County Armagh is a green rolling stretch of gentle hills and small villages. It is also one of Northern Ireland’s most rebellious Republican regions—police watchtowers are atop some hills, the occasional barracks (mostly empty these days), and until a couple of years ago, you could expect to hear the rhythmic thumping of military helicopters flying over.
Small and manageable Armagh City is a handsome cathedral city. Its name, from the Irish ard Macha (Macha’s height) refers to the pagan queen Macha who is said to have built a fortress here. It’s no coincidence that St. Patrick chose to base himself here when he was spreading Christianity—it was a bold challenge to the native paganism. The simple stone church that he built in the 5th century is now the giant Church of Ireland cathedral—clearly, his plan worked, at least to some extent. Armagh City actually has two St. Patrick cathedrals—one Catholic and one Protestant—and each is the seat of its primate.
The town has the kind of dignity you might expect in a seat of religion, with grand public buildings, huge churches, and big Georgian town houses along the Mall. Buildings, doorsteps, and sidewalks are made of delightful pink, yellow, and red local limestone that make the city glow even on a dull day.
Just to the east of the town center is The Mall, a park with an interesting history. It was used for such low activities as horse racing and cock fighting until the 18th century, when an archbishop converted it into a lush park surrounded by Georgian buildings. The courthouse at its northern end was destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993, but then rebuilt. It dates from 1809, and was designed by a local architect, Francis Johnston, who went on to create much of Dublin’s famous Georgian architecture. Opposite the courthouse, the gloomy Armagh Gaol, was built in 1780 and remained in use until 1988.
A short distance outside the city, the small town of Bessbrook has historic cottages, the forests of Slieve Gullion, and ancient Navan Fort, the most important archaeological site in Ulster.