Cathedral History:

Building History… Expansion, Destruction and Renewal

After the death of Patrick, Cormac, one of his successors as Bishop of Armagh, made the church the centre of a monastic settlement and for many centuries Armagh was a celebrated seat of learning, attracting students from all over Europe. Indeed, by the twelfth century, only those who had studied at Armagh were permitted to teach theology.
The history of the Church at Armagh also reflects that of a country where violence was rarely far away. The first threat, which lasted intermittently for over two centuries, was from the Vikings from Norway who raided the hill on at least ten occasions between 832 and 943. This danger was only finally removed in 1014 when the Irish High King, Brian Boroimhe (Boru), defeated the Danes at the Battle of Clontarf. Brian, himself, had acknowledged the dominant position of Armagh in 1004 when he laid a gift of gold on the High Altar and, on his death in the field at Clontarf, his remains were brought to the hill of Armagh for interment in a spot indicated today by a stone inscription on the exterior west wall of the north transept.

Apart from the destruction caused by the Vikings, the Church also suffered a lightning strike in 995 and remained a ruin until 1125 when it was repaired and re-roofed by Bishop Celsus. The most far-reaching work of restoration, however, was that carried out by Archbishop O Scanlon. Further damage required major rebuilding by Archbishop Sweetman in the 1360s and by Archbishop Swayne in the 1420s.

In the 1560s, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, the Earl of Sussex, in his attempts to curb the aggressive activities of Shane ‘the Proud’ O Neill, fortified the cathedral against him but in 1566 O Neill ‘utterly destroyed the Cathedral by fire, lest the English should again lodge in it’. In 1641 it again became a target for the O Neills when Sir Phelim O Neill burned it during the rising of Catholics who had been dispossessed in the early seventeenth century Plantation of Ulster.

Repair work was carried out in the 1660s by Archbishop Margetson. Further restorations were undergone in 1727, 1765, 1802, 1834, 1888, 1903, 1950 and 1970 and, most recently, in 2004 under the scrupulous and wise direction of Dean Herbert Cassidy.

Want to learn more? Read about: Cottingham’s Cathedral