After eighteen months of Covid 19 and lockdown restrictions we were desperate to get away. Going to Europe remained an assault course of paperwork and additional expense so we opted instead for a semi-staycation and planned a week in Northern Ireland. We got to go on a flight which made it feel like a real holiday even though we were staying in the United Kingdom.
Not so long ago most people would no more thought about visiting Northern Ireland than having a few days away in North Korea, it wouldn’t have crossed their minds to go to Ulster more than go to Uganda and Belfast would be on a travellers wish list that included Beirut and Baghdad. Now things are changing and Northern Ireland is reinventing itself as a tourist destination.
So we set off from East Midlands Airport to the city of Belfast and to the Province of Ulster.
Ulster is made up of nine counties in the north of Ireland and to make things complicated three of these are in the Republic and the other six make up what we know as Northern Ireland.
The reasons are many and complicated but in the simplest terms these six counties were partitioned from the Irish Free State when it was established in 1920. Northern Ireland was created in 1921, when modern Ireland was established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920.
There is a phrase that the Irish frequently use themselves which is “Only in Ireland” which is used to justify the idiosyncrasies of the country without offering a detailed explanation.
The partition of Ireland into north and south is a good example…
… Ulster has no political or administrative significance and exists only as a historical sub-division of Ireland. The other three are Connacht, Leinster and Munster. The map above shows the geographical split.
The reasons are many and complicated but in the simplest terms these six counties were partitioned from the Irish Free State when it was established in 1920 because these were areas where Protestants were in the majority and had vehemently campaigned to remain part of the Union – ‘by all means which may seem necessary’ which inevitably included violence and civil disobedience.
Except that they weren’t because in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone they were in the minority but were included anyway. County Donegal was catholic but was separated from the principal border city of Londonderry/Derry and County Londonderry which now has a majority catholic population. Donegal is so far north in fact that at the most northerly point it is further north than Northern Ireland.
How complicated is all that? No wonder the Irish issue has taken so long to try and resolve.
From the airport we drove to the city via the market town of Antrim where we stopped for a short while at the castle grounds before continuing west to Derry/Londonderry which is the most westerly city in the United Kingdom. To complete the geography the most northerly is Inverness in Scotland, the most easterly is Norwich and the most southerly is Truro both of which are in England.
The city might be Londonderry/Derry or Derry/Londonderry and we were confused about what we should call it because we didn’t want to offend anyone.
The name Derry became the accepted name of the town around the sixteenth century but it was at this time point that the prefix of London entered the equation. The Plantation of Ulster in 1608 saw the British Crown seizing land in an effort to anglicise Ulster and create a loyal and acquiescent population here.
The various lands were handed over to different guilds of London traders to develop and manage. In recognition of their financial investment in 1613 by Royal seal the city was renamed Londonderry.
The names of the city, county, and district of Derry or Londonderry continue to be the subject of a naming dispute between nationalists and unionists. Generally nationalists favour using the name Derry, and unionists using Londonderry. Legally, the city and county are called Londonderry while the local government district is called Derry. There have been attempts by the nationalists to officially ditch the London bit of the name but only the Queen has the authority to permit this and so far she has declined to do so.
Confused? We were. My favourite solution to this problem is the name given by a Northern Ireland radio broadcaster called Gerry Anderson who christened the city with the alternative name Stroke City and residents have increasingly embraced the unofficial name skilfully circumventing the linguistic minefield of Derry vs. Londonderry.
We were staying in the western majority catholic/republican Bogside area of the city so on arrival we considered it prudent to be careful to call it Derry.
It was mid afternoon and after approving our accommodation we set off immediately to explore the city.