Armagh - Story of Belfast

BELFAST cannot claim to be counted as belonging to the olden times. It is a very modern place in comparison with some of the towns near us, but it may perhaps be that very fact that partly makes our city what it is to-day. It sometimes may be that a place of older name and fame is quite content to rest upon that ancient glory, and to consider that the halo of the past will linger over it for ever, and therefore there is no occasion for modern improvement. In this twentieth century the haloes of the past wear thin, and decay may set in, and glorious tradition may not prove enough to flourish on. At the same time we cling to the memories of our former greatness, and in their innermost consciousness, the old inhabitants of our neighbouring towns consider many of Belfast's innovations perhaps—well, just a little vulgar and presumptuous; but when old and modern are alike satisfied with the existing state of affairs, then all is well.

I remember one ancient town where the inhabitants sternly refused to allow one plate-glass window in any shop front, and where the street lamps were only lighted when some special entertainment was taking place. On all other nights, gay and frivolous folk were obliged to wend their way homewards after dark in a very dim religious light.

Henry Kirke White must have been thinking of Ireland when he wrote:

Where are the heroes of the mighty past?

Where the brave chieftains, where the mighty ones

Who flourished in the infancy of days?

All to the grave gone down.

Ireland had heroes of fighting fame great and many, but our country was known all over Europe as the home of learning and cultivation of the fine arts. Historians say that for centuries Ireland was the university for Europe. Camden says, "The Saxons flocked from all quarters to Ireland, which was a mart of literature." It is recorded as a mark of respect to many great men, "He was sent to Ireland to be educated." Julius Caesar said "Go to Ireland for information," and this is the testimony of very many famous historians. There were four of the most famous colleges or schools of learning in the North. One of these was at Armagh, one in Newry, one in Bangor, and another in Downpatrick. We shall take Armagh first, as it is still the most important. It is a small place to have so great a history. It figures early and prominently in the most ancient literature of the country. It claims to have been the metropolis and head of the kingdom, as it certainly was the capital of Ulster, from 353 years before the Christian era. Ard Macha was the high place where the kings of Ulster were crowned for hundreds of years. The first Queen Ardmacha lived 1,000 B.C. Queen Macha of the golden hair, who built the great palace of Emania, was killed in battle with three hundred of her men, 350 B.C. The palace and fortress covered twelve acres, now known as Navan Fort, one mile west of the city. Armagh was the centre and battle-ground of numberless conflicts. It was plundered and laid waste many times, and seventeen times it was burned.

St. Patrick resided in Armagh for nine years. and made it the primatial city. He founded the cathedral in the year 445. It was burnt down three times, but was always rebuilt. There was also a monastery near his own house, and attached to it was the famous College which became one of the most celebrated seminaries in Europe, and sent out learned men to diffuse knowledge throughout the civilised world; 7,000 students were studying there at one time. In the year 1162, it was decreed at a synod of Ulster that no one should lecture publicly on theology except such as had studied in Armagh. In the year 1170, the same synod in Armagh passed a decree that redounds to the honour of our country, and it is a fact that is not so widely known as it ought to be. The Primate and bishops assembled, said, "Freedom was God's best gift to man, and no one had a right to hold his fellow man in bondage," and every slave in Ireland was set free.

Ireland was the first country in the civilised world to set the example, and from the year 1170, no slave was kept in Ireland. In the year 1832 Wilberforce brought his bill into Parliament for England to free her slaves, and his bill became law in the year 1836. Long centuries had elapsed after Irish slaves were freed until the same law was passed in England, and we read of auction sales when fifty men and fifty women were sold in the market-place in Hull. In Ireland we may well be proud that we possess a cleaner record. The Cathedral has been rebuilt, and added to by successive primates, and is full of interest. It is on the site of an older church, and the crypt is still to be seen. An ancient figure of the patron saint with his crozier was found in a compartment surmounted with shamrocks, which is the earliest existing record of our national emblem, and also a figure of St. Peter with his keys and surmounted by a cock was discovered in the wall. There were three friaries and two convents in Armagh and many ancient churches, in one of which St. Lupita, Patrick's sister, was buried. A monastery dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul furnished part of the building material for one of the Presbyterian churches. The Roman Catholic Cathedral crowns the summit of another hill, and it is a very stately edifice standing in a beautiful situation. A former Primate, Dr. Robinson, was a great benefactor to the city, for he erected the Library, the Palace, the College and many fine and useful buildings. But his name will always be associated with the Observatory, Museum, and astronomical instruments. A medal struck in honour of Dr. Robinson bears this most appropriate inscription, "The Heavens declare the glory of God," and the same words are also cut on the front of the building. The present Royal School of Armagh still keeps up the old tradition of learning and culture for which the city was famous. It was founded in 1627 by Charles I.

The history of the fair city of Armagh is full of intense interest, and it was here the great hall of "Craobh Ruadh" was built, where the order of knighthood was established. The Knights of the Red Branch were the finest body of men who ever lived in Ireland. A townland is still called "Creeve Roe " and the adjoining moat is known as the King's Stables. Indeed we may most truly say that " Over all the land lie crumbling graves."

King Alfred the Great wrote a poem in the year 685, which can be seen in the British Museum. He was educated in the school at Newry and visited Armagh before returning to England. He mentions the beauty of the great church built by St. Patrick.

We may give one verse as it is translated by O'Donovan:

I found in Armagh the splendid,

Meekness, wisdom, circumspection,

Fasting in obedience to the Son of God,

Noble prosperous sages.

Archbishop Reeves tells us that "no city is so rich in historical associations and yet has so little to show, and so little to tell in the present day." He says St. Patrick's first church is now represented by the Bank of Ireland. The Provincial Bank come closes to St. Columba's and St. Bride's shares its honours with a paddock. St. Peter and St. Paul's afford stabling and garden produce to a modern "rus in urbe" and St. Mary's is lost in a dwelling house. Few writers have more authority than he, and none knew more about Armagh. For five hundred years the city was plundered and burned, and it was rebuilt again and again, so we need not wonder that much of its ancient glory was lost. Enough still remains to make the primatial city a place full of memories and a place to be proud of.

It was a sad day for Ireland when Brian Boru and his son were buried in the Cathedral in the year 1004. They lay in state surrounded by some of their dead warriors for twelve days. Armagh suffered its worst damage from Shane O'Neill in 1566.

Some wonderfully beautiful mementoes of the learning and sanctity of the olden times are still preserved. The "Book of Armagh," a Latin MS. of the New Testament, with Memoirs of St. Patrick, written in the year 807, with its splendidly embossed leather satchel is in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. The "Bell of Armagh " which is believed to have belonged to St. Patrick is in the Royal Irish Academy. Its costly and beautiful shrine was made in 1091.

In the year 1721, Primate Lindsay presented a peal of six bells to the Cathedral. These were said to be among the most melodious in the Empire. On the first was engraved "1721. When we do ring I sweetly sing." On the second "1721." On the third "Peace and good neighbourhood."

On the fourth "God preserves the Church." On the fifth "Abraham Rudhall of the city of Gloucester bell-founder." On the sixth "Ded. R. Tho. Lindsay, Pr. Div. Archiep. Arm. Tot. Hib. Pr. and Metr. 1721."

The "Font" in the Cathedral is a facsimile of the original one which is now in the British Museum.

One of the most beautiful views that could be imagined is the scene from the Church Walk at St. Mark's. Time's effacing finger has swept away many of the ancient landmarks, but the lapse of years only deepens the charm of the primatial city.

It is a place on which memory loves to linger, the magnificent trees, the old city slumbering at one's feet, the blue encircling hills, the Royal School with its garden, famous even in that country of beautiful gardens, the Deanery, the Observatory on Knockbuy Hill, the "Yellow Hill" covered once with buttercups, and Knockmeala, the "Hill of Honey" where so many wild bees are found. The old Palace grounds with Lady Anne's Walk and the two Cathedrals high over all, stand like guardian angels crowning the distant heights.

The winding river gleams through the trees, the golden sunshine and singing birds complete the sweet remembrance and the vivid picture still lives.