The Metropolitan Cathedral of St Patrick, Armagh, stands on the hill from which the city derives its name – Ard Mhacha – the Height of Macha. Macha, a legendary pre-christian tribal princess – some say goddess – is also linked with the near by Emain Macha (The Navan Fort), 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 Táin bó Cuailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, whose doomed hero figure is Cú Chulainn, the ‘Hound of Ulster’, and which features also the King of Ulster, Conchobar MacNessa, his adversary Queen Mebh (Maeve) of Connaught, Connal Cearnach, the Red Branch knights and the Boy Troop of Ulster.
After the ritual destruction of the sanctuary at Emain Macha, it is likely that the nearby hill of Ard Mhacha became the centre of the Ulaid (the local tribal group that gave its name to Ulster). It was this hilltop enclosure which, by tradition, St Patrick acquired and within which he built his first ‘Great Stone Church’. St Patrick’s earliest church in Armagh may have been ‘Templum na Ferta’, the Church of the Relics, on a site close to the present St Patrick’s Fold in Scotch Street, to the east of the Hill.
The steep streets of today’s Armagh wind around the Hill to the city below. To the left, as one leaves the Cathedral gates, is Armagh Robinson Library, founded in 1771. Across the road is the former Infirmary, dating from 1774. The eighteenth century is further represented in the eleven houses of Vicar’s Hill facing the west end of the Cathedral. Opposite the Library is the neo-Elizabethan Synod Hall, built in 1912. To its right are the limestone pillars and eighteenth-century gates, relocated from the former Archbishops’ Palace, and now leading to the Archbishop’s house.