At the turn of the 21st century, most institutions approached a celebration of a new millennium with more than a degree of humility: not so, ‘Armagh Royal’ for it could claim to have been in existence continuously for over four hundred years.
Indeed, this could be seen as a prelude to the celebration of its quater centenary in 2008. That the school has existed for so long is in no small way due to its tremendous capacity to adapt. It was a product of Ireland’s history and it has continued to reflect the trials and tribulations that have been faced: not only educational but also social and political. This is shown in the buildings, the students and the curriculum.
Here a word of caution must be added. Before the 20th century’s mass education and public money, there was no requirement to keep records. If the second Headmaster, John Starkey, and his family could be murdered in the 1641 Rising, you get some idea of the problem of knowing what went on in the early years. Accordingly, a note of gratitude must be added to those historians who have established much of the school’s past.
The school owes its existence to a 1608 decree of King James I’s Privy Council “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 came into being 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.
Such an early attempt at social engineering would not have succeeded without the promise of not only cheap land and personal security but also education that would safeguard the religion of the new population. Not for the first or last time, the plan took time to come to fruition. Although 700 acres of land at Mountnorris was granted to Archbishop Usher to finance the County Armagh School, the Royal Charter was not forthcoming until 1627 when it was issued by James’s son, Charles I. Despite this, it is recorded that an Oxford graduate, John Lydiat, was teaching there in 1608. The school was probably at Mountnorris, 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 its 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 and the city owe much to the generosity and foresight 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 the school. At a cost of £5,078 what is known 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 Greuber, the Headmaster, had invested almost half the necessary funds showing his confidence in the school’s future. The front of the school is still be recognisable today.
The 18th century certainly appeared to be a successful one for the establishment. A glance at the ‘school register’ prepared by Major Ferrar shows strong representation of the Anglo-lrish establishment, including the later speaker of the Irish Parliament, Issac Corry, and Lord Castlereagh, British Foreign Secretary at the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and an important influence in the-reconstruction of 19th century Europe. 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.
However, the land allowed extra building and the development of the curriculum and extra-curricular provision. That these were required was clear. In 1833, there were only 19 pupils but by 1849 this had risen to 63 making the school the largest of the Royal schools in Ulster. The decline was partly a result of the Act of Union, which made Ireland less of a focus for the establishment and perhaps partly due to the experience of the historically famous ‘barring-out’ incidents. This event was not unique in British schools but it must have had some effect on their popularity at the time.
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 know today. A sanatorium was added to isolate sick children. These changes are reflected in the expansion of pupil members and members of staff. In 1836 there were four teachers including the Headmaster for 36 pupils. 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 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 because the school rugby team won the inaugural Ulster Schools’ Cup in 1877.
The 20th century has largely seen the school evolve from a fee-paying institution with some ‘free places’ serving a largely boarding community to one which takes mostly day pupils from a wide catchment area. Compulsory education had made the school more accessible but the real challenge came with the 1947 Education Act which opened what was to be seen as an eletist institution to those who were successful in the ‘qualifying examination’ or ’11-plus’. In response, more buildings were erected to add to the new Preparatory school opened in 1940. A new teaching block was opened on the site of the Headmaster’s orchard in 1966 followed by a new prestigious Headmaster’s Residence. By the early 1970’s there were over 500 pupils including 150 boarders a small proportion of whom came from overseas to enrich the cultural mix. To some extent this represented the reverse of the 19th and early 20th century pathway of ‘Old Armachians’ many of whom entered the army or became administrators in Britain’s overseas empire.
As part of the school’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 2008, the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, were guests of honour at a reception that was 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 form 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 President Mary McAleese to her official residence at Aras An Uachtarain in Pheonix Park, Dublin .
In the past twenty years, a new Combined Cadet Force building, Technology and Design Centre, Fitness and Conditioning Suite, Conference facility 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 has been restored as boarding staff accommodation of a very high standard.