An introduction to Northern Ireland

northern ireland

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

Northern Ireland is a land seeped in natural beauty. It features rolling green hills that are whitened by snow in the winter months or shimmer in the sunlight in the warmer ones. It is surrounded by restless oceans, sometimes calm but often rough and dangerous, breaking wildly upon the shore and cliffs. Visitors to Northern Ireland find it awash with history, myths and legends: from the pilgrimage of St Patrick to gaze upon Slemish in County Antrim, to the swinging planks of Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge on the Causeway Coast. A short trip from there takes you to the famed Giant’s Causeway, where long dormant volcanic activity has crafted massive hexagonal pillars that jut 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; transport is easy to find and simple to use; the people are friendly and welcoming. Yet for all its warmth, visitors to Northern Ireland will see plenty of reminders of the violence that has scarred, shaped and characterised this amazing place and its people.

Some people, especially Loyalists, use the name Ulster to refer to Northern Ireland. Technically this is incorrect, as the name Ulster traditionally refers to nine counties. Today Northern Ireland comprises six counties: Antrim, Down, Armagh, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone (the other three Ulster counties – Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan – all belong to the independent Republic of Ireland). Religion has shaped and defined Northern Ireland, past and present. Today just over 42 per cent 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 per cent of Northern Ireland citizens are Roman Catholic while the remainder belong to other religions or do not identify with any particular faith. The population of Northern Ireland is overwhelmingly white Caucasian; 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, although traditional Ulster Gaelic is undergoing something of a renaissance and is being taught again in some secondary schools.

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The Northern Ireland parliament building at Stormont

The largest city in Northern Ireland is Belfast, with a population of just over 280,000 people in the city and another 483,000 living in the suburban areas clustered around it. The city is home to the famous Harland and Wolff shipyards, famous as the birthplace of the RMS Titanic and home to 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 itself 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 also depart Northern Ireland from both Belfast and Larne. To the east of Belfast lies Stormont Estate, home to the Parliament buildings and location of the Assembly of Northern Ireland. The grounds of Stormont are sprawling; 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. 

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Remnants of the Troubles can be found all over Northern Ireland

A little over an hour’s drive north-west 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, Derry has a sizeable majority of Roman Catholics; 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 century Derry was the heart of Northern Ireland’s textiles industry, particularly shirt-making. 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. New facilities have been constructed to complement Derry’s eye-catching architecture. A newly constructed modern walkway follows the course of the River Foyle; it has been dubbed ‘Fat-Arse Alley’ by the locals, due to its popularity as a walking track. The city centre is a peaceful and busy area with the look and feel of a university town. Once the home of Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, Derry is the United Kingdom’s City of Culture in 2013.

“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

For all the optimism, vibrancy and progress in Northern Ireland, reminders of the 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 local police vehicles can still be seen, something that may seem intimidating and out of place in an apparently peaceful city. Colourful political murals adorn the walls and building sides in many areas, while local neighbourhoods often have their own memorial gardens that list the names of men, women and children lost in the Troubles. Graffiti from political and paramilitary groups like the Provisional Irish Republican Army or the Ulster Defence Association is never difficult to find. In recent times streets in central Belfast have been clogged by protests about whether or not the Union Jack should be flown above Belfast’s Town Hall. From a visitor’s perspective, the warmth of the Irish people does much to conceal any political tensions that might exist in Northern Ireland. There is an obvious feeling of hopefulness about the future, a desire to move forward that seems to be shared by the majority of people in Northern Ireland. But for all that, old wounds have not fully healed and a minority of the population still embrace the Catholic and Protestant divide. For now there is peace in Northern Ireland – but it is an uneasy peace.

northern ireland

1. Northern Ireland occupies six counties of the traditional region of Ulster, at the north-eastern tip of Ireland.
2. Northern Ireland has a population of around 1.85 million people, most of whom are Roman Catholic or Protestant.
3. Two cities dominate Northern Ireland: the capital and industrial centre Belfast and Derry in the north-east.
4. Since the Troubles these cities have undergone an economic and cultural revival, attracting investment and tourism.
5. But 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.

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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],