The Celts that settled in what we know as Northern Ireland today, were the Ulaid (Old Irish) or the Ulaidh (Modern Irish). They were a people of early Ireland who gave their name to the modern province of Ulster, which means “land” or “territory.”
Ulaid is a plural noun indicating an ethononym, a name applied to an ethnic group, rather than a geographic assignation. The Ulaid were first mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geographica written in the second century and the name he gave them were the Volunti.
Whether you call them Ulaid or Volunti, they are one of the earliest Celtic tribes in what is now Northern Ireland. Their capital city was probably in Navan Fort (Eamhain Mhacha) County Armagh. To their greatest extent, the Ulaid ruled all the way south to the River Boyne and west as far as Leitrim.
Eamhain Mhacha, the capital city was destroyed in the fourth century AD and the Ulaid kingdom came to an end.
Other Irish Celtic kingdoms in N. Ireland were the Erdini in County Fermanagh and the Robogdii in County Antrim and Londonderry, but they were not as strong as Celtic tribes as the Ulaid.
The best known kingdom was Dal riada which originated in Antrim and was at its greatest in the sixth and seventh centuries AD. It covered a large part of southwest Scotland and what is today County Antrim in N. Ireland. However, the kingdom disappeared by the time of the Viking invasion.
Dal riada’s most famous inhabitant was St. Columba who was instrumental in spreading Christianity to northern Britain and northern Ireland. And, the Book of Kells may have been produced by Dal riadan monks.
All of these peoples followed the typical Celtic lifestyle: they were organized tribally or by clans, the head of the tribe or clan was a king or chieftain, they had a warrior aristocracy, their intellectuals were druids, poets and bards.
Women were known for their beauty and were able to acquire substantial authority within the tribes. Both literary and archaeological findings confirm that some women were warriors.
Trading was common between the different Celtic tribes and so was warfare. There was an ancient system of roads transversing the N. Ireland area. The Celts from this region wore long-sleeved shirts and trousers which the Romans calledbraccae. The Romans traveled to Ireland and traded with the Celtic tribes there so would have been familiar with Irish Celtic tribes.
The Romans, however, were never able to conquer any part of Ireland and this is why the Celtic heritage remained the longest in Ireland.
But, it is the Ulaid Celtic tribe that had the most influence on what we know today as N. Ireland. Most of the artifacts dug up such as weapons and harness pieces found in N. Ireland suggest that “small bands of settlers,(warriors and metalworkers)” arrived “from Britain” in the third century BC and may have been absorbed into the Ulaid Celtic population.”
During the primitive days of Ireland’s history a pentarchy existed whose five members are believed to have been population groups each with their own over-king in Ireland: Ulaid, Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Meath.
By the fifth century AD that pentarchy ceased to exist and the documentary history of Ireland began.
The boundaries were fluid, but the Ulaid still held significant territory primarily in County Antrim. Down, and Louth. The primary ruling dynasty was Dal Fiatach who was based in Downpatrick, County Down. By this time, the king of the Ulaid referred to King Dal Fiatach as the overking of the northeast area of N. Ireland.
The rest of the ancient pentarchy fell under the control of the Airgialla and the northern dynasties of Ul Neill. (O’Neill)
The Ulaid Celts remained a distinct people represented by King Dal Fiatach and survived until their conquest in 1177 by the Anglo-Norman knight, John de Courly.
The Ulaid Celts feature prominently in the Irish legends and of prehistoric times. They remain most notably in the group of sagas known as the Ulster Cycle in Irish literature.
These stories are set during the reign of the Ulaid King Conchobar mac Nessa at Emain Mhacha and tell of his conflicts with the Connacht lead byQueen Medb (Maeve) and her husband Ailill mac Mata.
Conchobar’s nephew, teenage Cu Chulainn defeated Queen Medb and King Ailill in one of the largest and most bloody of battles told in the epic prose story Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Battle Raid of Cooley).
Irish scholar, Kenneth Jackson, believes that through verbal tradition the Ulster Cycle in Irish literature originated in the fourth century AD. By the end of the fourth to fifth century, the Ulaid had lost much of their territory and their capital city to the new kingdoms of the Airgialia.
Fergus Foga is said to be the last king of the Ulaid to reign in his capital city and the Three Collas are said to have defeated him at Achad Lethdery in County Monaghan. The Three Collas seized all of the Ulaid territory west of the Newry River and burned Emain Mhacha around 325 AD.
The Airgialia Celts had been the rulers of the center of N. Ireland had been vassals of the Ulaid, but they rose up and conquered the High King Fergus Foga. From then on, the Ulaid were reduced to being mere kings of their homelands, not over-kings.
With the Norman invasion of Ireland, the Earldom of Ulster was established in 1205. By the 13th century the Ulaid (Ulster) fell and the Gaelic kings of Ulster came exclusively from the O’Neill dynasty in N. Ireland.
The Irish (Gaelic) language in Northern Ireland
The Goidelic (Gaelic) language historically formed a dialect continuum stretching from Ireland through the Isle of Man and to Scotland. Gaelic , Irish or Erse is an ancient language of the Indo-European family. Gaelic is NOT closely related to English but is one of the languages forming the small sub-family of modern Celtic, a relic of the ancient Celtic that reached in pre-Roman times from Britain and Iberia to as far as Asia Minor.
The three modern Goidelic languages are: Irish (Gaeilge), Scottish Gaelic (Gaidhig), Manx (Gaelg).
These Celtic languages all have a similar grammatical structure, but have little vocabulary in common. All Celtic languages have certain non-Indo-European features such as placing the verb at the beginning of the sentence. Interestingly, Berber and Ancient Egyptian are languages that do the same and may have influenced Gaelic.
Ulster-Irish of Northern Ireland is one of the three main dialects of Irish or Gaelic spoken in Ireland today. Gaelige is a minority language in Northern Ireland today. Gaelic Irish (Ulster-Irish) was and is the main language in the region of present-day Northern Ireland for its recorded history.
The Gaelic language (Gaelige) is a primary cultural marker of the Gaels living on the Atlantic fringe of Ireland. It distinguishes them from the English-speaking Irish of Ulster. The Gaelic enclaves in Ireland represent the western most culture of the Old World.
These enclaves are found along the south and west coasts of what we know today as the Republic of Ireland and these pockets are called “Gaeltachts” and have special protected language status since 1956: western Donegal, western Mayo, western Galwa, western Kerry, western Cork, southwestern Waterford, the Aran Islands.
Only in these completely rural areas is Gaelic still widely spoken today and English is learned in school. The largest pocket of Gaelic speakers today is in County Dublin.
Only approximately 20,000 people of Northern Ireland speak Ulster-Irish which is their dialect of Gaelic today. As in other parts of Celtic Europe, Irish was the main language in the region of present-day Northern Ireland for most of its divided history. The historic influence of the Irish language in Northern Ireland can be seen in many place names.
The name Belfast first appears in 668 AD even though the city was originally founded by the Vikings. Creag or Carriag is Gaelic for ‘rock’, so Carrickfergusmeans the ‘rock of Fergus.’ Dun means ‘fort’ or ‘stronghold’ so Dundrum means the ‘fort of the ridge.’
The Plantation of Ulster lead to the decline in Gaelic language and culture in N. Ireland and the English language was made widespread by the plantation. It was the plantation that brought the most change to Northern Ireland and the most change to the language spoken.
Now, the plantations insisted on English being spoken.
The plantation was the organization or colonization (plantation) of Ulster, a province of Ireland by the people from Britain during the reign of King James I. Most of these colonists were English and Scottish and the small private plantation by wealthy landowners began in 1606. The English and Scottish were the aristocratic land owners and the Irish became the commoners.
An estimate half million of acres spanning Counties, Tyrconnel, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan, Coleraine, and Armagh was confiscated from the Gaelic chieftains who owned them. Most of these chieftains fled Ireland in 1607, called the Flight of the Earls, but would return to fight another day. (They lost)
King James I thought that colonizing Ulster with loyal British settlers would prevent further rebellion as Ulster had been the Irish region most resistant to English control during the preceding century. King James wanted a ‘civilized enterprise’ that would settle Protestants in Ulster, a land mainly Gaelic speaking and of the Catholic faith. It was James’ scheme to Anglicize the Irish.
The Scottish colonists were mostly Presbyterian and the English were mostly Anglicans (Church of England.) Prior to its conquest in the Nine Years War in the 1590’s, Ulster had been the most Gaelic part of all Ireland. During this time, many of the Gaelic Irish lived by ‘creaghting’, the seasonal migration with their cattle and because of this permanent habitations were not always possible.
Therefore, 16th century Ulster was viewed by England as being underpopulated and underdeveloped and free for the taking.
The 16th century English conquest of Ireland was made piece by piece starting with Henry VIII and completed by his daughter, Elizabeth I. During these wars the semi-independence of these Celtic Irish chieftains and kings was broken.
High Kings Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell surrendered to the English at the Treaty of Mellsfont in 1603 and the plantation era began in N. Ireland.
As mentioned before the English and Scottish were the colonists in Ulster and the Scots language came to Northern Ireland with the Scottish settlers of the Plantation of Ulster.
The Ulster-Scot language (Ullan’s or Braid Scotch) is a variant of Scots language used by Robert Burns in many of his poems. This variant language also came to Northern Ireland.
Scottish place names are found throughout Northern Ireland and Scottish surnames are found in Northern Ireland like, Milkyknowes, Mistyburn, Clatteryknowes, Hurtlefoot, and Whistlebare.
The Ulster-Scot language brought words introduced like -thon which means ‘that’; donner, which means ‘walk”; wee which means ‘small’; and cannae which means ‘can’t’ to the English language preferred by the plantation owners.
The Scots also give the Ulsters the word knowe which means ‘small hill or knoll’;clattery which means ‘muddy, dungy’; whin which means a ‘yellow flowering hedge.’
So Ulster-English came to have borrowed words along the way especially from the Scots. Although, English was to be spoken, the Ulster men and women kept Ulster-Irish alive and it remained as one of the three Irish dialects spoken in Ireland even to today.
Northern Ireland today
As a result of the plantation era in Northern Ireland, between the 17th and 20th centuries the Irish language declined and English dominated this region of Ireland. English became the official language of Northern Ireland and Gaelic Ulster-Irish took a back seat.
Recently there has been a revival of the Irish language as well as Northern Ireland’s Celtic heritage. W. Belfast has an area called, Belfasts’ Gaeltaqcht Quarter where Irish speakers preserve and promote the language today through Irish music, dance and song. They sponsor Irish festivals like Feile An Phobali.
Dedicated venues such as Culturlann McAdam O’Fiaich and An Droichead in Belfast and the Culturlann Ui Chanain in Derry-Londonderry celebrate the Irish language and culture.
The Plantation of Ulster was probably the single most influential denominator in shaping N. Ireland today. It made N. Ireland mostly Protestant and English speaking in conflict with the minority Catholics who are Irish speaking. The Catholics want to see Ireland become whole again, and the Protestants want to remain loyal to England and remain Northern Ireland and part of the UK.
From the late 1960’s to 1990’s Northern Ireland experienced ‘the Troubles’ and great battles and conflicts between the Protestants and the Catholics. But, in the 90’s both sides agreed to a truce and although the passions and differences still remain, the fighting has stopped.
It was The Governor of Ireland Act of 1920, which came into effect in 1921, that divided Ireland into two autonomous regions. Southern Ireland eventually became its own nation, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland became part of the UK.
As a result of the English take-over of Northern Ireland, the country does not have its own unique flag sanctioned by the government. In official functions, the Union Jack is used, the official flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK).
Between the years 1921-1972 Northern Ireland did have an official flag, the Ulster Flag or Ulster Banner.
Northern Ireland came under more direct British rule in 1972 as a response to the conflict (the Troubles) that had recently erupted in Northern Ireland. The Flag Regulations (N. Ireland) of 2000 states the only flags permitted to be flown in N. Ireland are: the Union Jack, the European Union flag, the flags of visiting heads of state, the Royal Standard.
It is historical and political irony that the strongest Gaelic area of all Ireland, Ulster, would end up becoming so English, with the English language taking the place of Irish and becoming the official language in Northern Ireland. But, the country in recent years has been claiming back its Celtic heritage and especially its Gaelic Irish language.