An introduction to Northern Ireland

northern ireland
A map showing the six counties and major cities of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is a land steeped in natural beauty. Its rolling green hills are whitened by snow in winter and shimmer in sunlight in the warmer months. It is surrounded by restless oceans, sometimes calm but often rough and dangerous, breaking wildly on its shore and cliffs. Visitors to Northern Ireland find it awash with history, myths and legends: from the pilgrimage of St Patrick to Slemish in County Antrim, to the swinging planks of the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge on the Causeway Coast. A short trip from there takes you to the famed Giant’s Causeway, where ancient volcanic activity has crafted massive hexagonal pillars jutting from the sea; local legends explain these pillars as the stepping stones of the giant Finn McCool. Another short trip might find you standing in stunning Dunluce, a ruined yet still majestic castle at what feels like the edge of the world. Northern Ireland’s cities are crowded and bustling, but friendly and accessible; transport is easy to find and use, while the people are warm and welcoming. But visitors to Northern Ireland will see reminders of its bloody recent history, the sectarian violence that has scarred and shaped this amazing place and its people.

Population and religion

Some locals, particularly Loyalists, use the name Ulster to refer to Northern Ireland. This is misleading, as the name Ulster traditionally refers to nine counties of Ireland. Northern Ireland today comprises six counties: Antrim, Down, Armagh, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone. The remaining three Ulster counties – Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan – belong to the independent Republic of Ireland. Religion has shaped and defined Northern Ireland, both past and present. Today just over 42 percent of the 1.85 million people in Northern Ireland identify as Protestant Christians, the majority of them Presbyterians or Church of Ireland (a local division of the Anglican Church). Approximately 41 percent of Northern Ireland citizens are Roman Catholic, while the remainder belong to other faiths or are irreligious. The population is overwhelmingly white; other ethnic groups are seen much less on the streets of Belfast or Derry than in other British cities. English is the most frequently spoken language, though in recent years traditional Ulster Gaelic has experienced a revival and is being taught again in some secondary schools.

northern ireland
The Northern Ireland parliament building at Stormont

Belfast is the capital and largest city in Northern Ireland. It has a population of over 280,000 people in the urban centre and another 483,000 in the suburban areas clustered around it. Belfast is home to the Harland and Wolff shipyards, famous as the birthplace of the RMS Titanic; these shipyards boast a tourist attraction that focuses on the doomed ship. A local joke attached to the liner, “She was sailing fine when she left here”, has become a catchphrase for tourists who visit the shipyards. Belfast continues to grow, with the construction and opening of several large shopping centres, including the popular Victoria Square, which features fashionable shops and cafes. Two airports – George Best Airport, named for the city’s best-known footballer, and Belfast International – bring visitors in from abroad, predominately from England. Ferry services to England and Scotland also sail from Belfast and Larne.

To the east of Belfast lies Stormont Estate, home to Northern Ireland’s Parliament buildings and the location of the Assembly of Northern Ireland. The grounds of Stormont are sprawling and picturesque; locals and tourists alike can be found wandering the green hills surrounding the palatial white buildings. The area around Stormont is affluent, with one of Northern Ireland’s busiest corporate hotels located just across the road. Accommodation itself is easy to find in Belfast, with tourists flocking to stay at locations like the Europa, which has the dubious honour of being the most bombed hotel in Northern Ireland.

Historic Londonderry

“At the height of the conflict, Northern Ireland was considered a no-go area and visitors stayed away altogether. Things couldn’t be any different today. Not only are visitors back but a percentage of them are visiting because of the legacy of the conflict. Increasing numbers of visitors, including from politically unstable destinations, and students from all over the world are, in fact, visiting Northern Ireland as part of international projects to learn about the Troubles and to see first-hand the effects of peace in a divided society.”
Omar Moufakkir, writer

Just over an hour’s drive north-west of Belfast is Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city. It is known interchangeably to locals as Londonderry or Derry, The Walled City or (according to a recent tourism campaign) ‘Legen-Derry’. Unlike Belfast the majority of Derry’s population is Roman Catholic; of the almost 110,000 people living in Derry’s urban area, almost three-quarters are from Catholic backgrounds. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Derry was the heart of Northern Ireland’s textiles industry. Some of the worst violence of the Troubles occurred in Derry, most notably the Battle of the Bogside (August 1968) and Bloody Sunday, the fatal shooting of 14 civilians by British soldiers (January 1972). Today, Derry is undergoing an economic and cultural revival. Foreign corporations specialising in digital technologies have invested in the city. Newly constructed complement Derry’s eye-catching architecture. A new modern walkway follows the course of the River Foyle (dubbed ‘Fat Arse Alley’ by the locals, due to its popularity as a walking track). The city centre is a peaceful but busy area with the look and feel of a university town. Once the home of Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, Derry was named Great Britain’s City of Culture in 2013.

Scars of the Troubles

northern ireland
Remnants of the Troubles can be found all over Northern Ireland

For all this optimism, vibrancy and progress, reminders of Northern Ireland’s Troubles are never far away. A tourist driving around Belfast or Derry will inevitably stumble on the towering ‘peace walls’ that divide Catholic and Protestant areas. Heavily armoured police vehicles can still be seen, an intimidating sight in an apparently peaceful city. Colourful political murals adorn the walls and building sides in many areas, while several local neighbourhoods have their own memorial gardens that list the names of those lost in the Troubles. Graffiti by political and paramilitary groups like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) or the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) is not difficult to find. In recent times streets in Belfast have been clogged by so-called flag protests: bickering over whether the Union Jack should be flown above the city’s Town Hall. From a visitor’s perspective, the warmth of the Irish people helps conceal any political tensions that exist in Northern Ireland. There is a palpable feeling of hopefulness about the future, a desire to move forward that is shared by the majority of people in Northern Ireland. But for all that, old wounds have not fully healed and a minority of Northern Irelanders still embrace the Catholic-Protestant divide. For now, there is peace in Northern Ireland – but it is a careful and uncertain peace.

northern ireland introduction key points

1. Northern Ireland is a country of the United Kingdom, occupying six counties of the traditional region of Ulster, located in the north-east of Ireland.

2. Northern Ireland has a population of around 1.85 million people, the vast majority of whom are white and either Roman Catholic or Protestant.

3. Two large cities dominate Northern Ireland: the capital and industrial centre Belfast and the Catholic stronghold of Derry in the north-east.

4. Since the Troubles ended these Northern Ireland cities have undergone an economic and cultural revival, attracting investment, rebuilding and tourism.

5. Northern Ireland’s cities and towns are also marked by salient reminders of the Troubles, including memorial gardens, peace walls, murals, political graffiti and checkpoints. Today the people of Northern Ireland enjoy peace and hope for the future – but the risks of sectarianism and conflict are never far away.

© Alpha History 2017. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “An introduction to Northern Ireland”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],