Armagh Cathedral can lay claim to the oldest choral tradition in Ireland. In the ninth century, a branch of the Ceile De (or Culdees) – ‘the companions of God’ – a religious brotherhood, which had originated in Tallacht near Dublin, came to Armagh, establishing itself in a ‘priory’ near the Cathedral. The Culdees were committed to a rigorous asceticism but they are also associated with preserving standards of worship including choral music. With the beginnings of a diocesan system in Ireland in the early eleventh century and the adoption of the title of archbishop by the bishops of Armagh, the Church at Armagh fulfilled more clearly the role of a Cathedral with the Culdees as Vicars Choral until the sixteenth century.
A major fillip was given to music at Armagh when King Charles I, by royal charter, instituted the ‘the college of King Charles in the church of St Patrick in Armagh’. In 1482 the Cathedral had the first of its seven organs. The present Walker organ was installed in 1840 and has been restored on a number of occasions, the last, in 1996, giving it a new resonance and flexibility of range and tone.
During the Commonwealth period in the seventeenth century, the Armagh choir, like those of other cathedrals, was disbanded and only really revived when Thomas Lindsay, Archbishop from 1714 until 1724, provided it with a substantial income. It was also in Archbishop Lindsay’s time that a second Royal Charter, that of George I in 1773, allowed for an additional four boys in the choir.
One of Armagh’s most illustrious choristers was Charles Wood who was born in 1866 within sight of the Cathedral where his father was a gentleman of the choir. Wood was to become Professor of Music at Cambridge and composer of such church music as the famous anthem ‘O Thou the Central Orb’ and the St Mark Passion. Recently he has been commemorated in the Charles Wood Summer School held in Armagh during August.