All that is left of Navan Fort, off the A28, near Armagh City, is a huge circular mound like an upturned basin, with a ring ditch.
Sites like the Giant’s Ring in Belfast are more visually spectacular, but Navan Fort is the most important archaeological and historical site in Northern Ireland. There is free access to the Fort, but to appreciate the site’s history it is best to go into the Navan Centre, which has been creatively built into the side of a grass bank, to look like a large Bronze Age cairn.
The centre has detailed exhibitions displaying finds from the fort and the nearby man made pond, the King’s Stables. These include the skull of a Barbary Ape, which showed that the people at the site were advanced enough to trade with Africa, the skull of a huge hound and a long curved trumpet horn. There is also an exhibition about the excavation of the fort between 1961 and 1971, with old photographs and an enigmatic hologram showing how the fort’s appearance changed from the Bronze Age to the present day.
Visitors are also introduced to the legends of the site with an entertaining film in the audiovisual theatre.
A small city, Armagh is said to date back to 608 years after the biblical flood, when it was named after Queen Mhaca, wife of Nevry as Ard Mhaca, meaning ‘the height of Mhaca.’
One of the oldest settlements in Ireland it became a prestigious centre for religion and learning in the Dark Ages. It still has two Saint Patrick’s Cathedrals, one set on the site of his primacy, in 445AD.
Armagh’s main attraction is its planetarium, which is well set up to educate and entertain visitors with insights into the mysteries of Space. It also retains some attractive Georgian streets.
Armagh Planetarium (Armagh)
The Armagh Planetarium on College Hill, above the still working 200 year old Observatory, makes astronomy and space exploration interesting even if you aren’t a Treky (Star Trek addict). Its exhibition hall has lots of interactive displays, original star gazing instruments from the Observatory and high tech equipment on show.
You can see pictures from the NASA telescope, and in the Earthanarium Gallery, you can spy on areas of Northern Ireland by way of a satellite link-up. The best part of the Planetarium is the video room, where you lie back in reclining seats to watch a lifelike show about the stars projected into the hemispherical ceiling.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedrals (Armagh)
The Ecclesiastical Capital of All Ireland for both the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, Armagh has two cathedrals. Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland, the seat of the Church of Ireland Primate of all Ireland, was built on the City’s main hill, where Saint Patrick declared his primacy and first bishopric.
In 445AD, after converting the local chieftain Daire, he built his Cathedral on the hill. Armagh strongly challenges Downpatrick’s claim to the grave of Saint Patrick and he is supposed to be buried somewhere in the hill, where his book, bell and staff were supposedly found. Queen Macha, wife of Nevry, is also purported to be buried in the side of the hill and the bones of Irish King, Brian Boru, who defeated the Vikings in 1014, are also said to be buried under the church according to a plaque in the north transept.
The cathedral now on the site was built in the 13th century but then restored in the 19th century. Medieval gargoyles cling to the Cathedral roof, and it has a worn 11th century Celtic High Cross, but the walls of the old church have been covered with dull sandstone.
There is also a collection of ancient objects and stone statues including a sheila-n-gig with ass’s ears, which could represent Queen Macha and the Stone-Age Tandragee Idol in the Chapter House.
The seat of the Catholic Primacy of all Ireland, the huge Gothic Revival style St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral on a hill off Cathedral Road, took 37 years to be completed between 1836 and 1873 because building stopped during the Potato Famine. Its twin spires tower over the stone steps up to the door and its interior is elaborately decorated with brightly coloured mosaics.
St Patrick’s Trian Centre (Armagh)
St Patrick’s Trian heritage centre on English Street has an exhibition detailing Armagh’s history as a centre of religion and learning and a Gulliver’s Travels childrens’ exhibition, which has a model of Gulliver tied to the ground with Lilliputians climbing over him.
A lifesized Gulliver also tells the story of his adventures in Lilliput.
Gulliver’s Travels (Armagh)
The public library, founded by Archbishop Richard Robinson, near the Church of Ireland cathedral has a first edition copy of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels signed by the author. It also has an early edition of Raleigh’s The History of the World and etchings, old coins and bells collected by the Archbishop.
Palace Stables Heritage Centre (Armagh)
The ruins of the 13th century Armagh Franciscan Friary and the Palace Stables Heritage Centre stand in the grounds of the Palace Demesne, built in 1769 by Primate of Ireland, Archbishop Robinson.
The Palace, off Friary Road, is now used for council offices and the Centre has the tourist office, a craft shop, cafe and children’s playroom. In the old stables there are lifesized models depicting a party thrown by the Archbishop. There is also a tunnel from the Palace to a separate kitchen, built it is said because the Archbishop hated the smell of cooking.
The Mall (Armagh)
The Mall is a pretty treelined park, set in streets of Georgian terrace houses designed by the famous 19th century Armagh architect, Francis Johnston. The park used to be a venue for horse racing, cock fighting and bull baiting and now hosts an occasional cricket match and has a war memorial at one end
The County Museum (Armagh)
The County Museum on the east side of the Mall has a collection of local artefacts, antiques, stuffed animals and a small art gallery which has a number of oil paintings, pastels and cartoon sketches by Irish poet, George Russell.
The Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum (Armagh)
Off the east Mall, The Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum is full of weapons, uniforms and medals.
The Shambles Market held on Market Street on Tuesdays and Fridays consists of a huge number of stalls, mostly selling clothes.
Lough Neagh and Craigavon lakes
The southern shores of Lough Neagh and the Craigavon lakes, near exit 10 off the M1, are popular for watersports, fishing and bird watching.
The Lough Neagh Discovery Centre at the Oxford Island Peninsula, part of a National Nature Reserve, has audiovisual, computer and interactive displays about the Lough’s history, wildlife, walking trails and birdwatching and a cafe and craft shop.
The Centre also has bird hides set up on the reedy edge of the Lough from which you can see ferruginous and ring-necked ducks, red-crested pochard, smew, great-crested grebes, herons and whooper and Bewick’s swans, which breed nearby.
Many other birds live in the grasslands and wet meadows around the Reserve including blackcap, grasshopper warblers and redwing. The Centre also runs guided birdwatching and educational events throughout the year.
The area around the Slieve Gullion Mountain in the south west of Armagh is the most scenic part of the county. The mountain is surrounded by a ring of foothills called the Ring of Gullion, and can be climbed from either the south, from Killevy, or the north, from Camlough.
To the south, off the B113, the Slieve Gullion Forest Park on the mountain’s lower slopes, has a 13km scenic drive through the coniferous forest with views over the Ring of Gullion.
There are two Bronze Age cairns on the summit of Slieve Gullion and the mountain is also strongly associated with the naming of the legendary Ulster warrior, Cuchulainn. Slieve Gullion means ‘the mountain of Culainn,’ the king whose dog Cuchulainn killed, before being named Cuchulainn, meaning the Hound of Ulster, himself.
On the lower slopes of Slieve Gullion, there is a holy well dedicated to Saint Monenna, the founder of a fifth century nunnery which stood on the site of the Killevy churches. The first Killevy church was built in the 12th century and the other was built onto its side in the 15th century. Saint Monenna’s reputed grave is marked by a granite slab outside the churches.
Benburb Valley Park
The Blackwater River, which was very popular for salmon fishing until a recent pollution incident caused a serious fish kill, runs through the Benburb Valley Park off the B128.
Benburb Castle founded by Shane O’Neill, added to by British planters and now restored in its 17th century state is also in the park, along with the Benburb Valley Heritage Centre which is in a restored linen mill.
Gosford Forest Park
Gosford Forest Park near Markethill off the A28, has a small poultry zoo, forest trails, a mock Norman Castle and a picnic area.
The Peatlands Park, just north of junction 13 on the M1 has a visitors centre telling you all about Ireland’s peat bogs which is particularly aimed at children. There is a 15 minute train ride around the park on track once used to transport the peat.
The Park has a bog garden containing unique plants which grow in Ireland’s bogs including orchids, tiny insect eating sundew and bog cotton. There are also two lakes, a wood and an orchard.
Off the B77 near Loughgall, Ardress House is a 17th century Neoclassical manorhouse, which has ornate plasterwork and a collection of paintings as well as a working farmyard and smithy in its wooded grounds.
The Argory – Argory House
The Neoclassical Argory house has original furniture and acetylene gas lighting and is set in 125 hectares of woods off the B28.
The small Orange Order museum in Loughgall Village is sited in a former pub near Diamond Hill, where the Orange Society was first founded after the Peep O’Day boys won ‘the Battle of the Diamond,’ in 1795.
Calling it a battle is rather an overstatement, as it entailed an attack on an inn by a group of Catholic Defenders, as part of a long running dispute over competition in the linen market. The Protestant Peep O’Day Boys were armed and waiting in the inn and killed 12 of the Defenders in the following skirmish.
The Museum, set up in 1961, contains old sashes, weapons, banners, and some not so old UVF armbands. The key of the museum is available from the house next door.