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August 23, 2021

Northern Ireland 101

I’m delighted to host a guest post by my friend Pat Booker, a wonderful Irish Pagan person who has in fact, grown up in Northern Ireland, and therefore knows more about it than I do.

The Lovely Pat

Northern Ireland 101

Northern Irish people are often asked to explain the latest news from our disputed territory. The question is normally a variant of “What are they fighting about now?” and is frequently asked in a tone of exasperation. We fight, march, riot and protest a LOT. And sometimes we kill each other.

It’s frustrating for everyone that an explanation of yesterday’s news often requires us to go back and begin our story with events from the 16th century, if not earlier.  (Yes, really!)   So here, in ridiculously simplified bullet point form, is an explanation of Northern Ireland. There’s no detail here, no nuance, just an outline of the story.  

N.B. I hope it goes without saying that, when I use terms like “Catholics” or “Protestants”, I don’t mean ALL Catholics or ALL Protestants.


  • First there was Ireland.
  • Then the English took it over.
  • Then someone invented Protestants.
  • The English became Protestants, the Irish stayed Catholic.
  • England was scared Ireland would help foreign Catholics attack them.
  • To prevent this and stop rebellion, England took loads of (mostly Scottish) Protestants and gave them land in Ireland.  This process was known as “plantation” – it began in the 1550s, about 70 years before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock. 
  • The northern province of Ulster was extra rebellious, and got more than its fair share of Scottish Protestants.
  • Hundreds of years pass …. Not very happily.  Do I need to mention the Famines?


  • Ireland kicks the English out EXCEPT…
  • The Protestants are scared what will happen to them if they are left as a minority in Catholic Ireland.
  • Britain therefore hangs on to 6 of the 32 counties of Ireland, so the Protestants can feel safe and stay British.
  • Inside their 6 county mini-country, the Protestant majority is afraid both of the majority of Catholics on the island of Ireland, AND the minority of Catholics within their own borders.
  • Therefore, Northern Ireland is an openly repressive state, to keep the disloyal Catholics in their place.


  • Civil Rights movements start happening around the world.
  • Northern Ireland Catholics have their own civil rights movement focusing on housing, jobs and the demand for one man, one vote.
  • This is vehemently opposed by many Northern Irish Protestants, who think it is a front for trying to force them into a united Ireland.
  • The fighting between Protestants and Catholics gets SO bad, the British send in soldiers TO PROTECT THE CATHOLIC MINORITY in Ulster.
  • England sees that Northern Ireland can no longer govern itself, and therefore imposes Direct Rule from Westminster (where the UK parliament lives).
  • Meanwhile, more Northern Ireland Catholics have joined the IRA, using violence to fight for a united Ireland, because they do not feel they will ever get a fair chance in Northern Ireland.
  • The IRA fights the British army, killing soldiers.  The British army commits atrocities against civilian Catholics.
  • Protestants have their own terrorist organisations, mostly beginning with the letter U for Ulster. Catholic terrorist groups mostly begin with I for Ireland.
  • Murder. Murder. Murder.  People keep murdering each other. Bad times. There are no heroes here.
  • England is thoroughly sick of this by now and mostly just wants out….

Terminology note:  It becomes rude to talk about Protestants and Catholics, so we start referring to the Protestant community as Unionist (because they support the Union with Britain) or Loyalist (because they are loyal to the British Crown).  Catholics are referred to as Nationalist (wanting Ireland to be one nation) or Republican (wanting Northern Ireland to join with The Republic of Ireland).


  • With both Britain and Ireland in the EU, borders are open.  
  • There is a peace agreement called The Good Friday agreement which means both communities in Northern Ireland can hold dual citizenship of both Britain and Ireland if they wish.
  • Under this agreement, Northern Ireland again starts governing itself, with guaranteed fair representation for both communities.
  • 2017 – the two parties stop being able to work together and Northern Ireland has no effective government for 3 years.


  • Britain leaves the EU.  Borders are no longer open.  The Good Friday Agreement is under threat.
  • Britain puts a short term compromise in place, featuring a trade border in the Irish Sea.
  • Ulster Unionists and Loyalists hate this, as it makes them “less British” than the rest of the UK.  There is some marching and rioting against it.  And open calls for an end to The Good Friday Agreement.

So there you go.  You may be annoyed that this simplified and sometimes flippant account has not done justice to the thousands of murder victims, nor to the grief and fear suffered by our society as whole.  Some of you will be mad that this account is too biased or not biased enough.

My aim has been to give everyone a framework for understanding Northern Ireland as a problem of colonialism – we are what happens when powerful nations draw lines on maps and move people around to suit their own purposes. 

Ordinary people pay the price.  For generations and centuries to come. 

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About the Author

Irish Author, Educator, and Guide to Ireland. Co-Founder of the Irish Pagan School, Eel & Otter Press, and Pagan Life Rites (Ireland).

Lora O'Brien

Join our Tuath (community, tribe) to get Course and Scholarship info, and regular (free) Irish resources on topics such as Mythology, History, Society, Spirituality, Storytelling and Travel directly from Lora O'Brien and the team at the Irish Pagan School.

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