Northern Ireland is part of the island of Ireland and is one of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom.
Despite its former reputation as being violent and dangerous the political situation has stabilized and the country is as safe to visit as any other part of the UK.
Brief Context & History
Northern Ireland was created in 1921 when Ireland was partitioned by the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The larger part of the island became independent in 1922 as the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland).
Northern Ireland comprises six of the nine historic counties of Ulster, one of the four ancient Irish provinces, with the remaining three (Monaghan, Cavan, and Donegal) staying in what is now the modern-day Republic of Ireland.
For this reason, Northern Ireland is sometimes referred to as “Ulster”, even if that name is not in the strictest sense geographically accurate. Such usage does, however, have unionist connotations and will generally be rejected by nationalists.
Things To Do In Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland has world heritage sites such as the Giant’s Causeway, stunning landscapes, unique scenery, vibrant cities and welcoming locals interested in your own stories.
World Heritage Site and National Nature Reserve. The Giants Causeway is essentially an area of coastline and cliffs with very unusual and distinctive volcanic stone formations. The name comes from the local Legend of Fionn McCool, as it was said that the rocks were once part of a bridge (or causeway) which ended in similar rocks directly across the sea, in Scotland, but the connecting rocks were torn down by Benandonner when Fionn’s wife tricked him into believing that Fionn was huge.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Located near Ballycastle, the name literally means the rock in the road. Carrick-A-Rede is a rope bridge connecting the mainland to an island that salmon fishers first put up years ago for the excellent salmon fishing. It became a tourist attraction because of the rope bridge in a really windy area.
Ulster American Folk Park
An open-air museum, near Omagh in County Tyrone, explaining the story of emigration from Ulster to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are an Old World and New World on the site.
Sites include the Weaver’s Cottage, A Blacksmith’s forge, Crop Fields, log cabins, smokehouses, and herb gardens. Museum restaurant available, open daily for snacks and full meals.
Marble Arch Caves
A global geopark near Belcoo in Co. Fermanagh.
Enjoy Live Sports
Northern Ireland likes both rugby union and association football. Interestingly, while Northern Ireland has its own national side in association football, in rugby Northern Irish players play for an all-Irish team together with players from the Republic of Ireland down south.
The Ulster rugby side, which competes in the Pro12 competition, has become a strong provincial club in recent years.
Watch a Gaelic Game
Gaelic games also have a certain following. Gaelic football is more popular in Northern Ireland than hurling or camogie.
The Ulster Senior Football Championship (including three Ulster counties in the Republic as well as the six in Northern Ireland) has gained the reputation of being the most exciting and competitive in Gaelic football.
Best Time To Visit
The weather in Northern Ireland is notoriously unpredictable, and it is not uncommon to experience a full range of meteorological conditions in a single hour.
As with the rest of the island of Ireland and Great Britain, the province is particularly susceptible to rain. Similarly to England, the weather is a common topic of conversation.
English is spoken everywhere, although the distinctive Ulster accent can be more difficult to understand than other Irish dialects. Ulster Scots (Ulstèr-Scotch) and Irish (Gaeilge) are used in some small communities. These three are the officially recognized local languages.
When speaking English, the Northern Irish tend to speak quite rapidly compared to most English speakers, and use a huge array of local words. Expect to hear words such as ‘aye’ (yes), ‘wee’ (little), ‘hallion’ (person who behaves in a deliberately careless manner), ‘we’un’ (literally ‘wee one’, meaning child), ‘dander’ (casual walk) and ‘craic’ (a good time/fun/a laugh, with no connotations of any controlled substances whatsoever).
Accents and dialects differ considerably throughout the country and even foreign visitors fluent in English may find it hard to understand people with certain accents.
However, most Northern Irish people will slow down and speak more clearly if they think you are having a hard time understanding them.
In schools, English is taught as both a literature subject and a language subject. In most Catholic schools and some grammar schools, it is normal for students to be taught Irish (although this is not widely used) and therefore certain schools have bilingual signs, etc.
French, Spanish, and German, and sometimes Latin, are taught in most schools, or at least a few of these languages will be taught mainly at the secondary school level. Unfortunately for native English speakers, there is often no desire for them to learn other languages; therefore, a lot of Northern Irish people won’t be able to speak to you in your native language but will try to make their English more understandable for a foreign visitor.
While used in various government and public organizations, Irish and Ulster Scots are rarely seen written and even less spoken.
Nearly all education in the country is in English; therefore, there is no need to learn Irish, partly because most non-Catholic schools do not teach it. Many Northern Irish people have little if any knowledge of Irish or Ulster-Scots.
The Falls Road area of Belfast has branded itself as a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) Quarter; otherwise, Irish is spoken mainly in limited social networks.
Scots was formerly widespread in eastern Ulster, particularly in County Antrim, but is now largely moribund except for a few rural communities, although many Scots words and turns of phrase have made their way into Ulster English.
Currency & Money
The official currency of Northern Ireland is the pound sterling. Although Bank of England notes are universally accepted, the four Northern Irish banks (Bank of Ireland, Danske Bank, Ulster Bank, and First Trust) also print their own versions, which tend to be used more often.
Northern Irish notes are not universally accepted in the rest of the UK, although some mainland shopkeepers accept them.
Northern Irish banknotes can be exchanged for Bank of England notes for free at any bank elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland does a large amount of trade with the Republic of Ireland, where the euro is used, and therefore many outlets in border areas and urban centers accept the euro.
Most retailers will display whether they accept euros or not. Whilst euro notes may be accepted, coins will not.
Virtually all shops and pubs in Derry, Strabane, Enniskillen, and Newry will accept the euro as payment. In addition, many major pubs and shopping outlets in the Belfast city center now accept it.
In particular, the pub company Botanic Inns Ltd and the shopping center Castle Court accept the euro. Many phone kiosks in Northern Ireland also accept euro coins but by no means all outside Belfast.
Bear in mind that vendors in Northern Ireland are under no obligation to accept the euro as they are not the official currency.
A popular dish is an assortment of fried food, called the “Ulster Fry”. It consists of eggs, bacon, tomatoes, sausages, potato bread, and soda bread.
Some versions include mushrooms or baked beans. Fries are generally prepared as the name suggests, everything is fried in a pan.
Traditionally lard was used, but recently due to health concerns, it has been replaced with oils such as rapeseed and olive. Historically, it was popular with the working class.
Some shops on the north coast close to Ballycastle sell a local delicacy called dulse. This is a certain type of seaweed, usually collected, washed and Sun-dried from the middle of Summer through to the middle of Autumn.
Additionally, in August, the lamas fair is held in Ballycastle, and a traditional sweet, called “yellow man” is sold in huge quantities.
As you can tell from the name, it’s yellow in color, it’s also very sweet, and can get quite sticky. If you can, try to sample some yellow man, just make sure you have use of a toothbrush shortly after eating it… it’ll rot your teeth!
The cuisine in Northern Ireland is similar to that in the United Kingdom as a whole, with dishes such as Fish and Chips a popular fast food choice.
Local dishes such as various types of stew and potato-based foods are also very popular.
‘Champ’ is a local specialty consisting of creamed potatoes mixed with scallions.
With the advent of the peace process, and until recently, the improvements in economic conditions for many people in Northern Ireland, there has been a great increase in the number of good restaurants, especially in the larger towns such as Belfast and Derry.
Indeed it would be difficult for a visitor to either of those cities not to find a fine-dining establishment to suit their tastes and wallet.
There is a strong emphasis on local produce. Locally produced meats, cheeses, and drinks can be found in any supermarket.
For the real Northern Irish experience, sample Tayto brand cheese and onion flavored crisps: these are nothing short of being a local icon and are available everywhere.
The legal drinking age in Northern Ireland is 18. People at and above the age of 16 will be served beer and wine with meals as long as there is a consenting adult present.
In general, restaurateurs are strict about this rule, while the operators of small local pubs and bars tend to be more relaxed.
Depending on their license, most bars stop serving alcohol at either 23:00 or 01:00. Some clubs serve until later, and some bars have (illegal, but widely overlooked) “lock-ins” where the doors are locked at closing time, but people can stay and drink for longer.
This only takes place at the discretion of the bar owner, and such events operate on an invitation-only basis.
Bushmills whiskey is made in the town of the same name on the north coast, and distillery tours are interesting and enjoyable.
Belfast produces its own range of ales.
Hillden Breweries is a local producer of ales and stouts based near Lisburn, County Down. Its products can be found in most supermarkets and some pubs and bars.
In the last few years, a number of new distilleries have been opening up, including Echlinville Distillery in Kircubbin, County Down; the Belfast Distillery Company in the former Crumlin Road Gaol premises; and Niche Drinks in Derry.
Although a few extremist paramilitary organizations are still active, the province is much safer to visit than formerly.
Northern Ireland has changed greatly in the years since the peace agreement was signed in 1998, though its troubles have not entirely ceased. There remains a high frequency of terrorist incidents in Northern Ireland, with the UK Home Office defining the current threat level as ‘severe’.
Tourists, however, are not the target of such terrorist incidents and therefore are highly unlikely to be affected. Visitors should be aware that there is a significant risk of disruption caused by incidents of civil unrest during the contentious ‘marching season’ which takes place each year over the summer months.
The U.S. State Department advises visitors to Northern Ireland to remain ‘alert’ during their visit and to keep themselves abreast of political developments.
This being said, it should be remembered that most visits to Northern Ireland are trouble-free and visitors are unlikely to frequent the areas that are usually affected by violence.
Northern Ireland has a significantly lower crime rate than the rest of the United Kingdom, with tourists being less likely to encounter criminality in Belfast than any other UK capital.
In fact, Northern Ireland has one of the lowest crime rates among industrialized countries. According to statistics from the U.N. International Crime Victimisation Survey (ICVS 2004), Northern Ireland has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, lower than the United States and the rest of the United Kingdom, and even during the Troubles, the murder rate was still lower than in most large American cities (although this does not take into account the vastly lower population figures).
The latest ICVS shows that Japan is the only industrialized place safer than Northern Ireland. Almost all visitors experience a trouble-free stay.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC) is the police force in Northern Ireland. Unlike the Garda Síochána in the Republic, the PSNI are routinely armed with handguns and/or long arms.
The police still use heavily-armored Land Rover vehicles; do not be concerned by this, as it doesn’t mean that trouble is about to break out. There is a visible police presence in Belfast and Derry, and the police are approachable and helpful.
Almost all police stations in Northern Ireland are reinforced with fencing or high, blast-proof walls. It is important to remember that there is still a necessity for this type of protection and that it is a visible reminder of the province’s past.
As with most places, avoid being alone at night in urban areas. In addition, avoid wearing clothes that could identify you, correctly or not, as being from one community or the other, for example, Celtic or Rangers football kits.
Do not express a political viewpoint (pro-Nationalist or pro-Unionist) unless you are absolutely sure you are in a company that will not become hostile towards you for doing so. Even then, you should be sure that you know what you’re talking about.
It would be even better to act as if you either don’t know about the conflict or don’t care. Avoid political gatherings where possible. Many pubs have a larger cultural and political atmosphere (such as on the Falls Road, the mostly Nationalist main road in West Belfast, and the Newtownards Roads in predominantly Unionist East Belfast), but expressing an opinion among good company, especially if you share the same view, will usually not lead to any negative consequences.
People are generally more lenient on tourists if they happen to say something controversial, and most will not expect you to know much about the situation.
Traffic through many towns and cities in Northern Ireland tends to become difficult at times for at least a few days surrounding the 12th of July due to the Orange Parades and some shops may close for the day or for a few hours.
The parades have been known to get a bit rowdy in certain areas but have vastly improved in recent years. Additionally, the last Saturday in August is known as “Black Saturday” which is the end of the marching season.
Trouble can break out without warning, though locals or Police officers will be more than happy to advise visitors on where to avoid. The Twelfth Festival in Belfast is currently being re-branded as a tourist-friendly family experience and efforts are being made to enforce no-alcohol rules aimed at reducing trouble.
Pickpockets and violent crime are rare so you can generally walk around the main streets of Belfast or any other city or town without fear during the day.
The province’s troubled past has created a uniquely complex situation within Northern Ireland’s society. Integration, or even interaction, between the two main religious groups, varies hugely depending on where you are: for example, in affluent South Belfast or Bangor, those from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds live side by side, as they have for generations, whereas in West Belfast, the two communities are separated by a wall.
If you are not British or Irish, the main thing to avoid is pontificating about the situation or taking one particular side over the other. Local people do not appreciate it and you will surely offend someone. Comments from outsiders will likely be seen as arrogant and ill-informed.
This applies particularly to Americans (or others) who claim Irish ancestry and may, therefore, feel they have more of a right to comment on the situation (the majority of people in Northern Ireland would beg to differ). A good rule of thumb is simply to keep your opinions to yourself and avoid conversations that might be overheard.
Generally speaking, people from Northern Ireland are welcoming, friendly and well-humored people, and they will often be curious to get to know you and ask you why you’re visiting.
However, that does not mean that, on occasion, there are no taboos. Avoid bringing up issues like the IRA, UVF, UDA, INLA, etc., or political parties, as it will not be appreciated.
Other than that, there are no real dangers to causing tension among the Northern Irish people. As with virtually all cultures, don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home.
Unlike in parts of Europe, there is no social taboo associated with appearing drunk in bars or public places. Though it is advisable to avoid political conversations in general, this is particularly true when alcohol is involved.
People from all backgrounds congregate in Belfast city center to enjoy its nightlife; avoiding political discussions is an unwritten rule.
Also, Northern Irish people have a habit of gently refusing gifts or gestures you may offer them, do not be offended, because they really mean that they like the gesture, also you are expected to do the same, so as not to appear slightly greedy, it is a confusing system but is not likely to get you in trouble.
Tours of Belfast often include a visit to the Peace Lines, the steel barriers that separate housing estates along sectarian lines. These are particularly visible in West Belfast. It is common for private or taxi tours to stop here and some tourists take the opportunity to write messages on the wall. It is important to remember that there is a real reason why these barriers have not been removed and that they provide security for those living on either side of them.
Messages questioning the need for these security measures, or those encouraging the residents to ’embrace peace’ etc., are not appreciated by members of the community who live with the barriers on a day-to-day basis and such behavior is generally regarded as arrogant and patronizing.
The terms which refer to the two communities in Northern Ireland have changed. During the Troubles, the terms ‘Republican’ and ‘Loyalist’ were commonplace. These are seen as slightly ‘extreme’, probably due to the fact that they were terms used by the paramilitaries. It is more common to use the terms ‘Nationalist’ and ‘Unionist’ today; these terms are more politically neutral. ‘Loyalist’ and ‘Republican’ still refer to particular political viewpoints.
Unionists tend to identify as British, and maybe offended if referred to as Irish. Conversely, Nationalists tend to identify as Irish and may find it offensive if referred to as British.
If you are not sure about someone’s political leanings, it is best to just use the term “Northern Irish” until you are prompted to do otherwise.
March 2, 2020 1:35 pm
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