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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.