County Armagh apples are famous throughout the island of Ireland and beyond. Each year natives of the county celebrate this heritage in the form of the Apple Blossom Festival. Towns and villages throughout the locality organise events, activities and exhibitions, many with an apple theme. The festival takes place in May each year when the countryside is alive with fresh pale pink blossoms on ancient apple trees.
The apple was first cultivated in the Middle East approximately four millennia ago. Its connection with the county of Armagh dates back to the legend of two young Gaelic lovers. Baile, heir to the throne of Ulster, fell in love with Aillin, daughter of the King of Leinster. Knowing the match would lead to war Druids ruled that the lovers would not be together in this world. Unwilling to disavow their love Baile and Aillin arranged to meet and marry in secret.
Baile set forth from Emain Macha, now Armagh, but on the way was told of the death of his betrothed. So overcome with grief was the young man that he died. At the same time a similar story was told to Aillin with the same fatal results. So a cruel plot parted the young lovers. Tradition says that an apple tree was planted on each grave and later cut down and inscribed with the story of the tragic couple.
Another legend says the apple tree got its shape because it bowed to the Blessed
In fact apples have been cultivated in Ireland since the times of the Romans. However, St.Patrick was credited with planting the first apple tree in the county at Ceangoba, east of the city of Armagh. By the death of the chief of Macans Tribe in 1155 it seems apples were being produced in significant quantities. In his obituary it is recorded that his tribe regularly produced a 'strong drink' from the apples in his orchard.
A significant number of County Armagh orchards were established at the time of the plantations in the seventeenth century. Noblemen developed orchards for pleasure while estate tenants developed theirs for cultivation. It was not long before cider was being manufactured by the hogshead.
Despite the encroachment of other industries the apple industry has continued to flourish within the county. More than that the Apple Blossom Festival ensures that its heritage is preserved. Traditions to have persisted. Until about fifty years ago it was common practice following the apple pulling to drink a toast to the best bearing tree of that year. Other activities such as bobbing for apples at Halloween are still popular. Less common now is the practice of boys and girls throwing an apple peel over their shoulder to discover the initials of the one they are to marry
Still more legends say apples are a good treatment for ulcerated wounds or that a bumper harvest would be achieved if it were wet on St.Swithin's Day. Even now there persists a superstition that if at pulling time a tree were bearing flowers and fruit at the same time there would be a death in the family before the next apple pulling.
T. G. F. Paterson, "County Armagh Apples" in E. Estyn Evans (editor), Harvest Home, the Last Sheaf: A Selection from the Writings of T. G. F. Paterson Relating to County Armagh (Dundalgan Press, 1975) , pp.83-89.