Northern Ireland has a turbulent history and a culture shaped by the UK, Ireland, and religion. Long periods have been beset by violence, most recently The Troubles of the 1970s and 80s, though things are quiet today. Tourism is booming as a result and visitors can enjoy the rich culture of the various peoples.
People have been here for thousands of years—the Celts themselves since about 500BC—followed by the Vikings and then the English in the 12th century. The nub of Northern Irish history came at the time of Henry VIII’s claim of the Kingdom of Ireland in the 16th century. England and Presbyterian Scots began settling, followed by discrimination against Catholics through Oliver Cromwell and William of Orange.
Union with Britain came in 1801 and, following the Potato Blight in the middle of the century, many Irish from the north and south emigrated to the US and Great Britain. Ireland was eventually granted home rule in 1921, with an opt-out available for Northern Ireland (Ulster). The Irish Free State would become the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
Protestants and Catholics lived uneasily in the six counties of Ulster, which lead to unrest and the Protestants asking for British help. As a counter, the IRA surfaced and started a bombing campaign in the North and on the British mainland. Known as ‘The Troubles’, it would lead to the deaths of some 3,000 on both sides. A referendum was held in the 1970s, with an overwhelming majority for British rule.
Peace would come in 1998 on the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which included the withdrawal of British troops and the cessation of IRA activities. Power is shared today between Nationalists and Unionists (as opposed to London), though there is still the occasional unrest during Loyalist parades. For a complete picture of The Troubles and the story of Northern Ireland, visit the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
Belfast became a city in 1888, and, as the capital, it has the most impressive buildings, including the turn of the century City Hall and the rebuilt Belfast Castle. Armagh is replete with ecclesiastical splendor, including the ancient Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, while nearby Navan Fort boasts 2,000 years of history, and Londonderry (previously Derry) retains its old city wall—the most complete in Ireland. Beating all of these, Northern Ireland’s most famous landmark in history is the 50- to 60-million-year-old Giant’s Causeway.
Despite the hate, religious upheaval and political wrangling on all sides, the people of Northern Ireland are warm and friendly. Culture is intertwined between England, Ireland, and Scotland, though the people of Northern Ireland, for the most part, consider themselves of neither region. They may compete as one with Ireland in some sports, though are together with Britain in the Olympics (albeit individuals can side with either country), but a separate entity in the Commonwealth Games.
With the different influences, a rich lineup of festivals is enjoyed through the year, with input from the Republic of Ireland (St Patrick’s Day is celebrated with fervor) and controversial festivals like the Orangefest. It is worth taking special note of this complex situation and to not delve too deeply on meeting locals, especially in the southern border towns in a pub setting, for example. Simply refer to them as ‘locals’; neither Irish nor British.