12 May 2011

Staying in the Charlemont Arms in Armagh

The Charlemont Arms Hotel ... three and a half centuries of history in Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Armagh for the rest of the week, taking part in the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, which is meeting in the Armagh City Hotel from today [Thursday 12 May] until Saturday [14 May].

Much of the time at this year’s General Synod will be spent debating reports from committees, councils, commissions and boards. There will be debates too on a prayer for Northern Ireland in the Book of Common Prayer, regulations for local ecumenical partnerships, committee membership, stipends and the chapter of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, and motions for debate on education in Northern Ireland, a code of conduct for clergy, and the implementation of the Hard Gospel project.

However, the most considerable matter for debate is likely to be the Anglican Covenant and whether or not the Church of Ireland should subscribe to it.

Changing Attitude Ireland is hosting a lunchtime talk tomorrow [Friday] by Paul Rowlandson on “Parents Speak: My Child is Gay.” At the same time, Archbishop Alan Harper is launching a new on-line publication from Church of Ireland Publishing. The Book of Common Prayer (2004) Commentaries by Canon Michael Kennedy, is a comprehensive treatment of all the authorised services in The Book of Common Prayer and is intended as an aid, especially for those in training for ministry, to deepen understanding of the Church’s liturgical heritage.

Another new publication is The Extra Mile, a guide to community engagement and development for churches, written by the Revd Earl Storey and the Revd Robert Miller for the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe.

During these three days, I am staying at the Charlemont Arms Hotel in English Street, a third-generation, family-run hotel in the centre of this historical city. The motto on the Earl of Charlemont’s coat-of-arms, over the hotel front door, which gives its name to the hotel, proclaims boldly: Deo Duce Ferro Comitante, “God is my leader, the sword is my companion.” The first part of the motto is appropriate for synod members staying in Armagh – but I would have serious problems about the second part.

The hotel, which has thrived throughout the centuries, was originally home to a Dr Atkinson. By the 1760s, it had become a hostelry known as “The Caulfeild Arms.” It was renamed in 1763, when James Caulfeild (1728-1799), fourth Viscount Caulfeild, was given the title Earl of Charlemont.

In 1746, at the age of 18 year, he was sent on a Grand Tour of Europe, accompanied by the Revd Edward Murphy him as his tutor. During his Grand Tour, which lasted nine years, he travelled to Holland and Germany, and spent a year in Rome and Naples before travelling on to Greece, where he was totally fascinated by the Parthenon in Athens and made drawings of the building long before it was destroyed by Lord Elgin.

He visited Turkey and Egypt too before returning to Rome in 1750, where he met many famous people, including the architect William Chambers, the sculptors Simon Vierpyl and Joseph Wilton and the artist and decorator Giovanni Battista Cipriani. He spent vast sums of money collecting paintings, sculptures and books and shipping them home.

He returned to Ireland in 1755, and went on to build both the Casino in Marino and Charlemont House in Dublin, now home to the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art.

Although bestowed with titles and honours, he disregarded court favours and formed a political alliance with Henry Flood and Henry Grattan. In 1780, as Lord Charlemont, he became the commander-in-chief of the Irish Volunteers and in 1783 presided at the Volunteer Convention in Dublin. From then on was known as the Volunteer Earl. In the heyday of the Volunteers, there was a Charlemont Arms in every Irish town of note. However, this hotel may be the only one to survive – something that makes the current proprietors very proud.

Records show that John Hughes became the proprietor in 1852. He retained ownership until 1892, when a J.H. Mann was listed as its owner. Two years later, it was known as “Mann’s Hotel and Hydropathic Establishment,” and the facilities on offer included Turkish, plunge and other baths.

The hotel had a number of different proprietors from 1906 to 1933. Then, in 1934, it passed into the ownership of Robert and Elizabeth Forster. Their son, Robin Forster, and his wife Gretta were also at the forefront of the family business for many years and now the third generation is involved in running the hotel.

As owners, the Forster family has made a significant investment in the hotel. It was largely rebuilt in 1976-1979 after bomb damage, and major renovations in May 1999 incorporated two adjacent derelict buildings. These renovations have enhanced the hotel, providing 18 more bedrooms and a larger foyer and reception area.

The hotel is perfectly located between Armagh’s two cathedrals and close to the beautiful Mall, the theatre, city centre shops, the Armagh Planetarium and Observatory, the Armagh County Museum, the old Armagh Women’s Gaol.

And, of course, it’s a short stroll from the synod venue and many synod members are staying here – maybe this is where a lot of the synod work is going to be done.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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