The name Armagh derives from Ard Macha, or “Macha’s Height”, after the fabled pagan queen, Macha, who, according to legend, built a hilltop fort here 2,500 years ago.
For contemporary Christian Ireland the historical significance of Armagh is centred on the fact that, in the 5th century AD, a missionary from England named Patrick chose the settlement as a base from which to propagate the new religion of Christianity.
The nearby Navan Fort had been the royal capital of the renowned kings of Ulster for over 700 years. The epic Ulster Cycle tales recall their heroic deeds and battles with their traditional enemies, the people of Connaught.
The name Navan – also known as Emain Macha – also derives from the legendary queen. While pregnant, she raced and won against the horses of King Conor before collapsing and dying while giving birth to twins (Emain in Irish). Because of this act, the warriors of Conor were cursed to suffer her birth pangs when Queen Medb of Connaught attacked Ulster during the Cattle Raid of Cooley (Tain bo Cuailgne in Irish).
The Cattle-Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúalnge), customarily set in the 1st century AD, is the central epic of the Ulster cycle. Queen Medb of Connaught gathered an army in order to gain possession of the most famous bull in Ireland, which was the property of Daire, a chieftain of Ulster. Because the men of Ulster are afflicted by the debilitating curse, the seventeen-year-old Cuchulain must defend Ulster single-handedly. The battle between Cuchulain and his friend Ferdiad is one of the most famous passages in early Irish literature.
The Navan Centre, which opened in the summer of 1993, tells the story of Emain Macha, using state-of-the-art computerized audio-visual equipment to bring Irish mythology and archaeology alive.
After seeing the multi-media show in the centre, visitors are encouraged to walk up to the Navan Fort and view the drumlin, or mound, where recent archaeological excavation has uncovered the remains of one of the most impressive early Iron Age structures in Europe. This is a temple, circa 100BC, which, evidence indicates, was deliberately burnt down soon after its construction. Archaeologists are currently trying to determine if this bizarre practice involved human sacrifice, as was indicated by some of the Roman Caesar’s writings about the early Celts and their priesthood caste, the Druids.
Also in Armagh is St. Patrick’s Trian, an innovative complex detailing the evolution of religious beliefs in Ireland from pre-Christian times to the present. In the same complex, “The Land of Lilliput” celebrates Jonathan Swift’s association with the city with a three dimensional interpretive area based on Gulliver’s Travels.
In addition to its reputation as the ancient ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, Armagh today is a major educational, sporting, historic and religious centre and one of the premier tourist destinations of the Emerald Isle.