Royal School History
The story of the Royal School is one of continual change. Unfortunately, the historical record of the school is incomplete as is it’s archive of past pupils and events. This is a consequence of an era when detailed record keeping was deemed unnecessary and of the turbulent environment that north eastern Ireland has been for much of the last 500 years. Perhaps no event evidences this reality more starkly that the murder of the second headmaster and his family by drowning in the River Blackwater during the 1641 Rebellion. Consequently, we owe a debt of gratitude to those historians and friends of the school who have laboured to establish much of the school’s past.
The school owes its existence to a 1608 decree of King James I, “that there should be one free school, at least, appointed in every county, for the education of youths in learning and religion”. Effectively, this meant that at least six schools would be created, one in each ‘plantation county’ to educate the children of the English and Scots planters who were brave enough to settle on the Ulster land forfeited by the earls who fled in 1607.
This ambitious project would have been unlikely to succeed without the promise of not only cheap land and personal security but also education for the sons of the planters who would safeguard the religion and the future of the new population. Seven hundred acres of land at Mountnorris was granted to Archbishop Henry Ussher to finance the County Armagh school and each Archbishop since then has played a key role in the life of the Royal School. Ussher appointed an Oxford graduate, John Lydiat, as Headmaster. Mountnorris was a strategic point established during the Elizabethan wars, but the experience of the 1640’s and 1650’s when there was turmoil throughout the British Isles forced the school’s move by Charles II to the relative security of Armagh City and the redundant abbey of St. Columba in Abbey Street. Here the school remained, being rebuilt for its centenary on the same site, until the arrival of Archbishop Richard Robinson as primate in 1765.
The school, like the city of Armagh owes much to the generosity, foresight and energy of this man who found the municipal dereliction an affront to the reputation of the place. He proceeded to fund a building programme that included a new school building. At a cost of £5,078 what is now known affectionately as the ‘Old Building’ was completed in 1774. This comprised the present boarding wings and the single central storey of the present library, then the school room, where presumably all the boys were taught in forms, or rather when sitting on forms. Dr Arthur Greuber was the headmaster by that time and he invested almost half the necessary funds showing his confidence in the school’s future.
The 18th century certainly appeared to be a successful one for the school as it established itself as one of the finest schools in Ireland. A glance at the ‘school register’ prepared by Major Ferrar shows strong representation of the Anglo-lrish establishment, including Isaac Corry who would go on to serve as the last speaker of the Irish house of Commons and Lord Castlereagh, the architect of the Act of Union between Ireland and Britain, and an important influence in the-reconstruction of 19th century Europe following the Napoleonic Wars. Little is known of school life at this time. Many of the boys went on to Trinity College, Dublin or Oxford. However, a letter from the young Castlereagh exists which describes the boys’ practice of re-enacting the storming of the Bastille and other violent events of the French Revolution in their playtime.
Greuber’s foresight in exchanging the Abbey Street site for College Hill allowed the school to expand in the 19th century. The extensive estate allowed the school to be somewhat self- sufficient in agricultural produce and gave the boys an opportunity to cultivate their own plots or those of the headmaster or prefects. Indeed, use of the land for this purpose continued into the 20th century during the world wars.
The land also allowed for extra building and the development of the curriculum and extra-curricular provision. Additional provision was clearly needed. While in 1833 there were only 19 pupils, this had risen by 1849 to 63 making the school the largest of the Royal schools in Ulster. Decline followed however, partly a result of the Act of Union, which made Ireland less of a focus for the Anglo Irish aristocracy and perhaps partly due to the experience of the historically infamous ‘barring-out’ incidents of 1788/89 and 1823. These events were not unique in British schools but must have had some effect on the school’s reputation.
Further new buildings were added including the present Reid Hall as a gymnasium and more dormitories and classrooms which, by 1872, made the exterior of the old building substantially what we see today. A sanatorium was added to isolate sick children. These changes are reflected in the expansion in the numbers of pupils and staff; in 1836 there were four teachers for 36 pupils and by 1879 there were 13 teachers for 111 pupils. This allowed the Inspector of Grammar Schools to write in 1881 that he considered Armagh Royal “the most successful boarding school in the north of Ireland and [he believed] Armagh was probably the most suitable place for a Royal School in Ireland.” It is interesting to look at the subjects studied by the boys. The diet was unremitting: Mathematics, English, French, Latin and Greek for all from Forms I to VI. There must have been some relief, however, because the school rugby team won the inaugural Ulster Schools’ Cup in 1877.
The 20th century largely saw the school evolve from a fee-paying institution with some ‘free places’, serving a largely boarding community, to one which took mostly day pupils from a wide catchment area. Compulsory education had already made the school more accessible to those of more modest means but the real change came with the 1947 Education Act. This legislation opened what had been seen as an elitist institution to those of all backgrounds who were successful in the ‘qualifying examination’ or ‘11-plus’.
In response to this historic change and the inevitable increase in pupil numbers more buildings were erected to add to the new Preparatory Department opened in 1940. A new teaching block was opened on the site of the headmaster’s orchard in 1966 followed by the building of a new Headmaster’s Residence. By the early 1970s there were over 500 pupils including 150 boarders, a small proportion of whom came from overseas to enrich the cultural mix in school.
The 1970s and 1980s were difficult as they played host to ‘the troubles’ and demographic decline in Armagh with pupil numbers in both day and boarding dropping considerably. A significant change in the character of the school came in 1986 with the merger of the Royal School and Armagh Girls’ High School, the town’s girls’ grammar school.
There is no precise date for when the Girl’s High School was founded but it is known to have begun as a private establishment early in the 20th century. By 1924 there were two private girls’ schools in Armagh and in 1924 Richmond High School, located on the Mall merged its board of management with that of Armagh Girls’ High School, although each school operated separately until 1932. An impressive new building was opened in 1954 to cater for the enlarged pupil intake resulting from the single school and the passage of the 1947 Education Act.
Discussions about the creation of a coeducational selective school had started and stopped several times over the decades but concrete proposals were not published until 1983. The schools finally merged in August 1986 and, although boys and girls now attended classes together, the school continued to operate on two sites, using both buildings, with teachers commuting across the town, until extensions on the College Hill site were completed in 1990.
As part of the school’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 2008, Her Majesty the Queen, accompanied by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, were guests of honour at a reception held in the school. Her Majesty and Prince Philip met with the Headmasters and Chairmen of the five Royal Schools in Ulster. Afterwards, the Queen broke with centuries of tradition by attending the first Maundy Thursday service to be held outside England and Wales. It was held in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, where the Queen presented Maundy Thursday alms purses to 164 people – 82 men and 82 women. These people came from all over Northern Ireland and were deemed to have made a significant contribution to church or community life.
As part of the 2008 celebrations, representatives from the five Royal Schools were invited by Irish President Mary McAleese to her official residence at Aras An Uachtarain in Pheonix Park, Dublin .
Since then Furlong House, the Combined Cadet Force building, a Technology and Design Centre, a Fitness and Conditioning Suite and Conference Room have been added. The purchase of four Georgian houses in the historic and iconic centre of Armagh known as “The Mall” have been completed with these grand old building being refurbished to a bespoke standard for Sixth Form boarders who come from all parts of the globe. As part of this redevelopment a 19th century grade II listed coach house was restored as boarding staff accommodation. The school continues to be at the centre of civic and cultural life. The ‘Big School Room’ in the ‘Old Building’ was the venue in 1994 in which His Royal Highness Prince Charles announced that Her Majesty the Queen was conveying city status on Armagh while the Sports Hall became the White House information Centre during President Clinton’s visit to Armagh in 1998. In 2014 the school was the venue for the announcement of Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
That the school has existed for so long is in no small way due to its tremendous ability to adapt to changing circumstances. As part and parcel of Ireland’s history it has faced the trials and tribulations that have afflicted the island but also dealt with the challenges of relocation, the demand for new facilities, pupil expansion, merger and curriculum change. It faces into its fifth century thankful for the work and leadership of those who have brought it thus far and confident that it has the capacity to continue to adapt to meet the challenges ahead.