Dublin may be the capital city of the Republic of Ireland and Belfast the capital of Northern Ireland, but Armagh is the ecclesiastical capital of the whole of the island of Ireland. The city is often referred to as the city of saints and scholars. St. Patrick is the most famous since he based his mission and centred his mission activities of the nascent Christian church here. St. Brigit is also associated with the city; a holy well dedicated to her is within the grounds of the City Hotel and Conference Center.
Although the population of Armagh District Council, including Craignavon and Banbridge, is just shy of 53,000, the city itself has a modest population of around 15,000. It is deemed a city because it has a cathedral. It has two cathedrals actually, both rather confusingly known as St. Patrick's Cathedral. Like that other ecclesiastical city Rome, Armagh is also built on seven hills. Both cathedrals are prominent on the horizon having been built on a height.
The twin spires of the Roman Catholic cathedral dominate the western side of the city. Construction of the cathedral began in 1840 and was finally consecrated in 1904. The Gothic Revival cathedral was a direct response to the passage of the Act of Catholic Emancipation in Ireland in 1829, which Daniel O' Connell campaigned for during the 1820s.
The more ancient medieval Church of Ireland St. Pat's in the centre of the town and is the seat for the Anglican, or Episcopal, Church of Ireland who took over the cathedral after Henry VIII’s break with Rome. The High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, was buried in the church after being slain in the battle of 1014. St .Eithna is also alleged to be buried here.
But what of the scholars? Well, the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, was educated at Armagh’s Royal School. But long before the 17th century scholars were attached to the culdees in the town. Culdee is the anglicized Irish Céle Dé. These were monastic communities dedicated to creating music for divine worship and performing services to the sick.
The town center is a confluence of Irish, Scotch and English streets; these were associated with the Culdee ‘schools’ that were founded by Irish, Scottish or English monks. While there were other culdees in Ireland, Armagh’s Culdee tradition lasted right up until the time that Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.
The name Armagh is derived from the Irish Ard Macha, meaning Macha's Height. Macha was a legend goddess and the 'height' referred to is now known as Emain Macha or Navan Fort on the outskirts of the city, out the Monaghan road. This is an ancient monument and is man-made. Archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast excavated the site over decades in the late 20th century, adding to the scholarship regarding prehistoric Ireland.
There is also the Planetarium with its ongoing astronomical studies. You can visit the Planetarium and contemplate the cosmos yourself.
Although there is certainly evidence that scholarship is alive and well in Armagh today, the saints may be less in evidence in contemporary Armagh.