Ulster (Ulaidh) (pop. 1,994,000), with an area of 24,481 km² / 8,952mi, is the second largest of Ireland’s four Provinces. It comprises nine counties, six of which have since 1920 constituted the British “province” of Northern Ireland (for which the term “Ulster” is incorrectly used as a synonym in some circles). Counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan were amongst the 26 counties of Ireland that gained independence from the UK in 1921, and now form part of the Republic of Ireland.
The name Ulster derives from a word meaning “land” or “territory” in either Old Norse (“staðr“) or Gaelic (“tír” preceded by the Nordic S-genitive), and thus translates loosely as: “the country of the Ulaidh”
The Gaelic word for someone/something from Ulster is Ultach. The English word for someone/something from Ulster is Ultonian, which derives from the Latin name for the province, Ultonia. Another word that have been used is Ullish. Natives are more commonly referred to as Ulstermen / Ulsterwomen.
By the end of the C15th Ulster was the only Irish province completely outside of English control and was the last redoubt of the traditional Gaelic way of life.
The Nine Years War was the last organised resistance to Queen Elizabeth I’s consolidation of English rule in Ireland and imposition of religious conformity to Anglicanism; following the disastrous Battle of Kinsale (1601), the heads of the O’Neill and O’Donnell clans led the 1607 Flight of the Earls, when most of the Gaelic nobility decamped en masse to Roman Catholic countries in mainland Europe.
The Plantation of Ulster, the Crown’s scheme to colonise land confiscated from those Irish families that had taken part in the Nine Years War with loyal – i.e. Protestant – settlers from England, Scotland and Wales, began in earnest in 1610. In general the “ordinary” indiginous Irish remained in situ, they were neither removed nor Anglicised, but were regarded by many of the newcomers in much the same way as the redskinned natives of North America or Australia’s Aborigines were viewed by colonists in those countries.
The official plantation covered only Counties Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh, Cavan, Londonderry and Fermanagh; however, the most extensive settlement by Protestant immigrants occurred in Antrim and Down. These counties, though not officially planted, had suffered de-population during the war and proved attractive to settlers from nearby Scotland. This unofficial settlement continued well into the C18th.
The 1641 Rebellion, initially led by Phelim O’Neill, was intended to seize power rapidly, but quickly degenerated into attacks on Protestant settlers. Dispossessed Catholics slaughtered thousands of Protestants, an event which remains strong in Ulster Protestant folk-memory.
In the ensuing Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Ulster became a battleground between the Protestant settlers and the native Irish Catholics. In 1646, a Kilkenny Confederacy army under Owen Roe O’Neill inflicted a bloody defeat on a Scottish Covenanter army at Benburb in County Tyrone, but the Catholic forces failed to follow up their victory and the war lapsed into stalemate until they were finally defeated in 1650 at the Battle of Scarrifholis on the western outskirts of Letterkenny, County Donegal, by Cromwell’s New Model Army. The atrocities committed by all sides in the war poisoned the relationships between Ulster’s ethno-religious communities for generations afterwards.
The Williamite War forty years later opened with all of Ireland under the control of the Jacobites, Catholic supporters of King James II (deposed in the Glorious Revolution), with the exception of the strongholds of Derry and Enniskillen in Ulster, defended by Williamites, Protestants who backed William of Orange. The Jacobites Siege of Derry lasted from December 1688 to July 1689, when an army from Britain relieved the city. The Williamite fighters based in Enniskillen defeated another Jacobite army at the Battle of Newtownbutler on 28th July 1689. Thereafter, Ulster remained firmly under Williamite control, and Ulster Protestant irregulars known as “Enniskilleners” served with William’s forces to complete their subjugation of the rest of Ireland over the next two years. The war provided Protestant loyalists with the iconic victories of the Battle of the Boyne (1st July 1690) and the Battle of Aughrim (12th July 1691), commemorated by their descendants to this day.
The Williamites’ victory in this war ensured British and Protestant supremacy in Ireland for over 100 years. However, the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy’s Penal Laws aimed at keeping power in the hands of Anglicans (mostly descended from English settlers) discriminated not only against Roman Catholics (mostly descended from the indigenous Irish) but also Dissenters in general and in particular Presbyterians (mainly descended from Scottish planters, but also from indigenous Irishmen who converted to Presbyterianism). In the 1690s, Scottish Presbyterians became a majority in Ulster, tens of thousands of them having emigrated there to escape a famine in Scotland.
Many Ulster-Scots migrated to the North American colonies throughout the C18th (250,000 settled in what would become the United States between 1717 and 1770 alone). According to Kerby Miller‘s Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (1988), Protestants comprised only one-third of the population of Ireland, but made up three-quarters of all emigrants from 1700 to 1776; 70% of these Protestants were Presbyterians. These “Scotch-Irish” soon became the dominant culture of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia.
Despite simmering sectarian tensions, Ulster’s economy improved during the C18th. Belfast developed from a village into a bustling provincial town as small producers exported linen and other goods.
Relaxation of the Penal Laws in the late C18th enabled Roman Catholics to purchase land to grow flax and involve themselves in the linen industry (activities previously restricted to Protestants, mainly Anglicans). This led to a massive resurgence of sectarian strife as Protestants used violence to intimidate Catholics from competing with them and Catholics responded with similar tactics. These hostilities culminated in the “battle of the Diamond” in 1795, a faction fight between the rival “Defenders” (Catholic) and “Peep O’Day Boys” (Anglican), which led to over 100 deaths and to the founding of the Orange Order.
It is estimated that up to 7000 Catholics suffered expulsion from Ulster during this period. Many of them settled in northern Connacht. These refugees’ linguistic influence still survives in the dialects of Gaelic spoken in Mayo, which has many similarities to Ulster Gaelic not found elsewhere in Connacht.
Inspired by the American and French revolutions, educated Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics joined together to form the United Irishmen (founded in Belfast), dedicated to founding a non-sectarian and independent Irish republic. The movement was particularly strong in Belfast, Antrim and Down. They were opposed by Loyalist militias, primarily Anglicans, who used violence against the United Irishmen and against Catholic and Protestant republicans throughout the province.
The United Irishmen’s 1798 Rebellion was led by Henry Joy McCracken, and mostly supported by Presbyterians. As in the south of Ireland, the British authorities swiftly put down the insurgents and employed severe repression after the fighting had ended, but what really shocked Ulster was news of the appalling sectarian atrocities committed in Wexford. In the wake of the failure of the rebellion and the passing of the Act of Union in 1800, together with the final abolition of official religious discrimination against them, Presbyterians came to identify more with the State and with their Anglican neighbours.
Ulster became the most prosperous province in Ireland in the C19th, with the only large-scale industrialisation in the country. In the latter part of the century, Belfast overtook Dublin as the largest city on the island, and became famous for its huge dockyards and shipbuilding industry. Ulster’s tenant farmers enjoyed better conditions than their southern counterparts, and most of the province escaped the worst of the Great Famine.
Irish politicians were strongly divided between unionists (supporters of the Union with Britain; mostly, but not exclusively, Protestant) and nationalists (advocates of an Irish self-government; usually, though not exclusively, Catholic). Most nationalists supported the campaign for Home Rule, which Ulster Protestants usually opposed, fearing for their status under a Catholic-dominated autonomous government and also not trusting politicians from the agrarian south and west to support the more industrial economy of Ulster.
In the British Parliament, Gladstone’s Liberal Party was, reluctantly at first, persuaded to support Home Rule for Ireland; their Conservative opponents saw that “the Orange card was the one to play”, in the words of Randolph Churchill, who also coined the slogan “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”. The first Home Rule Bill in 1886 sparked the worst riots ever seen in Belfast, reproduced on a lesser scale when the second such Bill was introduced in 1893.
In 1912 thousands of unionists, led by the Dublin-born barrister Sir Edward Carson and James Craig, signed the “Ulster Covenant” of 1912, pledging to resist Home Rule. This movement also saw the setting up of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). In response, Irish nationalists created the Irish Volunteers. Ireland appeared to be on the brink of civil war.
The outbreak of WWI in 1914, in which thousands of Ulstermen and Irishmen of all religions and sects volunteered and died, interrupted this armed stand-off. In particular, the heavy casualties of the 36th (Ulster) Division (largely composed of UVF members) became a source both of mourning and of pride for the loyalist community, and remains so to the present day.
In 1918, Michael Collins’ newly formed IRA launching a guerrilla campaign against British rule, the government responded by deploying the Black & Tans, and various atrocities were committed by both sides. In Ulster, street battles between Protestants and Catholics killed about 600 civilians, the majority of them (58%) Catholics. Although relatively quiescent in most of Ulster, the IRA engaged in subversive activities in the south Armagh area, where it was led by Frank Aiken, in County Donegal and the City of Derry, where one of the main Republican leaders was Peadar O’Donnell. Hugh O’Doherty, a Sinn Féin politician, was elected mayor of Derry at this time. In the First Dáil, which was elected in late 1918, Prof. Eoin Mac Néill served as the Sinn Féin TD for Derry city.
Partition, first mooted in 1912, was introduced in 1920 with the enactment of the Government of Ireland Act, which gave self-government to Ulster’s six northeastern counties within the UK. This was confirmed by the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, partitioning Ireland to create the new UK “province” of Northern Ireland. When the Irish Free State came into existence in 1922, the Northern Ireland Parliament (already in existence) exercised its option to ‘opt out’.
Virtually everybody in Ulster speak some form of English.
Ulster Scots (a dialect of Scots which is also sometimes known as Ullans) is widely spoken in rural areas throughout Northern Ireland and the east of County Donegal.
The next most commonly spoken language is the regional dialect of Irish Gaelic called Gaeilge Tír Chonaill / Donegal Irish or Gaeilge Uladh / Ulster Irish. Large parts of County Donegal are Gaeltacht areas where Irish is the first language.