Northern Ireland Part 1 – Armagh

The great Christopher Power and his van, which brought us to all 8 Anglican cathedrals in Northern Ireland.

It’s fair to say that this licking odyssey has caused a great deal of stress and general misery. Of course, it can be argued that this was largely self-inflicted when I uttered the words “go on then” to Adam that night in the pub, thereby burdening myself with a gruelling task that would prove costly, both financially and mentally. There have been many low points on the quest and none more so than sleeping on that cold, hard bench in Manchester Airport one freezing October night, whiling away melancholy hours before a 6am flight to Ireland.

During that night of fitful sleep and waking snorts I once again questioned my own sanity and tried in vain to think why on earth I had thought all of this was such a good idea.  Barely six hours earlier I had left London for good, having handed in the keys to my flat and given notice on my job, using the last of my leave to get through as many cathedrals as possible before the December 16th deadline, which was now rapidly approaching. How I would do this on only a shoestring budget remained a mystery and one that would have to be worked out on the road. This was all madness, utter madness, and now I wanted no part of it. Thankfully such dark thoughts began to evaporate once on board the aeroplane, and were replaced with a reassuring sense that perhaps the greatest challenge of the whole cathedral-licking bet, namely the licking of the eight Anglican cathedrals of Northern Ireland, was about to be removed forever.

I was met at Dublin airport by a smiling and jolly Christopher (the brother of Lisa, my girlfriend), still fresh from a lengthy early morning drive from County Wexford. It was wonderfully cosy inside his red van and after a quick look at the map we began the journey north with much boyish enthusiasm. The simple pleasure of having a companion again gladdened my heart after the  lonely hours spent in Manchester. Christopher quickly proved to be excellent company, as I had known he would be, and I was provided with a wealth of knowledge on the towns and villages we passed through on our journey. He also related how the cathedral-licking story had been greeted in Ireland since it made the news back in June. It had appeared in Love It, a glossy magazine full of tales of lunatics, into whose bosom I had now been inadvertently welcomed. Lisa had done an interview for the feature, which included a mocked up image of me tonguing the ample spire of Salisbury, and apparently it had caused quite a stir in her home town.

So engrossed we were in conversation that I did not even notice when we crossed the border.  It seemed strange to be back in the United Kingdom so quickly, especially on a different landmass from the one I called home. I was uneasy about calling it British soil given the history here, and soon it became clear that this question was one that continues to divide people today. Just over the border we passed through a small down bedecked in the red, white and blue; not only flags but paving stones and the very curbs of the road. A few miles on, sometimes even a few hundred yards, this was replaced with green, white and orange. My ignorance of the history was embarrassing but Christopher did a fine job filling in the gaps before we arrived at our first stop of the trip.

It was perhaps fitting that we started the licking tour in Armagh, which is Ireland’s religious capital and a city of great historical importance. An acquaintance of Christopher’s had given the place a pretty damning review and had not offered much in the way of praise for it. Taking a stroll around its sunny streets however, we agreed that this assessment had been harsh to say the least.  Certainly there are fairer cities in the World, but that morning Armagh had nothing but charming streets and friendly nods of greeting from locals a plenty.

The city is famous for its two cathedrals, which can be found atop two equally noble hills, both dedicated to St. Patrick and dominating the skyline for miles around.  The Roman Catholic cathedral is perhaps the more attractive of the two but (luckily for me and my already burdensome quest) would not require a lick. It really was magnificent to behold, with its twin towers glowing white in the morning sun and the sight of it raised my spirits once more.

My mood soon dampened somewhat as we struggled up Ard Macha, the steep hill that gives Armagh its name and upon which the Anglican cathedral proudly sits. This lofty spot has seen plenty of action and upheavals in its time and has been fittingly dubbed “the Canterbury of Ireland.” Here also was a famous site of pagan worship, as well as a stronghold for the kings of Ulster in days long since passed.

When Christianity first spread to Ireland during the mid 5th-century Armagh became the island’s ecclesiastical capital, following the foundation of a church here by St. Patrick himself. This would not only be a place of Christian worship, the saint decreed, but also one of learning. Soon he was declaring that only those educated at Armagh could spread the gospel, and that is exactly what they did.  Soon Irish monks began crossing the sea to northern England full of Christian zeal and determined to convert the newly arrived Anglo-Saxons. During what some have described as “some of the darkest years in English history” it was the Irish that were saving Greek and Latin culture for Europe.

The cathedral itself is a modest affair but exudes an air of peace and tranquillity, something this hilltop has had little experience of in its time. No less than seventeen different churches have stood on this site since St. Patrick first huffed and puffed his way up here. This is thanks largely to the efforts of Viking raiders, who had such a fabulous time trashing it in A.D. 832 that they returned to do it further damage on nine separate occasions. The carnage finally ceased in 1014, when a Danish army was comprehensively defeated at Clontarf by the forces of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. This celebrated Irish hero is now buried somewhere within the cathedral grounds, having been cut down at the battle by some brute while thanking God for his great victory.

When the Vikings weren’t around to cause mischief the weather put saw fit to put the boot in, or more precisely a lightning bolt, which caused such terrible damage in 995 that the building was left largely in ruins for almost two centuries. Two further incarnations were put to the flames during the troubled 16th and 17th centuries, making Armagh one of the most patched up and punch-drunk cathedrals in the World. Now it sits in a peaceful glow, surrounded by trees and enjoying its lofty perch over the city.

The cathedral seen today has been heavily restored during the 19th-century but still retains some delicious medieval features, but it is the collection of older, Iron Age treasures that most captures the imagination. In the south aisle can be found six stone carvings, which serve as a reminder of the old Celtic religion that once thrived on this site.  Principal amongst these is the Tanderagee Idol, a comical yet sinister effigy of a grinning creature believed to represent another of Ireland’s greatest kings, Nuadha. He is famous for possessing an arm of pure silver, a wonderfully garish gesture following the loss of the original limb in battle. Another carving shows yet another legendary ruler, one Labhraidh Loingseach, who would have been glad of a silver appendage but instead was cursed with a pair of horse’s ears.

Having had our fill of the place it was time to get moving. With seven other cathedrals to get to we could not afford to linger too long. As we made our way out and down to the van I shrieked at the realisation that I had forgotten to lick the cathedral! This was a disturbing thought given the fact that I had gone to such pains to get there in the first place, so back up the hill we trudged and captured the following video.

Of its taste I remember nothing, but it can only have been tinged with a sense of relief on having licked my first Northern Irish cathedral. Whatever flavour was left on my tongue was soon vanquished by a hearty breakfast in a nearby establishment, where we planned the next licks with great excitement. Slowly but surely the bet was being won.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Northern Ireland Part 1 – Armagh

  1. David Nicholson

    Brilliant stuff. Thanks. Dave Nick

  2. Hi! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok. I’m undoubtedly
    enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

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