Between 1801 and 1922 the island of Ireland was politically joined to the mainland by the Acts of Union 1800 to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, but the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) led to another act being passed (Government of Ireland Act 1920) which partitioned the country into what we now call the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The four provinces of Ireland created by James VI of Scotland/James I of England in the early 17th century were Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster, and it was most of the province of Ulster that became Northern Ireland. He was also responsible for introducing the ‘Plantation’ (colonisation) of Ulster, with new settlers from Northern England and Southern Scotland – all of whom were Protestant.
There were nine counties that made up the province of Ulster, six of which – Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, were incorporated into the new Northern Ireland, while the other three – Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal became part of the Republic. With the exclusion of those three (mainly catholic) counties, it meant that Northern Ireland would have a protestant majority that would remain loyal to the United Kingdom.
Even so, there was – and still is – a sizeable Catholic population within Northern Ireland, and it was from their discontent with the ultimate outcome, and resentment at a Protestant (Loyalist) dominated political agenda that sectarian trouble flared up between the two communities. ‘The Troubles’ lasted from the late 1960’s until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The population of Northern Ireland is just under 2 million, with Belfast, the capital, having just under 700,000 of those in the metropolitan area, and the Derry/Londonderry area around 237,000. The rest of the population live in smaller towns and communities dotted around the countryside.
Geographically, the centrepiece is Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake (in surface area) in the British Isles, and nature lovers will be lured to the Sperrin Mountains, the Mountains of Mourne and the Glens of Antrim, but for many, the best attraction of all will be its fabulous coastline.