I can’t say I’m a well-travelled woman. I’ve never seen the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China or Christ the Redeemer in Rio.
That said, I lay one small claim – I’ve been to every county in Ireland. Unbeknownst to myself, a few years into this job I’d covered all 32. A feat I was proud of.
However, as I discussed this with a friend recently, it was brought to my attention that there was one potential anomaly – Armagh!
I know we stopped in Newry coming home from a school tour to Belfast, but the question is, had we been on the Armagh or Down side of the city?
With well over 10 years passed since, your guess is as good as mine.
So, my only travel flex was tainted, badly. But, never fear, there is time to right the wrongs of the past. So, when a chance came up to write a travel piece on Armagh, of course I jumped at it.
Any opportunity to go to Northern Ireland, I love. I’ve done a bit of touristing in the other northern counties and they’ve a lot to offer. How would Armagh stack up in comparison?
Clearly, I knew very little about the Orchard County before I visited – the fact that it was located above Louth was about the height of my knowledge.
But I can tell you one thing, it’s very much an underrated, but serious contender when it comes to holidaying.
Armagh is where history and spirituality meet science and discovery.
City and spirituality
I focused a good bit of my sightseeing in and around Armagh city. Now, it’s classed as a “city” because it has two cathedrals.
In terms of population the word city might be slightly deceptive, as there’s just about 15,000 people living there. That said, Armagh certainly packs the punch of a city in terms of things to do.
My first port of call was a tour with Donna Fox Tours. Donna is a mine of information and I’m also pretty sure everyone in Armagh knows her. Everywhere we walked someone greeted her.
As well as seeing the sights – the Mall which was once a racecourse, the libraries, marketplaces and art – Donna gives a great overview of the spiritual importance of Armagh, both in terms of Irish mythology and Christianity.
There are two main figures associated with Armagh – both falling under the umbrella of spirituality – St Patrick and the goddess Macha.
We’ll start with St Patrick, after whom both the Catholic and Church of Ireland cathedrals are named.
St Patrick built his great stone church in Armagh in 445AD and made it the ecclesiastical centre of Ireland. The Church of Ireland Cathedral is built in the same spot today and Brian Boru is also buried on the grounds.
To back track, Armagh was a spiritual centre of importance in Ireland ever before St Patrick. Enter the goddess Macha from whom Armagh gets its name – “Ard Mhacha” as Gaeilge meaning “Macha’s height”. Macha was a goddess of fertility and war.
There is a fantastic mural dedicated to her that you can see from Vicar’s Hill. If you’re into Irish mythology, Armagh is the place for you. Donna does a three-hour walking tour “Unearthing Macha”, which takes an in-depth look at the goddess.
On the subject of Irish mythology, I also paid a visit to Navan Fort. The experience here takes a look at Iron Age Ireland through an interactive re-enactment of the Celts themselves, which I thought was charming.
The tour outlines the importance of Armagh as the capital of Ulster in Celtic times and it also takes you up to Navan Fort or Emain Macha as it’s known as Gaeilge.
One of Ireland’s most important archaeological sites, it’s a large earthwork on top of a drumlin, thought to be a Pagan sanctuary.
Legend says Macha herself scored the outline of the sacred stronghold with her brooch and that Navan Fort was home of the Red Branch Knights, including Cú Chulainn himself, of course.
A tour of Armagh city with Donna Fox Tours costs £60 (€70.50) for four people. See www.donnafoxtours.com for more.
Tours at Navan Fort start at £10 (€11.75 ) for an adult. See www.visitarmagh.com for more.
Science and space
They say life is all about balance, right? So, the yin to the yang of all that spirituality is the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.
Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this, but I’m pretty sure the last time I heard of the Armagh Observatory was when it was on that map of Ireland on Winning Streak back in the day.
So, suffice to say, I hadn’t too many expectations, but my visit to the planetarium was hands down the highlight of my trip. It’s a fantastic experience.
Courtney from the education team gave me a fantastic overview, explaining the importance of the observatory historically. It opened in 1979 and cutting-edge research still continues there today.
The grounds around it are beautiful with installations representing the size of the universe and also the size of the planets to scale.
The planetarium was opened in 1968 and is where tourists like myself and yourself go to learn about the planets. The exhibition on the planets is outstanding. It is really interactive – you can hear Jupiter, smell Uranus, touch Mercury and see the storms on Neptune.
There are also games that allow you to learn about the life cycle of stars and planets. The Dome Shows are another highlight, where you sit and look up at the night sky projected on the roof. They also do dinosaur-themed Dome Shows.
I would recommend the Planetarium to anyone, but for those with children interested in space, this is a must visit.
Most Dome Shows cost £9 (€10.60 ) for an adult and £6 (€7) for children, with access to the exhibition area included www.armagh.space
Now, here’s where things get relaxed and plush. I stayed as a guest of Killeavy Castle Estate. In terms of access, Killeavy is just over an hour from Dublin. It’s outside Newry and about 30 minutes from Armagh city.
The castle was restored with a separate new hotel built to the tune of £12m, opening in 2019. The castle retains its old-style grandeur, while the hotel is modern and spacious. As marketing manager Terry Kelly explains, they don’t try to be something they’re not.
It’s situated on a 350-acre estate, 150 acres of farmland and 250 acres of woodland, which contain walking and cycling trails for guests. There’s a flock of approximately 180 sheep and a herd of 150 longhorn cattle, as well as gardens growing vegetables and herbs. There are also beehives.
It’s fair to say that in this case the farm and the restaurant are inextricably linked. Executive head chef Darragh Dooley is busy preparing for a wedding when I get chatting to him.
He explains that 90% of what’s on the menu comes from either the estate or within a 20 mile radius of it. The menus are designed based on what’s available. In the spirit of sustainability – which is a central ethos of the hotel and its owners, the Boyle family – they also pickle and preserve some of what’s grown to prevent waste. The meat is dry-aged in the farm shed.
I am treated to the seven-course tasting menu in the restaurant. The food is beautiful, the Shorthorn beef outstanding. If you like food to be an experience, then this is for you.
A letter comes out at the start explaining the ethos behind the meal, there’s teapots of kombucha, glasses of sorbet wedged in logs and hand painted boxes of chocolates.
The bread is presented on a slate from the roof of the old stable house on the site where the hotel is built. So as well as incorporating the farm into the meal, a nod is also given to the heritage of the building.
This theme is seen throughout the hotel. There are photos of the old stable house and behind the reception desk is a picture of graffiti, which was once in that same spot before the building was rebuilt.
I would describe Killeavy not just as somewhere to stay, but as an experience.
While it’s suitable for families, I would recommend it more so to couples or groups of friends looking to get away, with relaxing and rejuvenating in mind.
A final word, the spa pool is fantastic. Anything with an outdoor jacuzzi gets my vote. And yes, it was Instagrammed.
Room rates at Killeavy Castle Estate start at £220 (€259) for bed and breakfast. www.killeavycastle.com
There was one thing in Armagh high on my to-do list that I didn’t get around to and that is a hike up Slieve Gullion, which is right beside Killeavy.
The Ring of Gullion and the nearby Mourne Mountains in Co Down (both of which are classed as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) are fantastic for hikers.
There was just too much to do, which I suppose is a good complaint, and means I’ll have to come back again. See you soon Armagh.
Tour guide Donna Fox gives us her top tips from Armagh city.
Stay: The Armagh City Hotel and the Charlemont Arms Hotel.
Eat: Toni’s Bar & Grill, Lower English St.
Get outside:The Church of Ireland Cathedral Gardens, Astropark in the grounds of Armagh Observatory and Planetarium or the Mall. They’re all close to the city centre. We’re spoilt in Armagh for green spaces, there’s so much to choose from.
Culture file: The Marketplace Theatre & Arts Centre, Market St and Aonach Mhacha (Armagh’s Culturlann) or Shambles area.
Shop: Shop til you drop in the great range of independent ladies’ boutiques on English St, Scotch St and Thomas St.