Before traveling to Northern Ireland, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate and local traditions so you are fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article we provide the best overview of this charming country plus some first hand travel tips along the way!
Welcome aboard to our Globally Educated Series where we focus on one nation at a time to give you the most comprehensive overview of each country before embarking on your journey. We look forward to helping you prepare for your trip to Northern Ireland, where the British and Irish culture beautifully collide.
In a nutshell: Home to one of the most stunning coastlines in the UK, historic natural beauty, and boatloads of history and charisma, Northern Ireland invites you in with a smile. No matter if you are interested in castles, pop culture, the great outdoors, or city life - when you visit Northern Ireland, you’re in for a good time.
A look at Northern Irish History
We can’t get globally educated without a bit of history! Northern Ireland is the newest country of the United Kingdom, having been created in just 1921. The country had one of the most defining conflicts of the 20th century, so much so that it can still be felt today. Let's travel back in time to see where it all began and work our way to the present day.
Pre-20th Century Ulster
England first laid roots in Ireland in 1167, settling in parts of Ulster, what is now modern-day Northern Ireland. The Irish and English began to intertwine gradually but were never fully united. So, their differences began to grow apparent and a divide was en route.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the most rural parts of Ireland were transformed by immigration from Scotland. Though earlier centuries saw an influx of migration from Ulster to Scotland, the 16th century brought many Scots from across the North Channel strait.
Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII, continued her father’s legacy in Ireland when she took the throne in 1559. She continued to introduce religion into Irish politics, just as her father had.
Soon, a bid for independence by Gaelic lord Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was unsuccessful due to the Queen’s army. This led to a harsh post-war settlement deterring future uprisings from the Catholic majority.
In 1601, King James I was crowned King of England, and he was ambitious to spread Scottish and English colonists throughout six of Ulster’s nine counties. This was referred to as the Plantation of Ulster. As a result, this led to Ulster being largely inhabited by Protestant English and Scottish “planters”. *Remember Ulster refers to what is today called Northern Ireland*
Landowners were largely English, but both the English and Scottish occupied most of the farmland, leaving native Irish at a disadvantage. This soon led to a rebellion in 1641 where the Irish plotted surprise attacks upon the English, temporarily collapsing the Plantation.
From at least the 17th century, Ulster’s population had been chiefly Protestant and British, a clear distinction from the rest of Ireland.
Ireland begins a movement to secure internal autonomy.
The Home Government Association was formed in 1870 to call for an Irish Parliament. This led to demands for land reform and denominational education. The first two attempts at the Home Rule Bill were defeated by the House of Commons. Then, in 1912, a third attempt was passed by the House of Commons but defeated in the House of Lords.
It seemed like Ireland was never going to get the freedom they had been fighting for throughout decades. Politicians were resisting turning Ulster into a self-governing Ireland. At the same time, the industrial economy was booming, and by the end of the 19th century, Belfast was the largest city in Ireland.
Northern Ireland is created.
During the Home Rule Bill movement, WWI broke out. Catholic and Protestant Irish put aside their differences to fight alongside the British. Then, on May 3, 1921, Northern Ireland joined the UK under the Government of Ireland Act 1920.
From 1920-1922 a parliament in Northern Ireland was developed that satisfied the some one million Protestants living in the counties of Ulster. However, it did not apply to Protestants living in the rest of Ireland. As a result, many relocated to Ulster.
Those who remained in the rest of Ireland suffered discrimination in everything from education and housing to social services.
The Troubles, or Northern Ireland Conflict, takes center stage in Ireland.
Violent sectarian conflicts began in about 1968 in Northern Ireland. The main conflict was between Protestant unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK and Roman Catholic nationalists who wanted the country to join the Republic of Ireland.
Let’s make it simple. Basically, the nationalists (republicans) wanted a free and united Ireland and were largely Roman Catholic. On the other hand, the unionists (loyalists) wanted to remain in the UK and were largely protestant, due to the Plantation of Ireland in the 1700s.
In August of 1969, the Boys of Derry, a group of protestant men, marched through the largely Catholic neighborhood of Bogside in Londonderry (Derry). This march resulted in two days of rioting and a call for the British Army to come and restore order.
Over the ‘60s and ‘70s, groups of paramilitaries like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) formed. Then, on the last day of January in 1972, 15,000 people gathered to march through Derry. Here the British Army opened fire on marchers, resulting in the deaths of 13 unarmed civilians. The day is remembered as Bloody Sunday.
Maramiliarities planned out terrorist acts throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. These attacks were done by both unionists and nationalists, but the main acts were done by the IRA.
Northern Ireland finds some peace.
Eventually, the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 was signed by Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. The declaration set out key guidelines. It stated that any unification of the Republic of Ireland could only take place with the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
Plus, it noted that only Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had the right to solve their disputes. The declaration was approved by the Republican party Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA.
Religion in Northern Ireland
Considering what you have just learned, religion in Northern Ireland has been a hot and sometimes violent topic.
The country has two predominant religions: protestant and Roman catholic. Regardless, both fall under Christianity, summing the Christian population up to about 93% in Northern Ireland.
A small 6% identify as non-religious and 1% identify as non-Christian. Protestants account for 48% and the remaining 45% are Catholic. Actually, out of all the UK, Northern Ireland is home to the largest Christian population.
When it comes to minor religions, Islam is the most prominent. In 2019, about 5,000 Muslims were living there. As such, there are at least three mosques in Northern Ireland, two in Belfast and one in Londonderry.
Languages in Northern Ireland
A lively mix of Ulster-Scots, Irish, and English can be found throughout the lush land of Northern Ireland! While at least 99% of the population speaks English as their first language, many locals still embrace more historical and cultural languages of Irish (Gaelic) and Ulster Scots.
Around 2% of Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million population can speak Ulster-Scots, a language that derived mainly from the influx of Scots during the 17th century.
It is considered a dialect of Scots, a language native to Scotland, but different from Scottish Gaelic. Poetry lovers may recognize the Scots language from famous poets like Robert Burns from Scotland.
As for Irish, or Gaelic, it is a minority language with at least 10% of the population having knowledge of the language. Impress your friends when you visit Northern Ireland by shouting “sláinte!” when cheersing your drinks. Pronounce it like “slawn-che”!
Cities of Northern Ireland
From the friendly spirit of Belfast to the culture of Londonderry, Northern Ireland is home to five main cities - these include Armagh, Belfast, Derry, Lisburn, and Newry. The last two are the newest, only receiving city status in 2002.
Belfast is the capital and most visited city in Northern Ireland. It is known for its friendly locals, natural beauty, and its city docks where the Titanic was built. Plus, thanks to the heaps of mountainous landscapes that surround Belfast, the city's some 288,000 inhabitants have easy access to nature. Within the city, locals can get around by car, bus services, or walking. Then, there are train links to other parts of the country.
Londonderry, or Derry, is the second-largest city in Northern Ireland. There’s actually a bit of controversy regarding its name. Typically, nationalists prefer “Derry” as it takes away from its tie to the UK. On the other hand, unionists will typically call the city by its full name “Londonderry”. Londonderry is a small city with just over 83,000 inhabitants. The charming city is oftentimes a base for exploring the Wild Atlantic Way, one of Ireland’s most iconic road trips.
Beyond that, Londonderry is a city full of cultural and historical significance from the Troubles to its lively festivals. In fact, Londonderry became the first UK City of Culture back in 2013.
Geography & Climate of Northern Ireland
There is no doubt that Northern Ireland is a small country, by both its number of inhabitants and its size. The country occupies just one-sixth of the island of Ireland, bordered by the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.
You’ll find six 6 counties in Northern Ireland that are crisscrossed by uplands and lowlands. At 2,782 ft, Slieve Donard, boasting gorgeous coastal views from atop, is Northern Ireland’s highest point. As the country packs in ample amounts of natural beauty, it’s hardly a surprise that it's home to the largest freshwater lake in the UK, Lough Neagh. However, Scotland’s Loch Ness is actually longer and much, much deeper.
Many people venture to the country to soak up its fantastic landscapes. From the hexagonal shapes of the Giant’s Causeway to the looming beauty of the Dark Hedges, an 18th-century avenue of trees, Northern Ireland has a lot to offer.
Let’s talk about the weather
Northern Ireland boasts a temperate and maritime climate. Most of its moody weather travels in from the southwest in a series of low-pressure systems that carry rain and clouds. This lends character to its picturesque landscapes and often brings along high winds. We’ll say it now, pack a windbreaker!
The average January temperatures vary from 38 °F (3.3 °C) on the north coast of the country to 35 °F (1.7 °C) in the east. Contrarily, in July temperatures of roughly 65 °F (18.3 °C) are most common.
Like most places in the British Isles, light rainfall is common, but especially during autumn and winter. On average, there are around 213 days of rain in Northern Ireland annually.
Northern Ireland’s Economy & Major Produces
Northern Ireland has had an industrial economy since at least the 17th century, particularly in Belfast. However, when comparing the rest of the UK, the economy of Northern Ireland has long suffered, largely as a result of political and social unrest.
Northern Ireland receives some assistance from the rest of Ireland and the European Union. Back in the 1980s, British and Irish governments began the International Fund for Ireland, which disburses economic assistance to the entire island, with significant amounts going to Northern Ireland. The European Union allocates aid to the country, too.
Due to Northern Ireland’s rainy weather and humidity, farming can be a challenge. On the other hand, the weather helps to produce good grass and rich pastures. As such, Nearly half the farms concentrate on sheep and beef, and about one-fifth work in dairy farming. Other industries like forestry and fishing are less common and don’t play a significant role in the country’s economy.
Where Northern Ireland’s farming economy lacks, it makes up for with its manufacturing industries. Northern Ireland has a long manufacturing history, mostly made up of ocean liners, aircraft, whiskey, and tractors. However, in the present day, food products are at the top of the economy.
Traditions in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland shares many of its major holidays and traditions with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. It’s great to know some Irish traditions before you visit Northern Ireland, so below are just a few traditions to know before you go!
St. Patrick’s Day
Ireland’s patron saint is celebrated in Northern Ireland on March 17, just as he is in the south and much of the western world. During this time, it’s common to see people dress up in green, fountains dyed a lush green, and street parties — particularly in Belfast. Head to the small town of Downpatrick to see St Patrick’s grave for yourself.
Lord Mayor’s Carnival
At the end of May, the streets of Belfast come to life in a new way. This fun-filled, quirky event celebrates the end of the Lord Mayor’s tenure and is filled with parades of neon floats, dancers, colorful animal costumes, stilt walkers, and fireworks! It’s one of the most festive times to visit Belfast and Northern Ireland.
Traditional Irish music is a genre of folk, often called trad music. Native instruments, including the bouzoukis, uilleann pipes, and the Celtic harp, along with accordions and fiddles help bring this jolly music to life. Hear it at festivals, special events, and local pubs.
Picture a cozy, tartan-draped pub with locals gathered around the bar sipping Guinness or a classic lager. Perhaps there is live traditional Irish music or perhaps not. Either way, this is one of the most quintessential aspects of Irish and British culture. Plus, if you can be at a pub for some Irish dancing, you are in for a particularly memorable treat when you visit Northern Ireland.
Food in Northern Ireland
Much of its cuisine is the same as what you’d find across the Republic of Ireland and England, but in many ways it is unique. You will find popular foods such as Irish oysters, Irish stews, loaves of bread, and dense cakes. It is of course recommended to visit a Northern Irish household for a taste of true Irish food but before you leave the country you must taste the items below:
Fry meaning “fry up”, an Ulster Fry is Northern Ireland’s take on an Irish breakfast. This meal consists of sausages, bacon, black pudding, eggs, mushrooms, beans, fried soda bread, and potato farls. Have this meal for breakfast, brunch, or even dinner. No bad time of the day for an Ulster Fry!
Whiskey & Beer
Ireland is known for its whiskey, and alcohol in general. Guinness, anyone? The most famous Northern Irish whiskey is Bushmills. In fact, it’s the oldest licensed working distillery in the world, dating back to 1608.
Travel Tips for Northern Ireland
Before you visit Northern Ireland, there are a few travel tips you should know.
- People drive on the left in Northern Ireland, just as they do in the UK and the rest of Ireland. Steering wheels are also on the left-hand side as a result. If you plan to drive in the UK, don't fret. It's not as scary as it might seem. Just stay aware, review road signs before you travel, and be cautious at roundabouts.
- Unlike in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland uses the pound (£). One pound is a coin, not a bill (or notes as they are called in the UK). Cards are commonly accepted through Northern Ireland, but it is still handy to carry some pounds on you as well. Remember that you will use euros (€) in Dublin and the rest of the Republic of Ireland.
- A train system connects Northern Irish cities and towns and there are convenient links to Dublin and the west of Ireland.
- Pack a windbreaker and warm layers. Northern Ireland is often chilly with strong winds. So, pack accordingly!
- Rent a car! If you can, rent a car to get the most out of your time in Northern Ireland. Some of the best natural attractions are most easily accessed by car, and getting there with public transportation can oftentimes be a hassle.
- Don’t plan to do all your shopping on a Sunday. Many shops are closed on Sundays in Northern Ireland, and larger shops are only allowed to be open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
- Call 999 or 112 in the case of an emergency!