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A Rich History

Our culture and history can be traced back to the first people who settled here. Below is an overview to our history from the earliest settlers to the modern day.

Ancient and mysterious

Beaghmore_Stone_CirclesAccording to archaeological finds, the earliest people arrived 9,000 years ago. Ireland's first known house is on the River Bann at the Mountsandel mesolithic site.  The Beaghmore Stone Circles in Tyrone's moorland, and the enigmatic figures on remote White Island and Boa in Lough Erne, County Fermangh reveal that our earliest prehistoric culture was rich in complexity and artistry. Several waves of migration of people followed (real clans as well as mythical), often via our close neighbour Scotland.

Myths and magic

Boa Island Carved Stonesm County FermanaghMuch of what we know about pre-Christian times comes from the epic legends. Magic, druids, fairies, warriors, giants, superhuman heroics, awesome beauties, kings, tricksters and leprechauns all feature in these vivid sagas passed on through word of mouth by the bards. The most famous, the Ulster Cycle, includes tales of Cuchulainn and the Children of Lir, set in Armagh (Navan Fort) and on the rugged Antrim coast.

Christians and Vikings

Slemish Mountain, County AntrimSaint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century. Ireland's patron saint has strong Northern connections. As a boy slave, legend he tended sheep on Slemish Mountain and his grave is at Downpatrick Cathedral. The Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick tells his story using stunning displays.

The new religion quickly took root. Soon monks were venturing from our monasteries to spread learning across Europe. The legacy of Celtic Christianity lives on in our High Crosses, ancient abbeys in sacred sites like Devenish Island, and Nendrum's monastic ruins. By the tenth century, the land had endured many years of warring clans, but the Viking raids were something else. The Norsemen didn't stick around for long, but left a legacy of place names e.g. Strangford and Carlingford.

Siege and Settlement

Carrickfergus CastleIn the early 12th century, the Normans, having conquered England, moved into Ireland, marking their progress with fortifications. But centuries passed before the Norman successors, the English, could consolidate their conquest. Home to some of Ireland's most powerful chieftains, Ulster fought hardest and held out longest. Carrickfergus Castle, the most formidable (and at one stage the only) stronghold on the island, was enlarged several times and saw many a battle and siege.

Four centuries on the English finally had the upper hand. In 1607, the cream of the native noblemen sailed to France, never to return, which became known as "the Flight of the Earls". England quickly set about turning an unruly land into a settled province, through the Plantation of Ulster. Settlers from overcrowded England, and in particular, the Scottish lowlands were brought over.

Soldiers and gentry received lands for their service to the Crown, but most of the new arrivals were poor labourers and artisans. Lord Chichester founded Belfast in 1613 and the town grew so quickly it soon outpaced Carrickfergus as the main hub.  Since the Reformation, England had been a Protestant nation. But Ulster's native people were Catholic. Religion, along with land dispossession, rights and sovereignty issues, became a source of conflict and uprisings.

In 1690, the 'Planters' celebrated when the Protestant King William of Orange ousted Catholic King James from the British throne, defeating him in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne. Just a year before James' supporters had held the plantation city of Londonderry (Ireland's only remaining completely walled city) under a 105 day siege.

Prosperity and Poverty

More settled times followed enabling rapid development. Linen production became the major rural industry in the 1700's (The Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn weaves the story), and, in the wake of the industrial revolution, moved to the cities and towns. Soon Belfast was a textile powerhouse. Shipbuilding, engineering, ropeworks and more followed. The ports of Derry and Belfast boomed.

19937_Castle_CooleRural people flocked to the cities for millwork, but found low wages, appalling overcrowding, open sewers and disease. Meanwhile the Georgian aristocracy enjoyed a life of ease and elegance in the great mansions like Castle Coole and Castle Ward. Those that could, sought a better life across the Atlantic.

The first emigrants of the 1700s were mostly Protestant; Presbyterians seeking religious freedom, pioneers seeking land and opportunities only a new nation could provide. Known as the Scots Irish in the USA and Canada, these energetic, independent minded people produced 17 presidents of the United States of America and numerous business leaders.

21180_Ulster_American_Folk_Park_-_Thatched_CottageIn the 1840s, the Ulster counties were badly affected by the potato blight and ensuing Famine. An even bigger wave of emigration followed. This time it was the poor and desperate escaping starvation. The Ulster American Folk Park in County Tyrone tells the emigrant story and evokes the terrible conditions aboard ships sailing from Belfast and Derry.


Triumphs and tragedy

Titanic Memorial, Belfast City HallBy the end of the century, Belfast was one of the leading industrial centres of the United Kingdom, indeed the world, and the largest, most prosperous city in Ireland. Belfast's most imposing architecture dates from this period; the magnificent Belfast City Hall exudes civic affluence and pride. Northern Ireland also enjoyed a reputation for science and innovation, producing some of the most influential inventors of the era. The Ulster Folk &Transport Museum celebrates the contributions of Dunlop, Ferguson and their colleagues.

However, it was the White Star liners built by Belfast's shipworkers that epitomise this golden age. The world's most impressive oceangoing vessels, they were the height of luxury and technology. In 1909, when work began on the legendary RMS Titanic, Belfast was one of the world's greatest ports and Harland & Wolff were shipbuilders to the world.  The skills of their work force were recognised throughout the British Empire and Titanic was the last word in luxury and technological innovation.  She was a magnificent spectacle with 5 miles of decks, squash courts and a swimming pool. 

Errected in 1920 and set in the grounds of Belfast City Hall is the Titanic Memorial dedicated to the 22 Belfast men who died on the Titanic.  There is a bronze statue of Lord William Pirrie.  There are also a number of Churches and Graveyards throughout the Greater Belfast area with a connection to the Titanic.    

Wars and politics

Stormont Parliament BuildingsPolitics were on a collision course too. The British Government was under growing pressure to bring home rule, and in time, independence to Ireland. Tensions mounted as a large proportion of Ulster's population wished to stay within the British Union. Impending conflict was shelved with the outbreak of World War One. Ulster, indeed Ireland as a whole, sent thousands of young men to the battlefields of France. Many never returned and are still honoured today. The Somme Heritage Centre portrays life as it was endured in the trenches.

Following the Irish War of Independence, a border was drawn up 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 local government and in 1933, imposing new government buildings at Stormont. But the boom years were over. The Depression, new manufacturing rivals and the Second World War saw to that. And in 1941, the Luftwaffe bombed Belfast. The pilots overshot their targets, the city's aircraft factories and shipyards, destroying residential streets and mills. There were hundreds of people killed, thousands were made homeless, and fires were so intense, rescue crews had to come from Dublin.

Past and future

Post-war Northern Ireland was a quiet, relatively prosperous place and a picturesque tourist destination. But that all changed in 1969, as bombs and riots burst onto television screens around the world. This was the beginning of a dark period of violence and death. 'The Troubles', as the civil strife came to be known as, is now recalled in Belfast and Derry's Living History Tours, and finally ended with the ceasefires of the early 1990s.

With the return of normality, Northern Ireland has blossomed. New industries are setting up business. Cities are being revitalised with millions being invested in regeneration. There is a new cultural vitality, pride and optimism. Tourists are back too, discovering our humour, hospitality, scenery and quality of life.

Today the people of Northern Ireland are confidently looking forward to building a new future together.

Further Information:-

Contact the Belfast Welcome Centre for details of bus/boat tours, mural and Black Taxi Tours.  Tel: + 44 (0) 28 9024 6609 or visit

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