The city of Armagh is no stranger to royalty and spirituality; it is called the city of St. Patrick who founded his church here, and before St. Patrick, the city was near the seat of the high kings of Ulster. Indeed, is not quite three miles from Armagh, and the site is considered to be the most important ancient site in Northern Ireland.
It would seem no accident, therefore, that Armagh has played a powerful role in the Peace and Reconciliation Plan for Northern Ireland. The city's Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, which opened its doors in 2000, has become a symbol of integration through the arts. For a city of 15,000 inhabitants, this multicultural center - equipped with beautiful theaters, an art gallery, a restaurant, a library, and meeting spaces - rivals cultural centers in Ireland's larger cities.
In America, a city of similar size would rarely have such a complex theater arts center. But in Armagh, the Market Place has become a matter of intense pride, literally a magnet for Northern Irish artists, poets, writers, politicians, and musicians to come to perform, discuss issues, and instill the best of culture to eager audiences.
Form and Function
The Market Place building sits on a hill in Armagh's center, across from the library and the AmmA Centre, where children and adults take classes in the newest technologies. The theatre and arts center is a beautiful, spacious building that almost embraces you as you walk up the steps to the main entrance. Natural light streams into the front reception area reflecting the natural world outside. Inside is a gallery for visual arts, a 400-seat theatre, two workshop rooms, and a smaller theater for discussions, readings, or meetings. The lower level features a bistro that opens out onto a patio and an outside stage for entertainment. All these features come together to make a place that is very welcoming.
The art center plays a unique role in Armagh. The third week in July 2007, the Market Place hosted the 20th John Hewitt International Summer School, a five-day festival of culture and creativity themed around the contributions of the late Northern Ireland poet John Hewitt. This year's theme, "The Wide Hearth: Ready to Talk?" especially reflects the mood of dialogue and cooperation that Northern Ireland residents experience. And Armagh was the epicenter, where the country's most prestigious voices, including Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, Northern Ireland's Victims' Commissioner, Belfast novelist Ronan Bennett, poets Ciaran Carson and Sinead Morrissey, international soprano Dr. Angela Feeney, and political leaders from Ireland's four major parties, among many others, met to exchange performances, information, and ideas.
Why does this small but historic city rate such a world-class arts complex?
Birth of a Cultural Center
Jill McEneaney, the director of the Market Place, explained, "The District Council wanted to make a neutral space to bring people together." Apparently many art exhibitions and performances were being held around town, but performers and artists had to use schools or other public spaces. "The Market Place provides a safe and neutral space for the community," she added. The cultural center already makes a significant contribution to the community of Armagh through a wide variety of art programs. As people come in to buy tickets for the latest play, sign up for a workshop, or view the current art exhibition, they show just what a great way this is to let peace grow.
This year's John Hewitt International Summer School five-day extravaganza of creative writing classes, discussion forums, theatrical performances, and poetry readings was very well attended. All ages were welcome. By increasing the opportunities for everyone to come together, the very presence of the Market Place seems to be an investment in the future of the city.
Armagh is a very fortunate city. To have a place where expression is valued, where a facility has been built to support those values: this is extraordinary, and this is Armagh.
Story by Jane Koelle
Photos by Megan McGovern
Video by Laura McKean-Peraza
Web Design by Alexandra Cavallo