Armagh represents Ireland’s history and its future. It is the island’s oldest city, still the ecclesiastical capital and, with important symbolism, the planned headquarters for cross-border institution the North/South Ministerial Council. Walk along The Mall, with its wide grassy central area, and you’ll find beautiful Georgian houses, religious halls and other grand buildings and, in the distance, perched on hills at the edge of the centre, two cathedrals, both dedicated to St Patrick – the man who founded both the city and Christianity in Ireland. In the mid-18th century archbishop Richard Robinson pushed for Armagh to become a university town as well and, although he failed, he left behind an observatory that spawned an impressive planetarium and an environment that easily could be mistaken for Oxford or Cambridge.
“It is a wonderful place: two cathedrals, lovely narrow streets, wonderful heritage assets,” says James Hennessey, associate director at the Paul Hogarth Company, which is conducting a “master-planning” exercise for the city on behalf of the Northern Ireland government and the local council. Yet it has “underperformed”. Its heritage assets, retailing and evening economy all became neglected, he argues. And that is what his planning exercise aims to tackle.
During the Troubles, Armagh gained the reputation of being a problem area. It was near the border, at the heart of what was called “bandit country”, and the city itself became territorially disputed by republicans (Catholics) and unionists (Protestants). The locality had the highest number of sectarian murders of any district in Northern Ireland outside Belfast. The surrounding countryside was scarred by army watchtowers, dismantled a few years ago as a symbol of a new beginning. Yet the peace process has not had the same impact on the city’s retail or tourism sector as it has had on Newry or Belfast. One cause has been a poor transport infrastructure but that has been addressed by road improvements, which have cut the time it takes to reach Dublin, Belfast and three international airports.
Now, local officials think they have a strategy for reviving Armagh both as a holiday destination and as a place to live and work. The Public Realm Scheme is a £6m regeneration project that will this year repave the city’s central streets and next year spruce up its store fronts. “We want to create a new business environment,” says Hennessey. The historic Armagh Gaol – a landmark building on the Mall – is set to be converted into a four-star hotel, restaurant and 20 luxury residences by Osborne Group, the developer behind a similar project at Oxford’s jail and castle.
And other mixed-use developments, including about 420 apartments and townhouses, are planned for key sites in the the city centre that are currently under-utilised as car parks. The Navan Fort site, the royal seat of the Kings of Ulster and the region’s ancient capital, is being expanded to create a large tourist facility.
“We think we have a bright future with the EI [environmental improvement] scheme being completed and hopefully a resurgence in our city centre,” says John Briggs, chief executive of Armagh’s city and district council. He believes that the choice of the site of Armagh City Hall, bombed during the Troubles, for the offices of the Ministerial Council – the body charged with co-ordinating administration between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – creates exciting opportunities. “It is important that it is located in Armagh,” he explains. “But far more important than the office accommodation is that it will contain well-paid civil servants from both sides of the border.”
Armagh’s council hopes that more institutions – both public and private – will relocate to the city and bring home-buying employees with them. And, as the tourism, leisure and independent retailing sectors expand, many more jobs are expected to be created.
“We see the Gaol scheme as a catalyst to get redevelopment going in that part of the city,” says Osborne’s development director, Andrew Ryan. “It’s a lovely city with great views [and] great potential.”
Art O’Hagan, who owns the local CPS chain of estate agencies and serves as chairman of the city centre management project, says that, aside from Armagh’s historic character and its promising new developments, there are several other attractions for prospective residents. “The Mall is a massive factor and people come for that, and it being an ecclesiastical centre draws people. [But] Armagh is also a niche market town with 140 shops,” most of them independent, he says. (For brand names and large shopping malls there is Newry, 20 miles away.)
“We also have excellent schools,” he adds. These include the Royal School Armagh, a highly regarded co-educational, state-funded grammar school for day pupils and boarders, with attached preparatory school; the Catholic St Patrick’s Grammar School for boys; and St Catherine’s College, an all-ability high school for girls. “People move to the city for the education,” O’Hagan says. “It’s a beautiful place to live and work and bring up children.”
Pavola Cafolla-Donaghy runs the Casa de Paola shop in central Armagh, selling Italian jewellery and objets d’art. She was brought up in the city and for the past five years has lived on its outskirts. “It’s a really nice town,” she explains. “Everyone knows each other. There’s a lot of good people in Armagh. These last few years have been fantastic. It was hard in the Troubles – very scary. There were a lot of bombs. You can access all areas now. In most areas it doesn’t matter what denomination you are.”
John Murray owns the city’s Embers Coffee House and bought a small farmhouse with “a handful of acres” in the countryside outside Armagh six years ago. He had moved away from Northern Ireland, initially to go to university in England, but returned with his young family because he wanted them to have “a quieter pace of life”. Since then he has been struck by the changed atmosphere. “The peace process has brought optimism,” he observes. “Attitudes are quietly changing. It is bringing a broader, more settled, more inclusive society.”
It seemed that outsiders were also discovering the charms of Armagh in the early part of this decade. Between the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and 2007 houses prices in the city more than trebled, marking the biggest increase in the UK over the period. But the economic downturn has taken its toll: sales have slowed dramatically and prices came down 36.8 per cent last year, according to research from the University of Ulster. Even would-be buyers from the Republic of Ireland, whose savings are in euros, have been so hard hit by the recession that they are reluctant to take advantage of the weak sterling.
Today, large Victorian houses with up to eight bedrooms in the city centre can be bought for as little as £250,000, although most need substantial renovation. A recently completed six-bedroom, detached, three-storey house near the city centre at Knoxs Hill has had its asking price cut by almost 10 per cent to £330,000 while the new Limestone Square development, on the edge of the city, offers luxury detached, five-bedroom houses at £365,000.
Brian Cullen at the Peter Cullen & Son estate agency in the village of Keady is selling a new four-bedroom house with 1.7 acres of land that would have sold for £500,000 18 months ago but is now priced at £350,000. Another new four-bedroom home with excellent views of the countryside on both sides of the border is on the market with the agency at less than £300,000. Cullen expects buyers to be attracted to both the history and beauty of the Armagh area as well as activities such as horse riding, go-karting, the city’s popular Market Place Theatre and a newly reopened cinema. Still, he acknowledges that business is “very slow”.
Others are seeing green shoots, however. “There is a bit more activity than there has been,” says Wendy Stewart, owner of the Property Link estate agency. “Investors are coming back into the market [as well as] first-time buyers [and] a few people trading down from larger properties. [There is also] some relocating.”
“There are rays of hope,” says David Gavaghan, chief executive of the Strategic Investment Board, which is overseeing investment in the province for the Northern Ireland Executive and is closely involved in the city’s regeneration. He believes that Armagh’s rich history and economic improvements can make it a symbol for how Irish society is moving forward. “Armagh’s future is its past but it also potentially represents a new island of Ireland,” he says. “Armagh has the potential to exhibit a harmony, which in the past it did not. You have this new recognition between the two communities and the two churches, which is very powerful.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009