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Look back to US President Clinton’s visit to Armagh 25 years ago

Not many towns can say they've hosted the leader of the free world, but Armagh can say exactly that, and it happened 25 years ago this week.

Despite its humble size, Armagh City is well regarded as having a larger than life character and as such has seen a number of high profile visits over the years.

Back in May, the city hosted the newly-crowned King Charles III and Queen Camilla, who were greeted with fanfare outside The Market Place Theatre.

Prior to that, in 2021, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined dignitaries for a cross-community Northern Ireland Centenary Service in the Church of Ireland Cathedral.

US Presidential visits are often the envy of many towns the world over, being rare occasions in even the most prominent of cities.

Not many towns can say they’ve hosted the leader of the free world, but Armagh can say exactly that, and it happened 25 years ago this week.

This Sunday, September 3, will mark the 25th anniversary of President Bill Clinton’s visit to Armagh, where he address a crowd of thousands on the picturesque Mall.

Dubbed a ‘Gathering for Peace’, his visit came five months after the signing of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement where he addressed the ongoing Peace Process alongside then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and first and deputy first ministers David Trimble and Seamus Mallon.

At the outset of his speech, President Clinton said: “Armagh is a city on a hill in every sense. Your faith and tolerance are making a new era of peace possible. For yourselves and all the world, in every act of genuine reconciliation, you renew confidence that decency can triumph over hatred.”

He then joked: “I am tempted in this city of saints and cathedrals to call the peace of 1998 a miracle. After all, it was delivered through the agency of that good American angel, Senator George Mitchell, who is here. It was delivered on Good Friday.”

However, he added that the Agreement was not a “miracle” but that it arose from “the public’s passionate demand to take a different course” and the hard work of party leaders.

Speaking on the city of Armagh, he said: “Armagh has stood for these better aspirations throughout its long history. If there is a recurring theme to this seat of learning and religion, it is the largeness of the human spirit. Here, a Briton, Saint Patrick, devoted himself to the cause of Ireland and left a legacy of faith and compassion. Here, the Book of Armagh preserved his gentle message and the power of the gospels.

“Today, the two cathedrals that dominate the landscape stand for the idea that communion is better than destructive competition. Two proud traditions can exist side by side, bringing people closer to God and closer to each other.”

He continued: “Here, there have been difficulties, as elsewhere, but the historic streets of this old town remind us of a fundamental fact about your community: Armagh literally encircles its many traditions in a single community. That is what Northern Ireland must do if you want the future of peace and prosperity that belongs to the children in this crowd tonight.”

President Clinton’s visit came just weeks after the Omagh Bombing claimed 29 lives, which he described in his speech as a “blatant attack” on the people of Northern Ireland who support peace.

He said: “The Prime Minister and Mrs. Blair and Hillary and I just came from Omagh. We met with the families whose innocents were slaughtered. We met with those who were terribly wounded. We saw children scarred, some of them for life.”

Looking to the future, he said: “Think of what it will be like when everyone forever can simply walk freely through Armagh with no anxiety about what street you walk down or with whom you talk. Think how beautiful this city can be without any barbed wire and never a thought of a burned church.

“Peace brings peace of mind and prosperity and new friends eager to see this historic and compelling land for the first time. People once were afraid to come to Armagh and Northern Ireland. Now they will be hard pressed to stay away.”

Quoting the English poet and clergyman, John Donne, he added: “To continue John Donne’s beautiful metaphor, when the bells of Armagh toll, they ring out not just to the Irish of Protestant and Catholic traditions. They ring out to people everywhere in the world who long for peace and freedom and dignity. That is your gift.”

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