The Metropolitan Cathedral of St Patrick, Armagh, is set on a hill from which the name of the city derives – Ard Macha – the Height of Macha. Macha, a legendary pre-christian tribal princess – some say goddess – is also linked with the nearby Emain Macha, a major ritual site occupied from late Neolithic/early Bronze Age times which is regarded as having been the ancient royal centre of Iron Age Ulster. Emain Macha is associated with the epic Ulster cycle known as the Tain bo Cuailnge whose doomed hero figure is Cuchulain, the ‘Hound of Ulster’, and which features also the King of Ulster Conchobhar MacNessa, his adversary Queen Macbeth of Connaught, Conail Cernach, the Red Branch knights and the Boy Troop of Ulster.
After the ritual destruction of the sanctuary at Emain it is likely that the nearby hill of Ard Macha became the centre of the Ulaid (the local tribal group that gave its name to Ulster). It is this hilltop enclosure which St Patrick acquired and within which he built his first ‘Great Stone Church’. St Patrick’s earliest church in Armagh was probably ‘Templum na Ferta’, the Church of the Relics on a site close to Scotch Street, below the Hill of Armagh.
The steep streets in today’s city follow the line of its defensive rings to the city below. To the left, as one leaves the Cathedral gates, is the Armagh Public Library, founded in 1771 and across the road is the former Armagh Infirmary, dating from 1774. The eighteenth century is further represented in the eleven houses of Vicar’s Hill facing the west wall of the Cathedral. Opposite the Library is the neo-Elizabethan Synod Hall, built in 1912, and, to its right, the limestone pillars and impressive eighteenth century iron gates, formerly sited at the Archbishops’ Palace, leading to the present See House.
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