Ulster Orchestra Celebrate St Patrick's Day in Armagh

A ten-day festival culminates on Monday, March 18 with a concert by the Ulster Orchestra at St Patrick's Cathedral

16 centuries ago, Saint Patrick, who had already been travelling as a missionary in Ireland for over a decade, arrived at a spot in the ancient province of Ulster named Ard Mhacha ('The Height of Macha'), known today as Armagh city.

He built a church on the hill there, which many centuries, rebuilds and renovations later, still stands proudly as St Patrick's Cathedral, spiritual epicentre of the Church of Ireland and seat of its Anglican archbishopric.

It's there on Ard Macha, on a raised elevation facing the city's other magnificent ecclesiastical edifice, the Catholic St Patrick's Cathedral, that a ten-day festival celebrating Armagh's links with the legendary prelate will come to a resonant conclusion on Monday, March 18, with a concert given by the Ulster Orchestra.

There has already been plenty of Saint Patrick-related activity at this year's festival. It opened on March 8, when The Priests brought their unique brand of crowd-pleasing vocalism to the Catholic cathedral. The following day the folk band Raglan played the city centre, and a flash mob of over 100 local people thronged the streets and thoroughfares.

''We had an afternoon of traditional music in the city centre,' comments Assumpta O'Neill, Sales and Marketing Officer at Armagh City and District Council,' and the flash mob was a good way of getting locals involved. We had over 100 people taking part, ranging from three-years old to adults. It had everything in it, from Irish dancing to hip hop and pop music.'

Still to come is 'Bard Heats', described as 'an evening of uproarious bardic revelry' at which 12 aspiring humorists will recite their odes, in an attempt to claim a place in the finals of the prestigious Bard of Armagh Festival of Humorous Verse. That's at the Derrynoose Community Centre on the evening of Friday, March 15.

The next day brings an army of talented amateur musicians into town for 'Busking in the City', where a prize fund of £1,200 should set the competitive juices flowing among the participants.

Spanning the entire St Patrick's holiday weekend, from Friday until Monday, is 'Trad Trail', a cornucopia of concerts and sessions by traditional musicians and dancers. No fewer than a dozen different venues are participating, with 29 separate happenings listed.

Pride of place, however, is probably reserved for the two large-scale events that will cap the final two days of the festival. The first is the big St Patrick's Day Parade itself, beginning at noon on Sunday March 17. O'Neill is brimming with anticipation about it.

'This year we have our biggest ever Saint Patrick's Day Parade,' she enthuses, 'with over 1,000 people taking part. This includes members of local community groups, businesses and sporting groups.'

As well as fun for all the family, with 'marching bands, walkabout characters, colourful floats, dance performances, and the sound of drums, pipes and song' all promised, local traders are ensuring there will be significant retail opportunities available for those attending.

'Businesses in the area have special offers running for the weekend,' explains O'Neill, 'and, in addition, some of our attractions are doing guided tours over Saint Patrick’s weekend.'

And then, on Monday, March 18, the grand finale – a rare visit to Armagh from the Belfast-based Ulster Orchestra, for the closing concert of the festival at the Church of Ireland cathedral. O'Neill feels that the historic building will provide a uniquely sympathetic environment for an evening of high-quality classical music-making.

'St Patrick’s Cathedral is a majestic setting. It is on this hill that Saint Patrick built his first great stone church in 445 AD. There has been a church on the site ever since, with this particular building dating back to 1268. Inside the cathedral you can see a direct link from Saint Patrick to the current Archbishop. The venue is fantastic for a concert, and the acoustics are top class.'

O'Neill's enthusiasm is shared by Sharon Haughey, Lord Mayor of Armagh City and District Council. 'The Ulster Orchestra concert is the perfect event to close our ten-day festival celebrating Armagh’s association with Saint Patrick,' Haughey adds.

'The awe-inspiring setting of St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral is the perfect venue for this musical extravaganza. The evening promises to be one to remember, as the glorious sounds of the Ulster Orchestra are set to echo through this majestic cathedral.'

For the Ulster Orchestra itself, which plays most of its concerts in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, the trip to Armagh will bring a refreshing change of scenery, in surroundings radically different from those they normally perform in.

The programme that the orchestra is bringing to Armagh is cleverly gauged to be instantly accessible and listener-friendly. It combines Bach's 'Third Brandenburg Concerto' and Mozart's 'Fourth Violin Concerto' (see video above), with a short work by Puccini and Haydn's witty 'Clock' symphony, so-called on account of its mischievous, tick-tock Adagio movement.

Ioana Petcu-Colan, the orchestra's associate leader, will play the solo part in the Mozart concerto, with its exotic 'Turkish' effects in the finale, and first violinist Tamas Kocsis will direct the concert from the leader's chair. It should be a memorable evening's music-making, in the hallowed spaces of a remarkable building.

St Patrick's Day 2013 will see the largest celebrations ever held in Northern Ireland, with the two-day St Patrick's Day Carnival scheduled to take place in Derry~Londonderry (see video below from the 2012 celebrations), and a four-day St Patrick's Day Festival in Belfast.