Known throughout Ireland as the Orchard County and also as the Garden of Ulster, Armagh has a long history of apple-growing. In the fifth century, St Patrick is said to have planted an apple tree at an ancient settlement, Ceangoba, east of the present Armagh city. Meanwhile, the Culdee (Céli Dé - 'companion of God') monasteries of Armagh record that the brothers, whilst forbidden to increase their intake of bread at festival times, were instead allowed treats such as apples.
By the twelfth century, apple-growing was widespread here, as detailed in historical documents, with orchard planting increasing over the years. Several hundred years later, during the Plantation of Ulster, the planting of apple (amongst other fruits) orchards by local farm tenants was encouraged; they were to have an enclosed ditch and a white thorn hedge. The importance and good-standing of Armagh apples was highlighted with the arrival of King William in Ireland; before his victory at the Battle of the Boyne he sent equipment and his cider maker, Paul le Harper, to Portadown to ensure his army would not go without their favoured cider.
With such a tradition for apple-growing, customs and superstitions grew too. For instance, local people would gather to drink a toast to the best fruit-bearing tree of the season. Apples would be saved for St Brigid's Eve at the end of January to make griddle apple cake, sometimes known as St Brigid's tea. In July, a wet St Swithin's Day was taken to indicate a bumper crop of really large apples. At Halloween, a time often associated with apples, people who were single would throw apple peelings over their shoulder to reveal the initials of the person they would marry. On a darker note, a tree bearing both fruit and blossom was sign of a death to come before the next harvest.
First grown in England, the Bramley apple arrived in Armagh in 1884 through Mr Nicholson of Crangill, who had bought sixty Bramley seedlings from Henry Merryweather, the Nottinghamshire nurseryman who spotted the Bramley's potential in the early 1860s. Forty years on from their arrival in Northern Ireland, and the Bramley had become the main apple grown in Armagh. Even though there has been a decline in numbers since the 1920s, there are still approximately 5,000 acres of orchards in the Orchard County. (However, this is thought to have played a part in the decline of many heritage varieties such as Keegan's Crab and Milltown Cooker. A Heritage Orchard at Loughgall works to preserve these and many other forgotten apples.)
For anyone wishing to celebrate Armagh apples these days, there are a number of events throughout the year, including the Apple Festival in October, and Apple Blossom tours in May which visit the orchards and old houses of the area during the spell of beautiful pink blossom (of particular note is the Sunday in late May designated as Apple Blossom Sunday). Fairs, concerts and merry-making are a feature of the area at this time. As the locals know, there is much to celebrate about the Armagh apple, and long may its reign continue.