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Armagh - The Garden of Ulster
Theres one fair county in Ireland
Few scenes in Ireland are more picturesque than the rolling drumlins of Armagh during apple blossom time. The contrasting pale pink flower of the orchard against a patchwork background of deep green fields, creates a spectacular vista of nature in all its splendor. In the orchards, only the blackbird's singing disturbs the stillness of an Armagh spring morning.
According to historical records, apples have been grown in Armagh for over 3,000 years. Saint Patrick himself is credited with having planted an apple tree at the ancient settlement of Ceangoba, east of Armagh city. But almost as famous as the patron saint, is the Bramley apple. Some of the trees are more than one hundred years old and are still producing the best Bramley. While it's an apple used mainly for cooking it has been used in the making of cider. King William was said to have enjoyed the cider of the Orchard County before his victory at the Boyne.
Today, 90% of the crop is processed, with the remainder of fresh packed apples sold to grocers and retailers. There is also a very successful processing industry for the Bramley, preparing a product range which includes juice, fresh slices, diced, puree and canned apples. Progress, however, is not without change and traditional apple growing in the Orchard County, has visibly moved on.
Micro-technology has created 'semi-dwarfing' where the latest virus-resistant trees are grafted onto smaller rootstocks. The trees are made to grow upwards rather than outwards and the branches are weighted to allow in more light and encourage the tree to produce apples at a much younger age. "It all makes for easier harvesting too", says one apple-grower. "There is very little climbing involved now. Maybe it will encourage a few more women to become apple pickers", he jokes, adding, "It's a well known fact that women are 'softer' with apples than men".
Perhaps there might even be a return to the few apple customs which lingered up to half-a-century ago, such as drinking a toast to the apple trees under the best bearing tree of the year. Of course, the return to tradition may also bring about the superstitious belief that at the time of harvesting the apples, if there's a tree bearing fruit and flowers together, then there will be a death in the family before the next harvest. Or the belief that a wet St Swithin's Day indicates bumper crops of really large apples. In any event, a date to remember if you're going to Ireland is a Sunday in late May which is designated every year as Apple Blossom Sunday. That's when the trees are at their peak and are laden with masses of pink and white flowers.
But there's much more to Armagh than apples; the rolling drumlin landscape of the countryside has always inspired her craftspeople. Whether it is basket weaving or corn sculpture, glass ware, saddlery or pottery, traditional craft skills are thriving. The county is rich in craft history with beautiful bronze sculptures and jewelry dating back to the Bronze Age; the history of the more recent linen industry can also be observed today at the Armagh County Museum and the Navan Centre.
As with just about every county in Ireland, Armagh offers the visitor a wide variety of diversions. Here are a few of the highlights:
Armagh as we know it today began in 444AD when St. Patrick chose Ard Macha as a base from which to spread Christianity. It is possible that Patrick selected it because of its proximity to Navan Fort.
Around Patrick's first church grew colleges, schools and other churches and by the 8th century, the ancient settlement had been transformed into a major centre of learning and firmly establishing Ireland's status as the 'Isle of saints and scholars.'
Wealthy monastic settlements of Ireland attracted the land-starved Vikings. With its reputation of learning and wealth, Armagh became an irresistible target. Between the years of 831 and 1013, the settlement was raided at least 10 times with many clergy, teachers and scholars killed or taken into slavery. The power of the Vikings diminished around the Battle Clontarf in 1014. The High King, Brian Boru died at this battle and he was later buried at Armagh.
Unfortunately, peace did not come with the Viking defeat. With the invasion of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th Century, Armagh became the middle ground between opposing strongholds of the O'Neills in Dungannon, and the Normans of County Down. Between the years of 1184 and 1217 the city was raided 9 times, but despite these attacks Armagh maintained its reputation as a seat of learning and worship. Much of this was due to the influence of scholars such as St. Malachy of Armagh and Archbishop Patrick O'Scannail. The latter was responsible for rebuilding the cathedral and introducing the Franciscan friars to Armagh in 1263. The ruins of this medieval friary can still be seen.
After 200 years of relative stability, the reformation and dissolution of the monasteries caused further conflict. By the turn of the century, Armagh had been ravaged several times by opposing Irish and English forces. In 1608, James I began the plantation of Ulster by bringing in English and Scottish settlers to replace the native land owners. However, trouble broke out again in 1641 and it was not until the end of the Williamite wars that peace came back to the city.
Much of Armagh's present architecture originates from Georgian times. Relatively peaceful conditions during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries enabled farming and other trades to revive and flourish. Archbishop Richard Robinson who was appointed Primate, set out to make Armagh a more worthy Christian capital. Employing some of the finest architects to reach his goal, Robinson's achievements are apparent as one travels around the city.
As a linen producing area, Armagh did not suffer the potato famine to the same extent as other regions. Many however did experience hardship and the building of St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral was delayed as a result.
By the turn of the century, changing economic and social circumstances led to a decrease in Armagh's status as a social and commercial center. With the development of the railway, motor vehicle, and industrial mechanization, markets and fairs lost out to the rapidly growing town of Belfast. Today, Armagh has preserved an air of quiet dignity against considerable odds. The city remains a major educational and administrative center, with a number of light industries and tourism playing an important role in the economy.
Armagh's greatest tourist attraction is now its Planetarium and Hall of Astronomy, which is unique in Ireland.
The low, but commanding hill-top, is surrounded by a bank with a ditch inside, suggesting that it was more a ceremonial than a defensive site. Excavations of the large mound at its center, carried out between 1963 and 1971, showed that a ditched enclosure, some 150 meters in diameter, had been built in the Late Bronze Age.
It was re-occupied in the Early Iron Age, when the first of a series of round houses with large annexes was built which, on a plan, look like a figure eight. The house was rebuilt a total of nine times on the same spot until, around 100 B.C., it was finally replaced by a huge wooden structure consisting of 275 large upright posts arranged in five concentric rings, and with a very tall pole in the centre. This structure may never have been lived in, for it was soon filled with large limestone boulders and set on fire in what may have been one enormous ritual conflagration. Afterwards, it was covered over by sods to form the mound which was carefully rebuilt following the excavation.
The creation of St. Patrick's church at Armagh two miles away was probably at least partially responsible for the abandonment of Navan Fort, though Brian Boru encamped here when he came to Armagh in 1005, and the old traditions associated with the site must have lasted into the later medieval period as Niall O'Neill chose it in 1387 as the location of a house which he built to entertain 'the learned companies of Ireland'.
NAVAN VISITOR'S CENTER
Armagh, as with adjoining Co. Down and Co. Monaghan is a county of gentle hills - the land becoming more hilly towards the south, where Slieve Gullion rises to 1,893 feet. Another dramatic geographic feature is Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Great Britain and Ireland. Covering an area of 153 square miles, five of Northern Irelands six counties border its shores - Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone and Londonderry. With Lough Beg and associated wetlands, it is a designated Ramsar Site - a wetland of international conservation importance. Its western shore, between the Ballinderry and Blackwater rivers, is in county Tyrone. Access points are few. Offshore in winter, enormous rafts of birds include the largest concentration of diving duck in Britain and Ireland. Wintering waterfowl number up to 100,000, including 6% of the world total of whooper swan; internationally signifcant numbers of Bewick's swan, pochard, tufted duck, scaup, goldeneye; and nationally significant numbers of great-crested grebe. These grebe make up an eighth of the British breeding population.
Both birdwatchers and nature lovers alike will enjoy nearby Gosford Forest Park. And for the sightseers, in this area is Gosford Castle where Jonathan Swift spent holidays in the Acheson Manor that preceded the castle; according to one of his letters, Swift helped lay out the gardens.
For winter scenery at its wildest, a drive around the Ring of Gullion is a must. In the beautiful rural setting of Slieve Gullion, you'll find the Ti Chulainn Cultural Activity Centre, close to Crosmaglen. Nearby Forkhill is home to the 1820s Slieve Gullion Courtyard. It stands in Slieve Gullion Forest Park, where you can take a scenic drive and view a passage grave, cairn and volcanic lake, against the striking backdrop of the South Armagh landscape.
Other Points of interest:
Richhill is one the north's prettiest villages, with an elegant castle and church in the middle. It is surrounded by apple orchards.
Blackwater River Park
A lovely 17th-18th century manor (National Trust) with elegant plasterwork by Michael Stapleton in the drawing room, good furniture and a picture gallery. A magnificent 18th century pink-cobbled working farmyard contains a piggery, blacksmith's shop, chicken houses, and a well in the middle.
The Argory (National Trust).
Seagahan Dam is a large artificial lake partly surrounded by woodland, with a scenic shore drive. Loughgall is the centre of the apple orchard area and the village where the Orange Order was founded in 1795: the house in the main street in the village has a collection of regalia and memorabilia.
Tynan has a Celtic Cross marking the entrance to the county; appropriately, it features a carving of Adam and Eve under an apple tree.
LOCAL TRADITIONS & CULTURE
Road Bowls or Long Bullets as it'sometimes called, is a relatively little known, traditional Irish sport that is enjoying a revival. Once played all over Ireland, Road Bowls are now played mainly in Armagh and Cork.
The game is thought to have originated either from workers in the strong local linen industry or it has been suggested, by soldiers who came to Ireland with William of Orange. This would explain why the game has developed independently in Holland and is still played there today.
The sport is played with a 28-oz solid iron ball over local country roads, along the same principle as golf. A bowler has to cover a certain distance usually about 4 kilometres in fewer shots that the opponent.
Contestants match their individual skills in throwing the bowl with optimum speed, controlling the delivery with great accuracy, along a tactically selected 'play-path' on the chosen stretch of normal roadway.
The bowler has the help of his followers and supporters, which includes a manager and a 'road guide' or advisor, who through experience tells the bowler where to aim for best advantage. The bowler is also encouraged by spectators from the often large crowds that gather to watch.
It is the challenge of playing on the naturally undulating and twisting roadways around Armagh and Cork that make the sport so interesting to either play or watch.
The Armagh Rhymers
Rhymers or mummers, strawboys, wrenboys, biddymen, Halloween pranksters and Mayboys may not have been seen in most of Ireland for years, but they are alive and well and living in Co Armagh.
The Armagh Rhymers present a wide selection of traditional plays, always richly interspersed with musical selections. Don't expect an engaging plot; the play is much more an opportunity to rhyme, sing, play, and dance than it is a piece of high drama.
The group is easily recognised by their tall willow and flax masks which are mostly coned shaped but are also often in the shape of mythological creatures.
Abroad they appear at International Children's Theatre Festivals, Celtic Folk Festivals and on the university and college circuit. One of the great attributes of the Armagh Rhymers is that they work tirelessly to bring children of all backgrounds together.
So, if you're in the area, look out for the Armagh Rhymers as they re-enact 'Hunting the Wren' or the legends of CuChulainn and the Red Branch Knights from the ramparts of Emhain Macha.
So, that's it for Armagh and we hope you'ved enjoyed this brief, armchair visit. Next up is Co. Carlow.
Note: We saw the Armagh Rhymers at the Dublin, Ohio Irish Festival. We also made two presentations - one on Irish Wedding Traditions and another on Planning an Irish Wedding. The temperature was 96 degrees; on stage it was 100 or more! After one of our talks, Bridget was chilled and covered in goose bumps. The Rhymers performed in full costume - we half-expected they would collapse, they didn't.
The Round Towers
The Round Towers of Ireland are remarkable among the world's ancient monuments; one author has called them 'Elegant, free-standing pencils of stone.' Today, 65 survive in part or whole. Hand-crafted in native stone and cemented with a sand, lime, horsehair and oxblood mortar - a technique imported from Roman Britain - it's said by many historians that they were built by monastic communities to thwart Viking invaders. And yet, there's reason to believe that the towers were built long before Christianity came to Ireland. Whatever their origins, monasteries did indeed flourish where the round towers existed. And why not. These imposing edifices provided a watch tower, a keep and a refuge.
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March 4, 2011
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