The terms Ulster, Northern Ireland, "the six counties," and "the North" are used interchangeably in Ireland for this small, ruggedly beautiful, and historically troubled land. The fact that nobody knows quite what to call it is somehow appropriate given the seemingly endless struggle that has gone on for the soul of this place.
For many years, visitors to Ireland avoided the North, for obvious reasons. In fact, the vast majority of people in the Republic of Ireland have never crossed the border into Ulster, and that's a pity. This is a colorful, exciting region, with vibrant towns and a countryside of breathtaking beauty. The way the locals treat you may come as a surprise -- in fact, we'll go out on a limb and say that rural Northern Ireland is, in many ways, friendlier to visitors than the Republic. In part because of its relatively low tourism numbers, you'll find you are very welcome here, whereas, in the southern counties, the overwhelming flow of visitors has taken a toll on that famous Irish faílte (welcome).
Belfast and Derry, the North's only cities of any size, are both quite manageable, with winding streets and grand historical monuments. But the main draw here is the magnificent countryside: the cool greens of the Glens of Antrim, the rugged Mourne Mountains, and the famously craggy coastline culminating in the extraordinary lunar Giant's Causeway.
Still, the Troubles are obviously the elephant in the Northern Irish living room. It would be a unique visit that ignored politics entirely, whether it's the unforgiving murals in west Belfast or the strident graffiti that startles you in even the most bucolic village. Everybody picks a side in the Sisyphean effort to claim this rocky soil for God and country. But whose God and which country? Herewith, a quick rundown of the history of it all.
The strife in Northern Ireland can be traced back 800 years. In fact, there's an apocryphal story about a phone call between two friends -- an Irish politician and an English parliamentarian -- at the start of the Irish civil war in the 1920s. According to lore, the Englishman asked his Irish friend, "Is it true that there's an uprising in Ireland?" and the Irishman replied, "Aye, 'tis true." "When did it start?" the Englishman asked. "When Strongbow invaded Ireland," the Irishman said. "When will it end?" asked the Englishman. "When Cromwell gets out of hell." The story alludes to the fact that when the English first invaded Ireland in the 12th century, they were led by the Earl of Pembroke, nicknamed "Strongbow." They never really left, and some Irish have never quit trying to get rid of them.
Over the centuries, the British waged a largely futile effort to make Ireland, and the Irish, British. Their tactics included outlawing the Irish language, banning Catholicism, and barring Catholics from landownership; finally, in the mid-1600s, Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army went for the more basic approach of killing them in droves. British families were brought over to take their land -- essentially, physically replacing Irish Catholics with British Protestants -- in a process the Irish called "planting." The descendants of those British settlers, generally speaking, form the Protestant population of Northern Ireland today.
After centuries of struggle, Ireland finally won independence of a sort from Britain in 1921, in the aftermath of the 1916 Rebellion. After much arguing, it was decided that the island would be divided. Twenty-six Irish counties would form an independent, free state (now the Republic of Ireland), while six counties in the Ulster province with predominantly Protestant populations would become Northern Ireland and remain a part of the United Kingdom.
When the six counties were detached from the rest of the island, two conflicting ideological bodies emerged: Unionists, associated with the Protestant majority, who want to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and nationalists, associated with the Catholic minority, who want the whole of Ireland united as one independent nation. Of course, being a Unionist or a nationalist doesn't imply approval of the violence. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Northern Irish people, regardless of whether they want British rule or Irish rule, oppose the use of violence.
After the division, the British police and government in Ulster were quite brutal toward the Catholic minority. Things came to a head in the late 1960s when the minority Catholic population began an intense civil rights campaign. Their marches and demonstrations were crushed by the authorities, sometimes with disproportionate levels of violence, thus setting the stage for the reemergence of the Irish Republican Army, a violent paramilitary nationalist group that first appeared early in the 20th century. This modern battle between the British authorities and the Irish resistance that became known as the Troubles began in 1969 and would not end for nearly 30 years.
Throughout the 1970s, violence was a fact of everyday life in Northern Ireland. By the 1980s, the violence was sporadic, if still shocking, and in the 1990s, the Northern Irish people -- stunned by the sheer horror of an IRA bombing in the town of Omagh that killed 29 civilians on a busy shopping street -- had had enough.
Since the peace agreement was signed, it has been tested several times. In 2009, violence flared again in this region, in a series of murders and attacks on British soldiers and others involved on one side or the other of the political landscape. The situation was quickly calmed, due to the determination of all sides not to return to the bad old days. Since then there have been sporadic incidents—including a couple of car bombs, one of which, in 2011, was outside the tourism office in Derry (although nobody was hurt). And the summer of 2013 saw some pretty serious riots in Belfast; on one night alone, 56 police officers were injured and parts of the city center were vandalized. But on the whole, despite sporadic incidents, the region remains at peace.