Northern Ireland – A Potted History

Well that was an exciting St. Patrick’s Day. Ireland defeated England 24-15 to win the Six Nations Rugby Championship and the Grand Slam in the process. This is a massive deal over here as the country is rugby mad. And it’s always satisfying to beat the English at anything. Ireland are now ranked second in the world at rugby ahead of England, Australia, South Africa, France and Wales to name but a few. Not bad for our tiny little island. Roll on the World Cup in Japan next year.

I posted earlier today asking for your questions on life in Ireland. I received a LOT and have replied to some of them already. But hopefully this post will answer a few more. We live in Northern Ireland which comprises Counties Armagh, Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Derry and Tyrone. There are 32 counties on the island of Ireland and the other 26 comprise the Republic of Ireland. So basically Ireland is divided into two countries with different governments, currencies and customs.

The island was divided up this way by the Act of Partition in 1921 which followed the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Northern Ireland was created to placate its largely Protestant population who sought to remain part of the United Kingdom with England, Scotland and Wales. They regard themselves as British as opposed to Irish and swear allegiance to the British monarch. Queen Elizabeth II is monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This section of the Northern Irish population regard themselves as pro-union or Unionists. The Catholic population by and large want a United Ireland free of all British influence. They are known as nationalists or republicans. Political life in Northern Ireland is largely drawn along these religious lines. The two largest parties are the Democratic Unionist Party (unionist) and Sinn Fein, pronounced Shin Fane, (republican). Protestants largely support the former while Catholics vote for the latter.

Following the partition of Ireland there were a number of violent conflicts where republicans sought to overthrow British rule in Northern Ireland. The bloodiest of these was between 1969-1998. This period ,known as ‘The Troubles’, resulted in over 3000 deaths as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) launched a guerrilla campaign against the British Army and Northern Irish police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Loyalists retaliated with the formation of their own paramilitary groups, most notably the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Many innocent men, women and children died during the Troubles as a result of countless shootings and bombings. Peace was finally reached via the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but a number of breakaway republican groups refused to accept the terms of the agreement and continued the armed struggle. The single largest loss of life in Northern Ireland was when the ‘Real’ IRA detonated a no warning car bomb in my home town, Omagh, on 15 August 1998, killing 29 civilians and two unborn babies.

Below is a photograph taken by tourists minutes before the bomb detonated. The bomb car is in the background. Notice how low the car’s suspension is sitting to the ground. That’s the weight of the explosives weighing it down. Chilling, isn’t it?

I wasn’t in the town that day but my parents were. Thankfully they were at home and not in the town centre. It is probably the rawest, personal experience of the conflict I have. The bomb exploded on a street I have walked along hundreds of times. Fionnuala grew up in Belfast during the Troubles and has similar stories of carnage which happened literally around the corner from her. The violence is largely in the past now although deep divisions still exist between the two communities.

I was raised a Protestant and Fionnuala a Catholic. Many people disapproved of our marriage, including my parents. Old wounds heal slowly. We are seeking to bring up our children with an understanding of our country’s past and the struggles we both faced growing up in ‘The Troubles’. We regard ourselves as non denominational Christians who are neither ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’. We now live in a modern, vibrant country but the legacy of violence is hard to shake off. A lot of people refuse to move on and you often don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to reveal the old prejudices and bigotry.

Some of you will know that I’m currently writing a novel. It is set in modern day Belfast but there are several ‘flashback’ chapters which focus on the main character when he was a young boy growing up during ‘The Troubles’. His experiences then explore a number of issues which I have touched upon above. I hope this post has been of some use and taught you a little more about our country and heritage.

Have you any Irish blood?

Has this post assisted you in your knowledge of Northern Ireland and it’s troubled past?

29 thoughts on “Northern Ireland – A Potted History

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  1. Way to go! Congrats on the win more so for the Gran Slam.
    The French are livid.and are trying to be ready for the World Cup. French are very big on rugby about the same as football, well almost.

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  2. That was a great article. I actually saw the movie called Omagh years ago which talked about that event. I’m also glad that you and your wife have still been together. Love goes beyond sectarianism. Cheers!

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  3. I had no idea about Ireland’s history, so this was enlightening to me. Sadly, no Irish blood in me (that I know of 😉🍀) but I have Scottish, English, French Canadian, Native American, and quite a bit of Danish. So my ancestors were at least in the area, lol 😂

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  4. No Irish blood here sadly. Growing up hearing about the troubles virtually daily, i cannot imagine what it must have been like to grow up there. Ireland a beautiful country with such a sad and chequered past.

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  5. Plenty of Irish blood here. We just got back to the US from our cross country tour of the Republic of Ireland. We planned to take a day trip up to Belfast, but were scuppered by “The Beast from the East.” We’ll definitely be back and make the trip. I’m fascinated and horrified by The Troubles and appreciate your excellent account of it. Waiting eagerly for your book.

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  6. Very interesting, I took an elective in college about the history of Ireland, particularly the Anglo-Irish war, we watched old films depicting the war and the struggles that Ireland faced. It was one of my favorite classes! Thanks for the post!

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  7. I did not realize The Troubles was such a recent time period. How scary!
    At the table tonight, I told my boys about my Irish ancestry (about 1/4 of my makeup) and my husband told of his 9% or so. 🙂 We realized his ancestor was from the richer class and mine the poorer working class -though not sure of religion for his.
    Just a few generations down, and it doesn’t matter so much. You’re doing a brave thing, but a good one, to raise your children that way.

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  8. Being a Scot from Ayrshire, I grew up in the 70’s, 80s & 90’s with the ever-present stain of sectarianism, never far away. As a youngster from the West of Scotland you had to pick your football team. Never mind if your town had it’s own team, it was either Rangers or Celtic, and that told everyone what they needed to know about your religion (Catholic or Protestant). Of course there was always the Orange Order (and they’re still about unfortunately,as in NI). We had neighbours who were Catholic. They went to school in the neighbouring town, because there wasn’t a Catholic school nearby.

    I was brought up in a Christian home, and would consider myself a Christian (born-again). If pressed I’d say I was from the Protestant wing, but only because I believe that what God says and His Word, is what is important. Not the Pope. No idols or imagery required.

    As a kid it used to confuse me that two groups of people who would consider that they came from a christian background could hate each other so much – after all these hundreds of years.

    That’s what happend – I think – when man starts to put his own spin on what God wants or says.

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  9. This is a great post! Thank you for writing it!

    I turned 13 in 1998 and have some vague memories of the unrest that was going on in Ireland at the time from watching the national news with my parents. In 2013, my husband David and I traveled to Ireland. We spent most of our time in Dublin, but one day took a bus trip up to County Antrim to see Carrick-A-Rede and the Giants’ Causeway, which were stunning. We had a brief stop in Belfast on the way back to Dublin and our bus driver told us a bit about the history. He drove us by where the walls and gates are still up and pointed out some murals. One thing that really surprised me is he said that even in Belfast, there were people my age who to that day had never crossed to the other side of the walls even after The Troubles ended.

    I did an AncestryDNA test a few years ago and it came up with 7% Irish DNA (62% Great Britain, sorry, haha, with the rest being Eastern Europe.) The Irish is from my dad’s side, but we haven’t been too lucky tracing it. My mom’s mom’s side was English royalty and nobility, which eventually trickled down into the Mayflower (which was made up of two different religious groups as well, the “Saints” and the “Strangers”) so I’m really about as American as you can get! 😆 I’m nondenominational, but my early American ancestry was Puritan, Baptist, and Quaker. I’ve found some hilarious sources in my genealogy research about ancestors being fined for things like being a Baptist riding their horse through a Puritan town on a Sunday! 😆

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    1. Yes there were some strange laws back then lol. The Giants Causeway & North Coast is indeed beautiful. They film a lot of Game of Thrones up there. The Peace Wall in Belfast is still there but the barriers are open now so everyone has access to all parts of the city. Thanks for the comments 🍀🙂

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  10. Thanks Stephen for sharing this. That’s history in a nutshell how I can grasp it. When I lived in the UK around 2003 I met a woman who was from Belfast and she said she grew up losing people around her all the time. One day family, then friends and from time to time kids she knew from school. It’s a bit of a relief to know that this didn’t happen to everyone. Your article puts things into perspective slightly. Still it is a cruel thing we still have these things in our modern lives. It’s ONLY been 20 years. Humans just never stop finding reasons for killing each other. Makes me sad.

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