Two St. Patrick's - Armagh - Twin Symbols of Conflict and Unity

St. Patrick's Cathedral - Armagh - Roman Catholic
Coming into Armagh from the Monaghan Road one gets a dramatic view of the city skyline, especially at twilight. The view is dominated by two buildings on two hills - St. Patrick's Cathedral and St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Both are diocesan bishoprics, both built on holy ground and both tied to legends of St. Patrick. One is the Church of Ireland cathedral built on the ancient holy site where St. Patrick is believed to have built his first stone church in the 5th century. The other is a stunning Gothic-style Roman Catholic Cathedral, its cornerstone laid on St. Patrick's Day 1840. It was completed in the early 20th century, with a serious halt to the construction during the Great Hunger.

St Patrick's Cathedral - Armagh - Church of Ireland

One view of that skyline speaks volumes. The twin pinnacles of the city bolstering two similar houses of worship whose congregations have withstood centuries of conflict and division. Some say they mirror the ancient story of the twins of Macha, birthed after an exhausting (and pointless) race. She cursed the land as her revenge.

My first entry into Northern Ireland through Armagh in April of 1998.  just a week after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.  I didn't know much about the conflict except for what I acquired listening to Irish ballads.  I always wanted to see that movie with Daniel Day Lewis about the Northern Irish Catholic father and son, but never managed to get my hands on copy.  I knew our relatives were from Derry, and  we were a part of this genetic landscape.  I had great interest in the culture, people and places here, but had little information. I entered Northern Ireland full of curiosity.

We checked into Padua House Bed and Breakfast, run by Kathleen O'Hagan.  It's a brownstone, townhouse located on the main road at the base of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral.  Kathleen was (and is) one of the most hospitable hosts I've encountered in all my travels.  Her home was simple and warm as was her sense of hospitality.

Notice the Details.  Mark the Coincidences.  Chart Synchronicity 

If we are to grow spiritually from travel, noticing coincidences is part of the learning. I keep a log when I travel and jot down events, feelings and coincidences.  Synchronicity is the language of the spirit.  It's when unrelated events seem to come together in a common purpose that we know we are touching the otherworld.  The events may not speak to us until long after the journey is over.  Tracing the path in words and recollections can reveal wonders later.

Here's an excerpt from my travel log written the first night in Armagh.  

April 19, 1998 - 11pm ~ Armagh
I write from a bedroom located in Padua House, a B&B in downtown Armagh. I am lying on a bed in front of a large window. I was startled when I pulled back the drapes. Consuming every inch of the glass is a spectacular view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Catholic) - a prominent sight in the Armagh skyline. If I turn off the incandescent light in my room I can still write by the lights coming off the Cathedral - and when I look up, I'm  consumed by the awe of those twin spires and that Gothic face.

Three blocks from the Catholic Cathedral, skyline is the CI Cathedral, also named St. Patrick’s. It was from that hill that St. Patrick himself led the Irish Church in 5th century, and became noted for being one of the only leaders in history to spread Christianity throughout a nation without inflicting or creating bloodshed in the process. The bodies of Brian Boru and his eldest son rest in the ground here, noted by a plaque on the Cathedral wall.

The Armagh skyline with these two holy places climbing out of the landscape speaks volumes about the Irish people. Two separate groups reaching for the same prize, claiming the same name, but can't seem to reach each other. 

Coincidences and events - 

  • I'm arriving in Northern Ireland for the first time one week after the Good Friday Agreement was reached - a turning point in deescalation of violence between Catholics and Protestants.  Also one week to the day from Easter Sunday.
  • I am staying at Padua House named for my close spiritual friend [Anthony of Padua] - a patron of the owner as well.
  • My room has is the smallest in the house, but has the magnificent view of the Cathedral and is the only room in the house with a view of the Cathedral. No one appreciates the view of a holy place like me.
  • Mrs. O’Hagan served us tea before we retired to our rooms. Larry and Sheila [my traveling companions] were exhausted but I was wound up. I was invited  to watch television with the family and we watched In the Name of the Father, a film about the troubles in Northern Ireland.  Seeing this movie with a Northern Ireland family  who had their house - Padua House - destroyed by a bomb was strange - but strangley meaningful. 
  • Just as I conclude writing these coincidences and events, the cathedral bells begin to chime marking the midnight hour.

What wonderful gifts .... Mrs. O’Hagan, Pauda House, In the Name of the Father, the view of the Cathedral, the sound of the bells.

This moment stands still in time. I figure I'll always remember it. Who knows for what?


The next day we saw the occupying forces crouching in doorways, carrying machine guns as they lingered in Portadown and Armagh. Ornate graffiti with militant images, razor wire around buildings, and IRA signage was a eerie shift from the loud tourist welcome we experienced in the Republic [of Ireland].  But I loved that visit to the north.  I never felt unsafe.  I knew the anger was not with tourists.  My travel log entry from that day was more vivid than my memory.

April 20, 1998 - 9 pm
At breakfast, Mrs. O’Hagan shared the story of how her house was destroyed. Someone planted a car bomb outside her house and when it exploded she and her family were in the back yard. The windows were all blown out, the fireplaces destroyed. All wiring and lighting fixtures, and windows had to be replaced and the walls re-plastered. The bomb was a random act, not intended for anyone in particular. One of her grandchildren was sleeping near the stairwell, and while he was not hurt badly, he was terrified and covered with glass. They found the front window curtains in the back yard. Insurance covered none of the cost of restoration.
Mrs O'Hagan said there was a nice brick mason who came in to rebuild her fireplaces and chimneys and commented, “Pity, the poor man was shot and killed by a British soldier just weeks after he finished the work.” I asked why he was shot...was he a member of the IRA or targeted because of political ties. She replied “No. He was just a Catholic.” She then went on to say, "Everyone here has been touched by the Troubles.”

We went up the hill to attend 10:00 mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Cathedral is magnificent! It's the combination of the ancient and the modern all woven into a masterpiece that stirs the spirit and proclaims the greatness of God. I had two thoughts as I walked through. One - all the saints depicted are Irish, most with names I've never heard. It seems that the Irish are so into being Irish. Would a Cathedral in France or Spain or Italy only depict native saints? Does any country have this many saints? Two - not one square inch of this massive structure is blank or vacant. It is all covered with art. Even the paint on the walls is covered with Celtic designs. And all the art means something or is remembering something or someone. It’s almost impossible to take in that much meaning...

…On our way to Lurgan we went through Portadown. The British forces in uniform stood with grease paint on their faces and machine guns prepared for use. Their tanks blocked a section of the street. We ate lunch here and again experienced the cold apprehension of the people of the North. Two days after our visit here, a Catholic cab driver (father of 5) was gunned down randomly in a parking lot.

Armagh - a City Transformed

Since that visit thirteen years ago, a generation has come of age in Northern Ireland, and the people there have achieved success in mending divisions and unifying communities.  It's a safe and comfortable place, still with differences, but tempered by common purposes. All in the North I've spoken to admit to wanting more united communities and less focus on differences. Tourism has flourished, the apprehensive facades have fallen away and been replaced by enthusiasm.  Economic growth and a regional pride in one common heritage have laid a foundation for the visitor to have rich, meaningful, fun experiences.

One quality I love about the North is that tourism has not (yet) overwhelmed the country as it has in parts of the Republic. One can still visit "old Ireland" and connect with people that carry qualities of the ancient, mystical culture. Many of the rural landscapes seem more pristine, and less interrupted by development. I encourage all to visit Armagh and all parts of the North.

Visit Armgah's Thin Places
Both St. Patrick's Cathedrals in Armagh are rich in history and art and worth an hour visit each. Nearby are some remarkable thin places including Killevy, Emhain Macha, Slieve Gullion passage tomb, Clontygorra, and Kilnasaggart. The Ballykeel dolmen is also worth visiting and is very near Killevy.


Related Posts - Padua House and Kathleen O'Hagan of Armagh

4 comments:

  1. Maura Brooks1:49 PM

    Love this article Mindie, and I agree more people should visit this ancient capital

    Armagh houses a number of stone images which have a lot of energy around them. some are in the CI Cathedral http://www.chrono.qub.ac.uk/local/armagh/Tanderagee/

    Nearby is Emain Macha - a Thin Place with very high energy, and well worth a visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navan_Fort

    PS My home is only 20 minutes drive from Armagh. My mothers maiden name was O'Hagan.

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  2. Aisling9:06 PM

    I randomly came across your post about Thoor Ballylee and noticed your Armagh entry so had to read it. I am from Armagh myself, have lived here all my life, and really enjoyed this write-up, so I just wanted to say thank you.

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  3. Aisling8:33 AM

    I was talking to my dad about your blog about Armagh there and he just told me that Kathleen passed away earlier this year, he was at the funeral, she was a sister of our next door neighbour. I just thought you might like to know.

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  4. Aisling ... I'm so sorrowful to hear of Kathleen's passing. Having stayed with her twice, she made a remarkable impact on me. It wasn't just her hospitality, it was her humility, her devotion to God and the wonderful stories she told me about Northern Ireland.

    Thanks for letting me know. I'll light a candle for Kathleen at the Shrine of St. Anthony. She'd like that, I think.

    Hope you'll keep checking into this blog. It's always nice to make connections with folks in Northern Ireland. If you're on Facebook, please friend me - search Mindie Burgoyne.

    Best to you.

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