I just spent an entire week in Armagh – at the wonderful John Hewitt Summer School – but it wasn’t until my last day that I spotted an odd detail on the streets. It’s an elegant Georgian/Victorian city and I had already noticed the footscrapers set into the wall next to the fine doorways, but this little flash of bronze seemed both out of place, and clearly meant to be there.
Some of us from the festival – well up for a fresh walk around the town after a week of full-on talks, workshops and performances – took a guided tour from the tourist office. And the first thing our guide drew our attention to was the trail of 22 of these little bronze figures dotted around the streets of Armagh.
The one above is actually biting a coin, as he’s placed outside the Bank of Ireland on English Street (note the typical Northern Irish contrast of names there). And he’s a gargoyle, of sorts. Probably inspired by the creative creatures carved high up in the exterior of the cathedral up the way, St Patrick’s cathedral, and I’ll go off on a tangent here for a minute.
The cathedral dates back to the 13th century on the site of where St Patrick himself first set up a church in the 5th century, which led to the establishment of Armagh as the ecclesiastical capital of the island of Ireland. That cathedral is now Anglican (Church of Ireland) but there’s also a St Patrick’s Catholic cathedral further up the town. And both the Anglican and Catholic archbishops have their seat in the city. Of course. It would be like having two Archbishops of Canterbury, but, again, this is Ireland/Northern Ireland and things are quite particular here.
There are some interesting faces and creatures dotted around the cathedral’s exterior, and it turns out that Brian Boru – last of Ireland’s high kings, killed in 1014 – is buried somewhere in the walls.
So, back to these gargoyles and angels. It was too bad I didn’t have my kids with me to take us on this bronzey hide and seek of Armagh, but I had managed fine without them all week already. The German sculptor, Holger Christian Lonze, who created the sequence of 22 mythical creatures in 2006 placed them in very specific locations around town.
Like this fella holding up a paper outside the old newspaper office.
This one was sitting in an alcove above the Night Safe in the wall outside Danske Bank (on, ahem, Scotch Street).
Others gargoyles include one propped into the entrance way to the Market Place theatre, nervously holding a ticket while waiting for its date, and another with a knapsack on his back as he escapes away from the orchard garden below the cathedral. Sorry I couldn’t take photos of them.
And there are angels. But they all seem to float more vertically and are harder to photograph (no bad thing). One very beautiful angel sounds a horn in the shape of a famous iron age trumpet found at nearby Navan Fort.
This angel below is laden down with books on the wall outside the Robinson Library – one of the most beautiful libraries in the country and which I’ll have to come back and visit, at least to see the original copy of Gulliver’s Travels.
As well as pointing out some of the less obvious bronzes to us and saying hi to the Dean of the cathedral and most everyone else around the town, our tour guide told us a variety of old stories which mostly centred on women who had apparently done very bad things: time for a little revisionism, I wondered to myself.
Armagh also has one of the country’s best planetariums, the famous Armagh Pipers Club, and a number of other festivals for cider, music and more music. It’s well worth a visit, especially with kids.
Here’s a link to Visit Armagh’s page on the gargoyles and angels scupltures and trail.