When St Patrick began his mission to spread Christianity throughout Ireland, he chose a site close to Emain Macha (Navan Fort), the nerve centre of pagan Ulster, for his power base. In AD 445 he built Ireland’s first stone church on a hill nearby (now home to the Church of Ireland cathedral), and later decreed that Armagh should have pre-eminence over all the churches in Ireland.
By the 8th century Armagh was one of Europe’s best-known centres of religion, learning and craftwork. The city was divided into three districts (called trians), centred around English, Scottish and Irish streets. Armagh’s fame was its undoing, however, as the Vikings plundered the city 10 times between AD 831 and 1013.
The city gained a new prosperity from the linen trade in the 18th century, a period whose legacy includes a Royal School, an astronomical observatory, a renowned public library and a fine crop of Georgian architecture.
Armagh is associated with some prominent historical figures. James Ussher (1580–1655), Archbishop of Armagh, was an avid scholar who is best known for pinning down the day of the Creation to Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC by adding up the generations quoted in the Bible, a date which was accepted as fact until the late 19th century. His extensive library became the nucleus of the great library at Trinity College, Dublin. Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and author of Gulliver’s Travels, was a frequent visitor to Armagh, while the architect Francis Johnston (1760–1829), responsible for many of Dublin’s finest Georgian streetscapes, was born in the city.