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Ulster is the most northerly of the four provinces of Ireland. It consists of nine counties. These are Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Monaghan and Tyrone. Three of the counties are part of the Republic of Ireland and the other six form Northern Ireland.


The province is known as Cuige Uladh, "province of the Ulaid", pron. /'kuːiɡʲə 'ʊləɣ/, in Irish. The Ulaid were an important population group who appear to have dominated the northern fifth[1] of Ireland in prehistory, and appear in Ptolemy's 2nd century Geography as the Uolunti, probably a corruption of Uluti. The English name "Ulster" derives from Irish Ulaid and Old Norse staðr, "place, territory".

The name of the province is often used to refer to Northern Ireland, excluding the three counties which are in the Republic. Sometimes this was historical in context - some of the names of organisations having been created before the secession of the Irish Free State from the union. Organisations such as Ulster Bank, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the original Ulster Volunteer Force were all created before 1921. Other organisations, such as Ulster Television and the more recent Ulster Volunteer Force were created more for a traditional purpose. While it is not actually correct to refer to it as "Ulster", and can cause offence, some take to doing so simply to shorten the name of Northern Ireland. Renaming Northern Ireland to Ulster had been considered after the Free State had seceded, though the idea lost impetus.

The population of the province exceeds two million, with the most populous area being to the east, in and around Belfast.

National identity

For the people of Northern Ireland the use of Ulster as a national descriptor has become slightly more popular in recent years, though as a first choice it remains low at around four percent of the population. The most popular first choice for national identity is 'British', followed by 'Northern Irish' and then 'Irish'.[2] Identity as an Ulster(wo)man remains popular amongst people from Ulster however, on both sides of the frontier, just as identity in relation to various counties as towns are also popular throughout the region.


There are officially five cities in Ulster, all of which are within Northern Ireland: Armagh, Belfast, Lisburn, Londonderry (also known as Derry)[3] and Newry.

Belfast is by far the largest city, acting as the commercial and industrial hub of the region. Historically the centre of Ireland's manufacturing and industrial power during the British Empire, it has since partition suffered economically, as have all the cities of the region. Since the advent of the Peace Process, the Belfast Agreement and relative peace for the region, prosperity has begun to trickle into Belfast once again.


As with all the provinces of Ireland, Ulster's territorial boundary was established by representatives of the British monarchy. The extent of the region that had been known as Ulster had varied widely before that.

In prehistory the territory of the Ulaid probably extended as far south as the River Boyne and as far west as County Leitrim, with a capital at Emain Macha (Navan Fort near Armagh). However, by the fifth century, when recorded history begins, they were restricted to an area roughly congruent with the counties of Antrim, Down and Louth, their former lands further west ruled by the Airgialla and the northern dynasties of the Uí Néill. The ruling dynasty of the Ulaid by this time was the Dál Fiatach, based in Downpatrick, who shared the kingship with dynasties of the Cruithne. The Ulaid were conquered by the Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy in 1177, although their name continued to be used for the region.

The Norman Earldom of Ulster was established in 1205 in Antrim and Down by Hugh de Lacy, and re-established in 1264 by Walter de Burgh. This second Earldom lasted until 1461, when the 9th Earl, Edward Plantagenet, became King Edward IV of England. The civil wars of Edward's reign led to the collapse of English power in Ulster, which by the end of the 15th century was entirely outside English control and dominated by the Uí Néill.

The English regained a foothold in Ulster in the 1570s when a small colony was planted at Carrickfergus. After an English victory in the Nine Years' War (1594-1603) and the Flight of the Earls (1607), the Plantation of Ulster, in which the north of Ireland was colonised by English and Scottish Protestants, began. A series of civil wars between Protestant settlers and Irish Catholics was ended in 1650 with the occupation of the province by Cromwell's New Model Army.

In 1688-1991 William of Orange fought his campaign for the English throne against the deposed James II in Ireland. Initially James controlled the whole of Ireland, but after William relieved the Siege of Derry in 1689 he established a power-base in Ulster, from which he completed the conquest of Ireland over the next two years.

Over the course of the 18th century many thousands emigrated to North America, while the economy of the province, based on the export of linen and other goods, grew. The majority of the population of Ulster was now Presbyterian, but the Protestant Ascendancy established in the wake of William's victory concentrated power in Anglican hands, disenfranchising Presbyterians and Catholics alike, which led to an eruption of sectarian violence in the 1890s. The United Irishmen, a group of Presbyterians and Catholics who advocated an independent Irish republic, staged a rebellion in 1798 which was put down by the British authorities. In 1800 the Act of Union formally incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom.

In the 19th century Ulster became the most industrialised province of Ireland, and, largely based on shipbuilding, Belfast overtook Dublin as Ireland's largest city. Official religious discrimination was gradually abolished, and Ulster Presbyterians came to identify more with Britain and their fellow-Protestant Anglicans. Ulster Protestants generally opposed the Home Rule movement gaining strength in the rest of Ireland, fearing Catholic domination. Hundreds of thousands signed the Ulster Covenant against Home Rule in 1912, and the Ulster Volunteer Force was set up to resist Home Rule by force. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, plans for Home Rule were put on hold. After the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921), Ireland was partitioned, with six of the nine counties of Ulster - Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Londonderry and Fermanagh - remaining within the UK as Northern Ireland, and three - Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal - becoming part of the semi-independent Irish Free State, later the fully independent Republic of Ireland.


Although football and motor sports are popular throughout the province, there are sports teams specific to the province, represented in Gaelic football, motorsports, hurling and rugby union.



  1. Irish cuige, "province", earlier cóiced, literally means "fifth", implying there were once five provinces. See Provinces of Ireland.
  2. Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey
  3. The naming of Londonderry has long been disputed by its residents - the parliamentary constituency for the area was named 'Foyle' (After the river Foyle) for example. Traditionally the Catholic population refer to the city as Derry and the Protestant community call it Londonderry. Officially it is called Londonderry.