From Wikishire
Jump to: navigation, search
Ulster; Irish counties in green

Ulster is a province of the island of Ireland, which covers the northern part of the island. Ulster is also a by-name for Northern Ireland, although this is not entirely accurate as there are three counties in Ulster which are not part of N.I.

Ulster has a long history. Geographically part of the island of Ireland but also at the edge of the Hebrides, just 12 miles from the coast of Argyll. Driven by its position between Scotland and Ireland, Ulster is able to claim to have given birth to both and to have been born itself of both.

The pivotal point in Ulster's history is the Plantation, begun in 1607, in which process settlers from Great Britain received land and leases in Ulster and so planted and transformed the land as to become the overwhelming majority. At that point, Ulster changed from being the arguably the most Irish province to being the least Irish.


Ulster consists of the counties of:

Northern Ireland

British counties:

Irish Republic

Counties of the Republic of Ireland:

Names of the Province

The name "Ulster" is either Gaelic or a combination of Gaelic and Norse. The root is the Irish Ulaid, the nation of the ancient province, giving the Gaelic name Ulaidh for the province itself. The suffix comes to us from the Norse, either from the Irish tír or the Old Norse staðr, both of which translate as "land" or "territory".

The name of the Ulaid is ancient. They are apparently the tribe or nation named in Ptolemy's 2nd century Geographia, as the Ούολουντοι (Uolunti). Ulster in the Classical and Dark Ages was not all the land of one people, however; around Belfast Lough dwelt the Cruithne, apparently the same people as the Picts of the Highlands, whom the Irish also called Cruithne, and the Cruithne in later years claimed to be the original Ulaid.

Ulstermen today are not of those tribes as such; the majority at least in Northern Ireland, are the descendants of settlers from Great Britain in modern times, and many others descend from those from Britain and Ireland drawn to Belfast and the industrial towns of Ulster in the nineteenth century.

The name Ulaiidh has historically been anglicized as Ulagh or Ullagh[1] and latinized as Ulidia or Ultonia (in which later form it appears in charters and on seals.[2] The latter two have yielded the terms Ulidian and Ultonian.

When the Irish Free State was created, the six loyal counties of Ireland were named "Northern Ireland", and occasional attempts to change this land's name to "Ulster" have foundered on nationalist objections. The name of Ulster is used as a by-name for Northern Ireland nevertheless.


Ulster and the Hebrides

Early history

Ulster's early story extends further back than written records and survives mainly in legends such as the Ulster Cycle and those of the Cruthin.

Ulster has a distinctive place in these legends, described in the poem Ard Ruide (Ruide Headland):

Ulster in the north is the seat of battle valour, of haughtiness, strife, boasting; the men of Ulster are the fiercest warriors of all Ireland, and the queens and goddesses of Ulster are associated with battle and death.

In the Dark Ages, Ulster was distinct from the other parts of Ireland, Gaelic-speaking but according to legend its kings built their own warrior culture, defensive of their own; the Ulster Cycle recounts many of these legends, most famously the tales of Cú Chulainn. Ultimately, this led the Ulaid to lordship over the whole island.

In late 4th and early 5th centuries, Niall of the Nine Hostages ruled as High King of Ireland and though his life is known only from legend, his dynasty, the O'Neills, from their centre in Tyrone held the High Kingship for most of its history. The O'Neill rule in Ulster itself was not unchallenged; in north-eastern Ulster the Ulaid remained separate and formed in perhaps in the sixth century the kingdom of Dalriada, which ruled Antrim and the adjacent Inner Hebrides and mainland coasts adjacent. This was the Borderland of the Gael: Argyll. The Ulstermen were known as Scoti and their dominion was the Kingdom of the Scots; the beginning of that famous realm.

In Ulster, the Uí Néill dynasty displaced the Ulaid and dominated Ulster from their base in Tír Eóghain, most of which forms modern Tyrone, and supplied many of the High Kings of Ireland from the Cenél nEógain branch of the Uí Néill; their descendants took the surname Mac Lochlainn (McLaughlin). The Mac Lochlainn were in 1241 overthrown by their cousins, the clan Ó Néill. The Ó Néill's were from then on established as Ulster's most powerful Gaelic family.

The Ó Domhnaill (O'Donnell) dynasty were Ulster's second most powerful clan from the early thirteenth-century through to the beginning of the seventeenth-century. The O'Donnells ruled over Tír Chonaill (most of modern County Donegal) in West Ulster. A clan which rose to power in later Middle Ages, and came to dominance in the Elizabethan Age, was the McDonnell clan, a part of the McDonalds of the Hebrides.

After the Norman invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century, the east of the province fell by conquest to Norman barons, first John de Courcy (died 1219), then Hugh de Lacy, 1st Earl of Ulster (1176–1243), who founded the Earldom of Ulster based on the modern counties of Antrim and Down. However, by the end of the 14th century the Earldom had collapsed and Ulster had become the only Irish province completely outside of English control.

In the 1600s Ulster was the last redoubt of the traditional Gaelic way of life, and following the defeat of the Irish forces in the Nine Years War (1594–1603) at the battle of Kinsale (1601), Elizabeth I's English forces succeeded in subjugating Ulster and all of Ireland.

Under King James I from 1603, the Gaelic leaders of Ulster, the O'Neills and O'Donnells, finding their power under English suzerainty limited, decamped en masse in 1607 (the Flight of the Earls) to Roman Catholic Europe. This allowed the King to plant Ulster with more loyal English and Scottish planters, a process which began in earnest in 1610.

Plantations and civil wars

After the plantation, Ulster was no longer a Gaelic redoubt but a land mainly English and Scottish and indeed the place where the two first mingled in earnest to be the first true British nation.

The Plantation of Ulster was the organised colonisation (or plantation) of Ulster by people from Great Britain. Private plantation by wealthy landowners began in 1606,[3][4][5] while official plantation controlled by King James I of England and VI of Scotland began in 1609.

All land owned by Irish chieftains, the Ó Neills and Ó Donnells (along with those of their supporters), who fought against the British in the Nine Years' War were confiscated and used to settle the colonists. The counties of Tyrconnell, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan, Coleraine and Armagh comprised the official Colony[6] however most of the counties including the most heavily colonized counties of Antrim and Down were privately colonised.[3][4][7] These counties, though not officially designated as subject to Plantation, had suffered violent de-population during the previous wars and proved attractive to private colonists from nearby Great Britain.

The spoken reason for the Plantation is said to have been to pay for the costly Nine Years' War[8] but this view was not shared by all in the British establishment most notably the British Attorney-General of Ireland in 1609 Sir John Davies:

A barbarous country must be first broken by a war before it will be capable of good government; and when it is fully subdued and conquered, if it be not well planted and governed after the conquest, it will eftsoons return to the former barbarism[9]

The Plantation of Ulster continued well into the 18th century, creating a new population of vigorous Protestant farmers and townsmen. The Plantation was interrupted by the Irish Rebellion of 1641, a rebellion which was initially led by Phelim O'Neill, and was intended to overthrow British rule rapidly, but quickly degenerated into attacks on Protestants, in which dispossessed Irish slaughtered thousands of Protestants. In the ensuing Irish Confederate Wars (1641–1653, fought against the background of civil war in England, Scotland and Ireland), Ulster became a battleground between the new population and the native Irish. In 1646, an Irish army under command by Owen Roe O'Neill inflicted a defeat on a Scottish Covenanter army at Benburb in County Tyrone, but the native Irish forces failed to follow up their victory and the war lapsed into stalemate. The war in Ulster ended with the defeat of the Gaelic army at the Battle of Scarrifholis on the western outskirts of Letterkenny, County Donegal in 1650, as part of the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland conducted by Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army.

William of Orange

In 1688, King James II, an avowed Roman Catholic, was bloodlessly deposed in England in favour of William of Orange, crowned as William III. Landing in Ireland, James sought to reclaim his crown and in the years 1688-1691, Ulster was a key battleground in the war between the forces of William and those of James II, the Jacobites. James was supported by Louis XIV of France, who could use Ireland as part of the greater War of the Grand Alliance then being fought between Louis and the Grand Alliance, a European-wide coalition formed to oppose his expansionism. If most of Ireland's Roman Catholics were Jacobites, Ulster Protestants supported William III. It was in Ulster that James's forces found resistance; the Williamite strongholds at Londonderry and at Enniskillen. The Jacobites maintained the Siege of Derry from December 1688 to July 1689, ending when William's army landed and relieved the city. The men of Enniskillen defeated another Jacobite army at the Battle of Newtownbutler on 28 July 1689. Thereafter, Ulster remained firmly under King William's control and his forces completed their conquest of the rest of Ireland in the next two years.

This war has provided many of the icons of Ulster Protestant culture; the victories of the Siege of Derry, the Battle of the Boyne (1 July 1690 old style, 12 July new style) and the Battle of Aughrim (12 July 1691), are all commemorated each year in particular by the Orange Order, itself named after William of Orange.


Considerable numbers of Ulster-Scots immigrated to the North American colonies throughout the 18th century. 160,000 settled in what would become the United States between 1717 and 1770 alone.

Disdaining (or forced out of) the heavily English regions on the Atlantic coast, most groups of Ulster-Scots settlers crossed into the "western mountains," where their descendants populated the Appalachian regions and the Ohio Valley. Here they lived on the frontiers of America, carving their own world out of the wilderness. The Scotch-Irish soon became the dominant culture of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Author (and US Senator) Jim Webb puts forth a thesis in his book Born Fighting to suggest that the character traits he ascribes to the Scotch-Irish such as loyalty to kin, mistrust of governmental authority, and a propensity to bear arms, helped shape the American identity.

In the United States Census, 2000, 4.3 million Americans claimed Scotch-Irish ancestry. Interestingly, the areas where the most Americans reported themselves in the 2000 Census only as "American" with no further qualification (e.g. Kentucky, north-central Texas, and many other areas in the Southern US) are largely the areas where many Scotch-Irish settled, and are in complementary distribution with the areas which most heavily report Scotch-Irish ancestry.

According to the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, 400,000 people in the United States were of Irish birth or ancestry in 1790 when the first US Census counted 3,100,000 white Americans. According to the encyclopaedia, half of these Irish Americans were descended from Ulster, and half from the other three provinces of Ireland.


Association football is played on a national basis: the Irish Football Association oversees the sport in Northern Ireland while the Football Association of Ireland oversees the sport in the Republic, including its three Ulster counties.

In Rugby Union, Ulster forms part of an All-Ireland structure. The Ulster branch of the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) plays in the professional Celtic League, along with teams from Wales, Scotland, Italy and the other Irish Provinces (Leinster, Munster and Connacht).

Cricket is also played in Ulster, especially in Northern Ireland and East Donegal. The game is mainly played and followed by members of the Protestant community.[10]

The Gaelic Athletics Association maintains an Ulster branch, with an Ulster Senior Football Championship and Ulster Senior Hurling Championship. Gaelic Football is by far the most popular of the GAA sports in Ulster but hurling is also played.


  1. County Down, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837)
  2. Publications / Irish Archaeological Society, Dublin, Volume 1
  3. 3.0 3.1 A.T.Q. Stewart: The Narrow Ground: The Roots of Conflict in Ulster. London, Faber and Faber Ltd. New Edition, 1989. Page 38.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Cyril Falls: The Birth of Ulster. London, Constable and Company Ltd. 1996. Pages 156-157.
  5. M. Perceval-Maxwell: The Scottish Migration to Ulster in the Reign of James I. Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation. 1999. Page 89.
  6. T. A. Jackson, p. 51.
  7. M. Perceval-Maxwell: The Scottish Migration to Ulster in the Reign of James 1. Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation. 1999. Page 89
  8. Wars and Conflicts - Plantation of Ulster - Engish and Scottish Planters - 1641 Rebellion BBC History
  9. A Discovery of the True Cause Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued Nor Brought Under Obedience of the Crown of England Until the Beginning of His Majesty's Happy Reign: by Sir John Davies, (Attorney-General for Ireland under James I) in Ireland Under Elizabeth and James the First, Edited by Henry Morley, Published by George Routledge and Sons, Ltd, London 1890, P. 218-219
  10. Explaining Northern Ireland: Broken Images