County Armagh is one of the six counties of Northern Ireland, though these are no longer units of local government, and County Armagh is divided between two council districts. It has a long border with the Republic of Ireland, which made it a dangerous place during the Troubles of the late 20th century. All that is in the past, and nowadays you visit for its ecclesiastic and prehistoric sights and attractive countryside.
- 1 Armagh is a historic city with two cathedrals and a prehistoric religious centre
- 2 Newry is a market town between the Mourne Mountains and the Ring of Gullion
- 3 Portadown is industrial, but nearby are 17th century Ardress House and Dan Winter's 18th-century cottage.
- 4 Lurgan has access to the south shore of Lough Neagh
The county is named for its city of Armagh, which derives from the Irish Ard Macha - the heights of Macha. "Magh" also indicates a plain, a common place-name element, and Macha was a fertile goddess of the plains. She had multiple guises and in one legend, the men of Ulster forced her to run a race against horses while she was heavily pregnant. She won, giving birth to twins on the finish line, and cursed those men to suffer weakness whenever they were most vulnerable, such as in battle. The curse lasted for nine generations so it's long ago expired.
The area has held great religious significance since prehistoric times, as shown by the complex at Navan Fort west of Armagh. It was a Neolithic dwelling place but the "roundhouse" is a religious structure from 95 BC. St Patrick founded a church there in 455 AD and declared Armagh to be the ecclesiastic capital of Ireland, and so it has remained for both Roman Catholics and Protestants. The area was traditionally part of the province of Ulster, which was divided into shires - counties - at the end of the Nine Years' War in 1603. North and central County Armagh has the best farmland, with low, slightly rolling countryside and many orchards. This part became settled by Plantations - planned townships of loyal Protestants, many from Scotland, to prevent further Irish rebellion against English rule. Industry developed from the 18th century as the linen trade grew, and there was better transport to Belfast. The south of the county is hilly, with glacial drumlins, rising to Slieve Gullion and the Cooley mountains. This land is less productive and retained a Catholic majority population, creating a social fault line which cracked open during the late-20th-century "Troubles".
In 1921 Ireland was partitioned, with a provisional border based on the counties, and County Armagh was one of the six that joined Northern Ireland, a constituent part of the United Kingdom just like Wales and Scotland. Southern Ireland, with the other 26 counties, nominally also remained in the UK, but London and Dublin somehow weren't on the same page and it moved towards independence. A boundary commission was set up, which recommended transferring south Armagh to Southern Ireland; but it was politically sabotaged, its report was suppressed until 1969, and no changes were made.
"The Troubles", the sectarian division (exacerbated by economic decline) that poisoned Ulster, began in 1969 and continued for 30 years. The position of the border was never a major issue, it was the legitimacy of that border and continuation of a British-ruled part of Ireland that was the basis of conflict, along with other grievances. Still, it did not sweeten local opinion to learn that they might have belonged to the Republic all along. South Armagh became a badlands of smuggling and banditry, with a heavy army presence, a place of concrete lookout turrets and checkpoints and low-flying helicopters. At least 58 police officers and 124 soldiers were killed by the "Provos" — the Provisional Irish Republican Army — in this area, many near the border village of Crossmaglen.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 enshrined non-violence and mutual respect of national borders, and has led to peace; it helped that both UK and Ireland were part of the European Union, fostering economic ties. This peace has enabled Belfast and Derry to regenerate and become mainstream tourist destinations; other areas including County Armagh saw less benefit. In 2011 the counties of Northern Ireland were abolished, and local government was divided into 26 districts that were obviously too small. In 2015 they were re-organised into 11 "super-districts". An area roughly corresponding to the north and central county is now the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon District, while the south is in Newry, Mourne and Down District. The big uncertainty for the area is the effect of Brexit upon relations with the Republic; no-one wants to see the return of a "hard" border.
See Northern Ireland#Get in for routes by air and sea. County Armagh is within a couple of hours drive from any port of entry.
Trains run every 30 min from Bangor via Belfast to Lurgan and Portadown. The Dublin-Belfast Enterprise Train runs eight times a day (5 on Sunday) stopping at Newry and Portadown.
Bus 251 runs hourly from Belfast to Portadown and Armagh, and some continue across the border to Monaghan and Cavan. Bus X4 from Dublin Busáras and Airport runs daily to Armagh and continues to Dungannon, Cookstown and Derry.
By car from Belfast follow M1 west to Lurgan, then A3 through Portadown to Armagh. From Dublin leave M1 / N1 / A1 at Newry and follow A28 towards Armagh. Your main task is to avoid rush hour.
You can get between the towns by bus, but many of the sights are out in the countryside, with little or no public transport. A bike would do, but a car gives you shelter from the rain.
- Armagh has a Catholic and a Church of Ireland (Anglican) cathedral - Brian Boru is buried in the later.
- Navan Fort west of Armagh is a curious structure which demonstrates that the area's religious importance goes back to prehistoric times.
- Slieve Gullion is the 573-m mountain rising steeply near Newry, the central stump of a collapsed caldera. It's an easy but muddy climb.
- Newry Canal: there ought to be a Hall of Fame for Ireland's most shambolic canal construction projects. Pride of place must go to the Royal Canal between Dublin and the Shannon, which greeted each new tranche of investment the way the Corryvreckan greets groups of kayakers from the Orphanage. A silver medal for the Cong canal, built above an underground river, which continued to flow underground so the canal stayed dry. But at the very least an honourable mention for the Newry Canal, built in the 1730s to bring coal from Tyrone via Lough Neagh to the coast. The section from Newry to Portadown is derelict but has a good path for walking and cycling. The final section from Newry to the sea at Carlingford Lough is navigable.
- Lough Neagh can be accessed from Portadown and Lurgan, where Oxford Island is a wildlife reserve. But for water activities you're better going to Antrim on the east bank.
- Road Bowling is the Irish team sport of hurling a small cannonball down a public road. Wherever it stops, the next shot is taken from there, until one team crosses the finish line. It's played especially in south County Armagh and in County Cork so you may well find a game along a back lane, however in 2020 all games are suspended.
- Bar food will often be your best option. There isn't a stand-out restaurant in the county.
- For something different try Uluru, an Australian restaurant in Armagh.
- More baps. If only historians in Newry bought their own baps and sandwiches, they would have seen what was obvious for 200 years to the staff of McCann's Bakery, that the place was a Tudor fortified house on the site of the former abbey. It's been converted into a museum: you'd think there'd be a cafe.
- Cider: County Armagh is the orchard of Northern Ireland. Portadown has two cider breweries you can tour. They don't distill into apple brandy or Calvados-like spirits.
- Ruby Blue Spirits is in Moira, just across the border into County Down, but easily reached from Lurgan. They distill potato vodka and fruit liqueurs.
Standard advice about road safety, protecting valuables, and suitable clothing if you climb the hills.
The border area is nowadays safe; just remember that many people here lost family members in the Troubles so there's still a raw nerve.
- Belfast to the northeast is a lively city full of attractions.
- County Tyrone to the north has the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh, and several prehistoric sites around Cookstown.
- South is historic Drogheda in County Louth in the Republic of Ireland. It's a good base for exploring the Boyne Valley battleground and prehistoric monuments at Newgrange.