After it’s named the best place in the UK to bring up a family, and as the city sets its sights on Capital of Culture 2025, residents on what makes the city so special
Despite its city status, many folk living in Armagh say it feels like a village — a place where neighbours know each other, and people go out of their way to help others.
But with its family-friendly attractions, buzzing shopping area and various annual events to look forward to, there’s a cosmopolitan side to it too.
The city was recently named the best place in the UK to raise a family according to research commissioned by clothing retailer Gap, beating Wells in Somerset, Bangor in Wales, Westminster in London, and Chichester, West Sussex, to the top spot.
Researchers looked at the number of primary schools, parks, hospitals, crime rates and the birth rate in each UK city in order to arrive at their decision.
For people who live and work in Armagh, their conclusion was no surprise.
Stephen Fields was “born and raised” in Armagh and is community development programme manager for the West Armagh Consortium, which brings together a number of different community groups.
“It’s a very historic place; even though it only got city status relatively recently. There’s a lot going on and people know each other,” says the 62-year-old.
“There’s a very strong sense of community and people feel like it’s a safe place for their children to go out to play. There’s a good atmosphere; people watch out for each other.
“Our consortium brings together a wide range of groups, from the Men’s Shed to a senior citizens’ group and even a Bulgarian group, and we all help each other out and pool resources.”
Armagh is currently on the longlist for the coveted UK City of Culture status for 2025 and has made it down to the last eight.
Glenn Barr is Lord Mayor of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon, and says he expects a shortlist of three to be announced this month. The judges will then visit all three cities before announcing the overall winner later this year.
“It would be really fantastic if we could get the City of Culture title,” he says. “The last time it came to Northern Ireland was with Londonderry in 2013.
“I think Armagh has that mix of heritage and history that appeals to the judges but it’s also a vibrant place that’s looking to the future.”
Glenn says that in his role as lord mayor, he visits Armagh several times a week and is always impressed with the “vibe” of the city.
“I love the history, with all the old Georgian and Victorian buildings,” he says.
“But it’s also the kind of city that provides families with a good opportunity to achieve that work-life balance.
“There are job opportunities, parks and sports clubs, drama groups, the Georgian market, a good schools network and The Mall area is a great place to go for a wee walk and a picnic or go shopping.
“My youngest child is three and we brought him to see Santa in Armagh at the Planetarium this Christmas. The whole place was buzzing; there was a really brilliant feel to it.”
Armagh is sometimes referred to as the “city of saints and scholars” because it has been seen as an educational centre for centuries, after Saint Patrick founded his main church there in the year 445. Both Armagh’s cathedrals are named after him.
The Armagh Public Library was founded in 1771 by Archbishop Richard Robinson and the Observatory was opened in 1790. Today it is still Ireland’s leading centre for astronomical research and education.
Local people are quick to praise the number of family-friendly events and attractions in Armagh, including the annual Georgian Weekend and the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.
The planetarium, with its 12-metre diameter dome, has a state-of-the-art digital projector system, with shows to suit all age groups.
Martina Glass, operations manager at the attraction, thinks it helps put Armagh on the map for visitors.
“We really are geared towards a family audience and there’s something for everyone,” she explains.
“For the younger age groups, we have short shows, explaining the night sky and the planets. For adults we’re even doing evening music events, playing Pink Floyd, U2 and classical music to the amazing visuals in our planetarium.
“Our exhibits are really interactive. We even have a sensory room with twinkly lights and bubble tubes, for the younger children and children with additional needs. Our projector even lets them catch snow on their tongues.”
Martina says she feels lucky to work in Armagh and describes it as a place that is very collaborative, with a strong community feel.
“When you think of cities you think of these huge places, but Armagh is lucky to be so compact; its real charm is in its people and its friendliness.
“Even though it feels small it’s still quite impressive, with attractions like the planetarium and its two cathedrals. It’s a hidden gem and it’s no surprise we’re bidding for City of Culture for 2025.”
Armagh was given city status in 1994 and in the 2011 census, it had a population of almost 18,000.
Dad-of-three Colm Gordon grew up in Armagh and despite having now moved to Glengormley to be with his wife, he visits family in the town every week and describes himself as “a true native”.
Colm (37) says: “It’s a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone and they’ll do anything to help each other. The community pulls together in times of need. You walk the streets in the town and people stop to say, ‘Hello, how are you, how are you keeping?’
“Armagh Georgian Weekend in November is always a huge hit, and the city is steeped in so much history; there’s the two cathedrals, the naval fort, The Mall, the planetarium and the women’s gaol.
“It’s just peaceful and reminds me of typical village life where everyone is looking out for each other. It just gives me a sense of home when I see the spires of the cathedral.”