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Last updated : Nov 2009
Northern Ireland History
Northern Ireland History - TravelPuppy.com
Ancient and Mysterious

According to archaeological finds, the earliest settlers arrived some 9000 years ago. Ireland's first known home is on the River Bann at Mountsandel. The Beaghmore Stone Circles in Tyrone's moorland, and the figures on remote White Island and Boa in Lough Erne, county Fermangh reveal that the earliest prehistoric culture was rich in complexity and artistry.

Several waves of migration followed (real clans as well as mythical), often via neighbouring Scotland.

Myths and Magic

Much of what we know about pre-Christian eracomes from the epic legends. Magic, druids, fairies, warriors, kings, giants, superhuman heroics, awesome beauties, tricksters and leprechauns all feature in these vivid tales passed on by through word of mouth by the bards. The most famous, the Ulster Cycle, includes stories of Cuchulainn and the Children of Lir, set in Armagh (Navan Fort) and the Antrim coast.

Christians and Vikings

Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the 4th century and Ireland's patron saint has strong Northern connections. As a boy slave, he herded sheep on Slemish Mountain and his grave site is at Downpatrick Cathedral. The Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick recounts his story using stunning displays.

The new religion quickly took root and soon monks were venturing from Northern Ireland's monasteries to spread their word across Europe. The legacy of Celtic Christianity lives on in the High Crosses, abbeys in sacred sites like Devenish Island, and Nendrum's monastic ruins.

Siege and Settlement

In the early 12th century, the Normans conquered Northern Ireland, and moved into Ireland, marking their progress with fortifications. But centuries passed before the their successors, the English, could consolidate their conquest. Home to some of Ireland's most powerful chiefs, Ulster fought hardest and held out the longest. Carrickfergus Castle, the most formidable stronghold on the island, was enlarged several times and saw many battles and sieges.

Four centuries the English finally had the upper hand. In 1607, the native noblemen sailed to France, never to return, this became known as "the Flight of the Earls". Northern Ireland set about turning an unruly land into a settled province, through the Plantation of Ulster. Settlers from overcrowded Northern Ireland, and the Scottish lowlands were brought over. Soldiers and gentry received lands for their service to the Crown, but most of the arrivals were poor artisans and labourers. Lord Chichester founded Belfast in 1613 and the town grew so quickly it soon outpaced Carrickfergus as the hub of Northern Ireland.

Since the times of the Reformation, Northern Ireland had been a Protestant nation. But Northern Ireland's people were Catholic. Religion, along with land dispossession, rights and sovereignty issues, became a source of uprisings and conflicts.

In 1690, the 'Planters' celebrated when the Protestant King William of Orange ousted Catholic King James from the throne, defeating him in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne. Just a year before James' backers had held the plantation city of Londonderry (Ireland's only completely walled city) under a 105 day siege.

Prosperity and Poverty

Linen production became the major industry in the 1700's (The Irish Linen Centre tells the story), and, in the surge of the industrial revolution, moved to the cities and towns. Soon Belfast became a textile powerhouse. Shipbuilding, engineering, ropeworks followed. The ports of Derry and Belfast boomed.

Rural people flocked to the cities for millwork, but found low wages, overcrowding, open sewers and disease. Meanwhile the Georgian aristocracy enjoyed a life of elegance and ease in the great mansions of Florence Court, Castleward and Castle Coole.

Those who could, sought a better life across the Atlantic. The first emigrants of the 1700s were primarily Protestant; Presbyterians seeking religious freedom, pioneers seeking land and new opportunities only a new nation could provide. Known as the Scots Irish in the USA and Canada, these independent minded people produced 17 presidents of the United States of America and many business leaders.

In the 1840s, the Ulster counties were severely affected by the potato blight and ensuing famine. An even bigger wave of emigration followed but this time it was the poor and desperate escaping starvation. The Ulster American Folk Park, which tells the emigrant story, evokes the terrible conditions aboard the ships sailing from Derry and Belfast.

Triumphs and Tragedy

But by the end of the century, Belfast was one of the main industrial centres of the United Kingdom, the world, and the largest, most prosperous city on the island. Belfast's most imposing architecture dates from this period such as the magnificent Belfast City Hall exudes civic affluence and pride.

Northern Ireland also thrived on a reputation for science and innovation, producing some of the most influential inventors of the era. The Ulster Museum and Transport Museum contains the contributions of Dunlop, Ferguson and their colleagues.

But it was the White Star ships built by Belfast's shipworkers that epitomise this golden age. The world's most impressive vessels, they were the height of luxury and technology. The crowning achievement was the world's most famous and ill-fated liner, the Titanic built in 1912.

Wars and Politics

The British Government was under pressure to bring home rule, and in time, independence to Ireland. Tensions mounted as a large portion of Northern Ireland's population wished to stay within the British Union. Impending conflicts were shelved with the outbreak of World War One. Northern Ireland sent thousands of young men to the battlefields of France. Many did not return and are still honoured today. The Somme Museum portrays life as it was in the trenches.

Following the Irish War of Independence, a border was created in 1922 to accommodate the Unionist population of the North. Six of the nine Ulster counties remained part of the Union, forming today's Northern Ireland, and the other 26 counties became the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland got its own government and in 1933, imposing new government buildings at Stormont.

The Depression, new manufacturing rivals and the World War II saw to that. In 1941 the Luftwaffe bombed Belfast. The German pilots overshot their targets, the city's aircraft factories and shipyards, destroying residential streets and mills. Hundreds of people were killed, thousands were made homeless, and fires were so intense that rescue crews had to come from Dublin.

Past and Future

Post-war Northern Ireland was a relatively prosperous and a picturesque tourist destination. That all changed in 1969, as riots and bombs burst onto television screens around the world. This was the beginning of a dark time of violence and death. 'The Troubles', as the Civil Strife came to be know as, is now remembered in Belfast and Derry's Living History Tours, finally ending with the ceasefires of the early 90s.

With the return of peace and normality, Northern Ireland has blossomed. The economy is thriving and new industries are setting up business. Cities are being revitalised with millions being invested. There is a cultural vitality, pride and optimism. Instead of emigrating, the brightest graduates are staying. Tourists are back discovering the humour, hospitality, scenery and quality of life.