TRAINS AND ALE

armagh railway station 1

Wouldn’t you know it? …If a new way of screwing up life in Norneverland could be found, our dithering politicians would find it and sit on their hands. They can’t find the time or the money to make a feasability study and re-instate a train line to the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland . Yes , if you arrive off the plane in Dublin airport from America and wish to hop up to Armagh , just up the road some miles and take a geek at the fine cathedrals and beautiful Georgian houses , you’ll still have to get there by bus, car or bicycle. The place has been left isolated from the tourist trade since the train line was pulled up between Armagh and Portadown back in those 1950’s……
You might be told that you could possibly make it as far as Portadown train station , but you’ll have to poke about and find a bus connection for the last ten miles or so. It might be an idea to get a hire car and take your chances on the road with some of the worst drivers on the planet….Coming from a country of possibly more sedate drivers , this may be something of a shock to the system.

 

Being an ancient and historical little city there could be much foreign interest if communications from across Ireland could be improved .Being the ancient seat of power in Ulster at the Navan Fort and the current capital for both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic communities for the entire island there might be some interest, if only to gape at the extraordinary workmanship, mosaic artwork, stained glass and building skills on show in the cathedrals. Armagh has also boasted the best planetarium in Ireland and is the centre of astronomical education across the entire country these past fifty years. Would anyone, but a few ,ever know?
Something like a trainline would almost guarantee an improved financial footfall for the local businesses of the little city but money usually ends up being spent on something else.Does no -one ever see the bigger picture? All the hospital facilities and mental health care have gradually been farmed -off from the city to the Craigavon area , some fifteen miles away and the small businesses that had been sustained by those local jobs have ebbed away. This week the local Court House was closed. You might think this strange, given that the building was bombed and re-built at great expense not too many years ago. Maybe they’ll turn it into another of those little bijou hotels that the visitors will not be able to get to.
Last year the building of a huge new Tesco store complex was completed on the outskirts of the town , only for Tesco to declare its intention to actually not open any new stores because of recent financial losses. The store , with all those neatly-painted parking spaces for all the cars that will never use it, lies absolutely vacant … The contractor had to complete the build , knowing full -well that the store was never going to open. It lies unattended as another huge white and useless elephant. Well maybe they’ll get around to using it as a “Park and Ride” facility for all those commuters wishing to leave the town by coach. There’s plenty of space for parking cars.

 

Armagh is a small city ,built on seven hills like many grander, larger cities such as Rome or Edinburgh which it shares this physical aspect with .It is an ancient place of habitation and It has been the ecclesiastical capital of all Christianity in Ireland since the fifth century, when Saint Patrick founded his Irish church there. Today, post the Reformation and Henry V111 and his schisms and shenanigans ,there are two cathedrals, both named after the Saint. Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral stands today on an important ancient Christian site, where Patrick built his original church. Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church nods across the divide at it from its height on a newer site where it was started and built, spanning the times before and after the Great Irish Famine of the 1840’s. A re-imagined Navan Fort landscaped into the site of that seat of power in ancient Ulster is located slightly outside the town on the position of the original ancient fort, and now tells visitors the story of Eamhain Macha, where the ancient chieftains of Ulster ruled for six centuries before the fort was burned down by the rival clans from Tara.
The site of the city was named after Queen Macha, and as the settlement grew on the surrounding hills nearby, it was also named after that ancient queen . Ard Mhacha or “ the Height of Macha ” (or possibly “Macha’s Height”)was later changed to Ardmagh by the English settlers who possibly thought it might be easier pronounced, until it eventually transmuted into what is now “Armagh”.
As children growing up we all knew a little about our local history and the tales and legends of King Conor, the Red Branch Knights, Cuchulainn and his hurley and the tale of the Brown Bull of Cooley.They made every bit as much sense to us as did the legends of Robin Hood and William Tell on our television screens most evenings in the 1950’s.They were thrilling.Some of these legends might even have been true. The Irish have always been great at spiining yarns .These were great stirring adventurous folktales and they had apparently happened just outside our town, too. They sat in our background story alongside the horror stories of Gallows Hill in the local Demense where people would go to watch an occasional hanging as part of a jovial , if macabre day-out. The hangings were later moved to a different spot because the Archbishop apparently thought that they spoilt his beautiful view. There was the face of the devil that we slapped on our way home from school, running speedily by his twisted face on the wall and the tale of the ghostly Green Lady of Vicars Hill and the fact that Jonathan Swift of “Gulliver of Lilliput ” had been a constant visitor and celebrity of some note. His own annotated copy of Gulliver was kept in the local library that we passed on that same route to school. These were some of the many such interesting details and historical corners to poke about in and the city has a rich mixed cultural heritage.
Given that the city was of such historical significance, you might have believed that some thought would be given by the local political worthies to communicating this rich seam of historical worth to a wider world and possibly developing greater communications to and from this lost world of lore to share with the rest of Ireland and the outside world. That was not really the case , in actual fact .As small nine or ten year old boys we had the pleasure of having a playground consisting of a complete abandoned train -station , replete with platforms, offices, turning -shed and a signal box to use as a gang -hut.Richmal Crompton’s “William and his Outlaws” would have been green with envy.The “Famous Five “and the “Secret Seven” would only dream of such riches. On rainy Saturday afternoons we could lie-up in our sheltered huts and plan world-domination to our hearts content, while we munched “progged” apples from the nearby orchard.No adults disturbed our schemes and it would be years hence before the site of the train station was developed into an industrial complex.
We didn’t realise then , of course , that Dr Beecham had, just a couple of years previously ,defenestrated the entire rail network throughout England ,Wales and Northern Ireland and that we were to grow as adults without a functioning train -service from our city . With the stroke of a pen he had left our ancient and historical city as just another isolated backwater. That meant that instead of the city being a prime spot to build a new university, without rail communications it was declared a non -runner.Never mind all that hidden culture .What good was that if some student couldn’t make an easy train -connection? The new university was built elsewhere instead. That was one of the worst political and economic insults that had been thrown at a generation by a Westminster government .Our local politicians must have simply rolled over and complied.
It has been argued and finally surmised that the partition of Ireland in 1922 also hastened the decline of railway services across the land and indeed the Great Northern Railways company closed the Keady – Castleblayney section in the following year of 1923.Then passenger trains from the Armagh to Keady section were withdrawn in 1932 and the Armagh to Markethill section of the line closed in 1933.
Finally the Government of Northern Ireland made the Great Northern Railways Board close the remaining lines serving Armagh on 1 October 1957.
I was five years of age by then. The goods branch from Armagh to Keady and the main line through Armagh from Portadown as far as the border at Glaslough on the way to Monaghan was closed down . Rail communication to either the border or to Belfast were effectively ended at that point in time.How much of this was a deliberate ploy to allow the further isolation of Northern Ireland from the new republic and proclaim it as a self-contained little statelet ,removed from the remainder of Ireland ?There was certainly little foresight as to what the future might hold in the way of international commerce and travel.My father remembered huge carts pulled by Clydesdale horses clopping through town ,servicing businesses from the station alongside the lorries. Life was different and lived at a different pace back then….but it must have been obvious that things were rapidly changing socially.
In more recent years , with the growing , frustrating traffic congestion and the pollution caused by the increase of many vehicle emissions and the traffic systems congealing in so many unforeseen ways, the idea of re-opening some of these long-neglected railway lines has again come to the fore .Indeed in this respect some 10,000 signatures were recently gathered with the idea of pressing for some rapid action in Armagh’s case, before the city ground to an economic standstill.
So far nothing has come of it , of course. That’s what people really expect of their politicians if they are honest .The cynical take is that it sounds like a really good idea but excuses will be made and there’ll be political inaction.
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A similar lack of foresight is apparently happening with something as innocuous as the BBC’s “Good Food Show”.It is coming to Belfast later in the year. This is a show which showcases a variety of innovative kitchen gadgets, food and drink and has celebrity chefs demonstrating their various skills. The hope is that this will draw in lots of the kind of visitors who tune into the like of the “Great Bake-Off” and “Masterchef” franchises in their millions across the world.
However, it is feared the success of the event may be put in jeopardy due to Norneverland’s licensing laws.
Unfortunately a large part of the event concerns the sampling and promotion of the produce associated with the burgeoning craft beer trade, and the conference centre licence held by The Waterfront Hall, where the event is to be staged ,does not permit the sale of alcohol. You wouldn’t really expect joined-up thinking to be part of the tourist and hospitality trade in Norneverland given the peculiar and ancient timewarp the place inhabits.When questioned about the licensing issue, Jonathan Bell, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for Norneverland , said that even if there was the political will to change the laws here ,there’d still be no time to change the law in time for the event.
That is one whopper of a fly in the beer , alright. Joined up train-lines and joined up thinking…that’d be the ticket out this mess alright…if only we had someone with a tiny bit of foresight and imagination….