this was not the first. Patrick initially built a small church near today’s Scotch Street after local chieftain Daire denied his initial request to build the church on the hill which gave Armagh its name (the Height of Macha). Becoming the centre of Irish Christianity, Daire eventually granted Patrick permission to build a stone church on the current site back in 445AD.

The King Who Called Armagh Home

Although the tales of Macha, the Red Branch Knights and others within the Ulster Cycle may (or may not) stand to be myths and legends, but the names of those mentioned live throughout the area with many townlands and nearby villages still wearing the names of those involved.

As previously mentioned, many different kings and queens ruled the different provinces of Ireland, with many passing through Armagh to other places: This one chose to stay.

Brian Boru was born in Killaloe, County Clare, around 940AD. His father was King of Thomond and the leader of the Dalcassian tribe. Unfortunately Brian’s father was killed by vikings who invaded Ireland, leaving his older brother, Mathghamhain, to become King. During this time, Mathghamhain, alongside brother Brian, fought back against the vikings invasion, winning back Cashel. 

For this, Mathghamain became both King of Cashel and Munster. Mathghamhain was killed shortly after this time, allowing Brian to ascend to the throne. He conquered vast parts of Ireland during his reign which led him to Armagh in 1005. He fell in love with the land and it is written that he asked to be buried to the north side of the now Church of Ireland Cathedral, despite being from Killaloe.

Brian was killed when in his 70’s in a tent nearby the Battle of Clontarf; It is said that he is buried in a copper or marble coffin near to the now site of the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh.

Thanks to Leigh from the Church of Ireland Cathedral, Shane, the Dean of Armagh (pictured below left), Donna Fox of Donna Fox Tours (pictured below right) and Donagh McKeown for providing a wealth of information regarding the background of Armagh on my recent tour of the City. I highly recommend hopping on a walking tour to really take in the extra step of knowledge on your visit, especially within these areas. 

For a relaxing weekend, or longer stay, Armagh is the ideal hub to explore culture, heritage, modern entertainment and delicious food!

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