Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland consists of the six counties at the North East corner of Ireland. At the time of partition in 1921 Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone either had a Protestant majority, or in the case of Fermanagh and Tyrone more or less parity with the Roman Catholic community. Three of the counties of the ancient Province of Ulster, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan became part of the newly independent Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland or Eire).

At the centre of Northern Ireland is Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the whole of the United Kingdom. Legend has it that Finn MacCool created this lake as well as the Giant's Causeway, but more of him later.

Five of the counties of Northern Ireland have an inland coast on Lough Neagh. Clockwise from Belfast and the Lagan Valley they are Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Londonderry and Antrim. Fermanagh the only county not to border Lough Neagh makes up for it with Northern Ireland's own lakeland based around Upper and Lower Lough Erne which dominate the geography of that county.

Dispite it's name Northern Ireland does not contain the most Northerly point of mainland Ireland, this is Malin Head in Donegal. So it is possible to travel north from Londonderry and end up in the south.

The main rivers which flow through Northern Ireland are the Bann which rises in County flows into Lough Neagh and out at the North West corner on through Coleraine and unto the sea. Also rising in the Mournes in the Lagan, which flows towards Lough Neagh before leaving the central plateau towards Belfast. The other main rivers industrially are the River Foyle which serves Londonderry and the Bush on which the Bushmills distillery is situated.

Also Known As

There are many pseudonyms for Northern Ireland so here's a brief look at them and how they came into being.:

  • The Province: As stated above it does not comprise all of the historic Province of Ulster, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan being part of the Republic of Ireland. This term is however largely used by the Unionist community
  • Ulster: The proper name of the province, used falsely by the Unionist community and their paramilitary organisations to apparently speak for three counties in the republic as well as Northern Ireland. However before the partition Unionist where trying to keep the whole of Ulster in the United Kingdom. Admittedly U does need less paint than NI for graffiti purposes.
  • The North: A foreshortening of the name and used by both communities to some extent, with Eire being referred to as the south. Also with Donegal to the West and slightly further north not 100% accurate.
  • The Six Counties: Used by Nationalists who refuse to recognise the separation and therefore will not recognise or call it Northern Ireland.


A brief history of the important events that are Northern Ireland specific.

  • 1912 with a growing call for Home rule in Ireland, Sir Edward Carson set up the first Ulster Volunteer Force to oppose Dublin's aim to separate the whole island from the Union. Many see him as the founder of Northern Ireland, his statue stands at the top of the long drive up to Stormont the seat of Northern Ireland's Parliament Building.
  • 1916 following the Easter uprising in Dublin the Irish Free State is set up in 1921 of the 26 predominantly Nationalist counties. The other six form Northern Ireland and are given their own Parliament and Prime Minister. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is opposed to the partition and civil erupts.
  • 1958 Northern Ireland's football team reach the QuarterFinal of the World Cup in Sweden. The Team also reaches the final stages in Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986.
  • 1968 the start of the Civil Rights movement demanding equal rights in housing and voting for poorer Catholics. Universal suffrage had still to be achieved.
  • 1969 the Royal Ulster Constabulary are armed in border regions as the Civil Rights and counter demonstrations lead to violence. Troops are also sent in to help calm sectarian violence.
  • 1970 the British Troops are seen as an army of occupation by the IRA and several are shot; the troubles have begun.
  • 1972 the Conservative Government of Edward Heath, following the killing of 13 Catholics in the events of Bloody Sunday, imposes direct rule and dissolves the Northern Irish Parliament.
  • 1974 a power sharing executive is set up in January in a bid to included Catholics in the decision making process. In May a general strike from the Protestant community in protest leads to the executive being disbanded and direct rule re-imposed.
  • 1985 the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement which tries to set up a number of cross border initiatives.
  • August 1994 the IRA announce a cease-fire later the Loyalists also announce a cease-fire. Talks get under way, with all sides, to reach a peaceful solution. These involve the American President Bill Clinton who visits Northern Ireland in December 1995.
  • Feb 1996 the IRA announce an end to their cease-fire as progress is not being made, one hour later a bomb explodes in Canary Wharf, London. A campaign of bombing on the Mainland and in Northern Ireland continues until July 1997 when a second cease-fire is announced.
  • August 1997 a month after the cease-fire Sinn Fein are allowed into the peace talks at Stormont. They later sign up to the principles for the talks laid down by US Senator George Mitchell who will chair the talks which begin with all the parties represented in October. However the whole peace process is in doubt with the continuation of sectarian violence and the Loyalist prisoners withdrawing support, until the Secretary of States visits them in the Maze. Deadlines are set but no agreement seems imminent.
  • 1998 the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern, despite losing his mother, spend a week in Belfast to forge an agreement on time. Slightly late it was signed in the early hours of Good Friday 1998.
  • May 1998 the referendum on May 22 was accepted with a vote of 71.2% of people in Northern Ireland and 94.39% in the Republic. A Northern Irish Assembly was elected on 25 June 1998 and a power sharing executive including for the first time Sinn Fein minister was established, meeting first in Shadow form to set up procedures before being handed power.
  • 1999 a Northern Irish assembly is re-established with the first truly power-sharing executive across the religious divide.


The population of Northern Ireland is approximately 1.5 million people. With approximately one third leaving in the capital Belfast. The other cities are Londonderry, Armagh (the ecclesiastical capital of both the Anglican Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic Church) and Armagh. In fact of 22 places with a population of over 20,000 in the whole or Ireland twelve of these are found in Northern Ireland. Six of these are in the densely populated area around Belfast Lough, Bangor, Belfast, Carrickfergus, Lisburn, Newry, Newtownabbey and Newtownards.

This population is largely white with a smaller ethnic mix than the rest of the United Kingdom Chinese about 4000, Indian c. 1000,
Pakistani 700 and the travelling community about 1500. However the ethnicity is spilt along religious rather than racial lines. The two main communities are the Protestant largely Unionist community and the Roman Catholic largely Nationalist community.

Many of the Protestants can trace their families to the Scots who immigrated as part of the plantation to the best farming land of Ireland which was located in Ulster. Most of the Roman Catholics were either original residents in Ireland or came as labourers with their Scottish landlords. The backgrounds to these two communities is probably the main cause of the divisions that sadly exist to this day. Plus the prosecution at various times by both sides of the other.

Principal Centres of Population

Town/CityCountyPopulation 19911


Although Northern Ireland is only 80 years old itself it's history goes back millennia.


Cuchulain was the nephew of King Conor of Ulster, and is renowned as the Achilles of Ireland. Along with two other heroes, Laegire and Conall, he was put to a test by King Ailill of Connaught.

Firstly the three dined in a separate room at King Conor's court. Ailill sent in three magic beasts in the form of cats. The other two hide in the rafter's Cuchulain continued to eat until attacked, then drew his sword struck the monster as was not attacked all night. The creatures disappeared in the morning.

Laegire and Conall said this test was unfair so they were all sent to Curoi of Kerry, who was a wise man. He was to use wizardry and enchantments to determine the greatest of the heroes. They stood outside his castle but Laegire and Conall were overcome by a giant. Cuchulain withstood the giant and also a dragon and other foes. The other two still denied he was the champion.

They returned to Armagh were a stranger bearing a large axe approached King Conor and said 'Behold my axe! The man who will grasp it to-day may cut my head off with it, provided that I may, in like manner, cut off his head to-morrow. If you have no champion who dare face me, I will say that Ulster has lost her courage and is dishonoured'. Only Laegire was present and he accepted the challenge and beheaded the stranger who gathered the axe and head and left. On his return the following evening to redeem the challenge Laegire refused to come forward but Conall accepted the challenge, but he did the same the next evening as Laegire. Then it was Cuchulain's turn. On his second evening he awaited in fear, but when the stranger turned up he placed his head on the block to face his fate. The ace was raised and came down but the blunt end hit the floor beside him, and the stranger revealed himself to be Curoi.

Curoi said 'Rise up, Cuchulain. There is none among all the heroes of Ulster to equal you in courage and loyalty and truth. The Championship of the Heroes of Ireland is yours from this day forth.' then promptly vanished.

There are many fables and poems about the exploits of Cuchulain and the successes he achieved he is definitely a figure of legend to rate with the greatest in Roman or Greek mythology.

Finn MacCool was the giant who lived on the North Coast he had a great rivalry with Benandonner across the sea in Scotland. After a dispute about Finn's fighting ability he grabbed a rock a threw it towards Scotland issuing a challenge to settle this claim. Benandonner responding with another rock saying he could not swim. Finn MacCool then tore slabs of volcanic rock from the plateau around him to pave a causeway to get across to his rival, the remains of which are the Giant's Causeway.

Benadonner had to accept his challenge and came across and entered Finn's house to find the comparatively small (by Giant standard's) dressed as a baby. On picking up the baby, Finn bit his rival's hand and chased him back to Scotland throwing piles of dirt at him. Legend has it that one of these was Lough Neagh but missed it's target and became Lough Neagh.

Geological History

First there is the geology and physical geography of the place. The Mountains of Mourne in County Down and the Antrim Plateau are two different types of igneous rock formations. The Mournes are granite caused by extinct volcanoes and cooling on the slopes. Whereas the Antrim plateau is Basalt formed by lava oozing from fissures in the ground and cooling uniformly. However one of the unique aspects of Antrim's basalt heritage are the hexagonal columns of the stuff on the North coast which form the Giant's Causeway one of the geological wonders of the world.

In county down with the erosion of glaciers through the various ice ages developed one of the world's most impressive drumlin fields. Drumlins are formed by the Moraines of eroded material left behind when a glacier retreats most of county down is filled with Drumlins which are a series of egg shaped hills left by the glacial deposits it is another majestic natural wonder on Northern Ireland.

Human History

There is plenty of archaeology and history still standing in Northern Ireland ranging for Neolithic village along the shores of the the River Bann to the most bombed hotel in the World the multi-storey Europa Hotel in Belfast with its Presidential Suite named after it most famous occupant Bill Clinton.

There are villages, graves, stone circles, forts, castles, ruins and churches etc. from almost every period of human occupation present in the rich fertile plains and valleys of Northern Ireland. A look at any of the ordinance survey maps from the area will leave many archaeologists wondering where to start.

A fine example of a stone circle is located to the west of Belfast high on a hill side over looking the Lagan Valley. The Giant's Ring is one of the largest stone circles in the United Kingdom. Signs of bronze and iron age existence include a number of hill forts and burial chambers, scattered near the coasts and waterways. Any cursory glance at a map will establish many such locations.

Christian Heritage

St. Patrick may be the patron saint of the whole of Ireland, having brought the Christian message with him, and he spent must of his time preaching in what is now Northern Ireland. His remains are buried in the grounds of Down Cathedral, Downpatrick.

But the Celtic church provides a major source of historical sites in Northern Ireland, round towers, hermitages, abbeys, monasteries litter the landscape some in ruins some still in use of rebuilt. One such monastery at Bangor was a major theological centre in the early first millennia and features on the Mapa Mundi but the original structure was ransacked by Viking invaders and the current abbey built from the stones of the ruin.

Another interesting ecclesiastical ruin is Inch Abbey situated within sight of Down Cathedral, Downpatrick. Before intensive farming, and therefore drainage, of the area the drumlins around Downpatrick were a series of mountains and Inch was established on one of these islands it's closeness to the heart of Christianity in Northern Ireland shows that this part of the country was a great ecclesiastical centre as it was the location where Patrick finished his life and was buried.

Armagh however became the centre for Christianity in Ireland in later year and has two Cathedrals one for the Roman Catholics and one for the Anglican Church or Ireland. There are therefore also two Archbishops of Armagh to serve these two cathedrals. The Roman Catholic Archbishop is also at times a Cardinal being the most senior member of the church of Rome in the country.

Norman Remains

Following the Norman Conquest the new rulers of England set about fortifying their new acquisition this included Ireland. One of the finest examples of a Norman Fort is at Carrickfergus. It was one of many built by the knight John de Courci during the reign of Henry II and still strikes and imposing presence on the North Shore of Belfast Lough. Other Norman forts and Castles are in various states of repair in Antrim, Down and Londonderry.

Transport and Living

The best place to get a general overview of Northern Irish history in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, between Belfast and Bangor.

To the north is the Transport museum in a number of large buildings tracing the history of transportation for dragging in the peat to Aerospace and trains. A permanent feature on the Titanic, which was, build at nearby Harland and Wolff shipyard charts the true story of the ship from its blueprints until the iceberg. Also there is massive railway building housing many engines and carriages.

Across the road is a massive outdoor museum which feature houses and buildings from all over Ulster. It has both and urban and rural part to it so there are a couple of terraces, along with a bank, church and shops in the urban part, and a rural section featuring a variety of farmhouses and workshops that would have serviced these communities.

A similar museum in county Tyrone is the Ulster American Folk Park which shows how early settlers in the new world translated there Northern Irish culture.

1Taken from the 1991 Census.

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