Monday, August 13, 2012

Tips for Writing About Ireland: Northern Ireland and Names

In Friday's post, I talked about how the island of Ireland has two countries in it - Northern Ireland, which consists of six counties ruled by their own assembly, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is, as the name suggests, a completely independent state. I live in the Republic.

The Giants' Causeway, Northern Ireland. Photo used under Creative Commons from Locace
Today I want to post a little background about Northern Ireland. As I said on Friday, you may associate Northern Ireland with - the building of the Titanic in Belfast, the Giant's Causeway and, tragically, sectarian violence. It can be a challenging place to understand, especially if you're from outside Ireland.

**Edited to add: this is a very simplistic overview of the meanings behind some of the conflicting terms that are used about Northern Ireland. I'm not from Northern Ireland, so I'm far from the best person to comment on this. The following is intended as a very, very simple primer on terms that have the potential to be troublesome, but it is not a substitute for examining the many nuanced aspects of identity and history that have shaped the region**

The first confusing thing about Northern Ireland is the name. It is alternatively known as The North, the Six Counties, Ulster, the North of Ireland, the Province and very occasionally British-occupied Ireland. All of these names have connotations.

There are two main communities in Northern Ireland - unionists, who are quite happy to be ruled by the UK, and nationalists, who believe that Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland. Within these very broad definitions, there is obviously a wide range of opinion, so what follows is not exhaustive. Unionists tend to use terms that emphasise Northern Ireland as a distinct entity - they are more likely to say Ulster, or the Province. Nationalists, on the other hand, tend to emphasise the geographical link with the Republic and are more likely to refer to the North, the Six Counties, or British-occupied Ireland (I haven't heard that one much myself, and it would mostly be used by people with more extreme views on the subject).

If you are writing about Northern Ireland, keep it simple and call it Northern Ireland. If you want to depict a unionist character, drop in an Ulster or two, and if you want to depict a nationalist character, have them call it 'the North', but the term 'Northern Ireland' is widely used.

In the Republic, we tend to call it The North. Which is technically incorrect because Co. Donegal, among others, is in what would be considered the extreme north of the country but is firmly and passionately part of the Republic (actually, the term Ulster is inaccurate too, because there are three counties in the Republic that are part of the region called Ulster but not part of the political entity that is Northern Ireland. See why I said it was complicated?).

The second city of Northern Ireland is rather simpler, but more divisive. You may know it as Derry or Londonderry. I know it as Derry, and some people know it from the song The Town I Loved So Well (if you're looking for a version of it to listen to, I like Luke Kelly's best).

During the Plantation of Ulster (a period of organised colonisation by England, when settlers from England and Scotland were sent to Northern Ireland to increase British control of the region), the city of Derry was substantially rebuilt and renamed Londonderry. It was popularly called Derry for several centuries until the outbreak of civil unrest ('The Troubles') in the 1960s, when the issue became politically charged and unionists began to use the official name Londonderry again. The city council, confusingly, is called Derry City Council, so when referring to local government issues, it is correct to say Derry. There has been debate for some years about whether or not to change the city's name to Derry officially, but the debate has been split completely along political lines. Unionists want one name and nationalists want the other, so the status quo has remained in place in the absence of a better suggestion. This happens a lot in Ireland, and probably everywhere else in the world too. . .

In the Republic, we say Derry, and you'd get a funny look for saying Londonderry - one of our government ministers called it Londonderry during a discussion in parliament earlier this year and it generated a lot of comment. It was as late as 2009 before we would accept passport applications that listed Place of Birth as Londonderry - prior to that, forms had to say Derry. Our road signs point to Derry. In Northern Ireland, both terms are used but it is highly politicised, so if writing, a character from the Republic of Ireland will say Derry, a Northern Irish unionist will say Londonderry and a Northern Irish nationalist will say Derry.

Wikipedia informs me that UK-based organisations have some creative solutions - the BBC will use Londonderry initially in any piece and then use both terms interchangably. The left-win Guardian newspaper suggests Derry and the right-wing Telegraph suggests Londonderry. The Northern Irish Civil Service are advised in correspondence to use whatever term their correspondant does. The last word, though, goes to Irish comedian Neil Delamere, who commented that the Irish national TV station's pronunciation guide is effectively the same as its BBC counterpart, except the word "Londonderry", in which the first six letters are silent.

I hope some of this proves helpful to visitors, writers or anyone else trying to navigate the confusing world of Irish history! On Friday I'll talk a bit more about writing about Ireland and her two resident countries, and next week I'll be posting some hints for writing about the Republic of Ireland (and there won't be a leprechaun in sight, I promise).


  1. History and Social Studies in wonderfully entertaining snippets.


    I feel smarter now. *grin*

    1. Glad to be of service, Mac :) If you ever want to write something set in Ireland, you know where to come for hints!

  2. Nice post!

    Can I add that pretty much no-one from Ireland will use the term "Southern Ireland" to refer to the Republic of Ireland? It's just "Ireland," "The Republic of Ireland" or "The Republic." Though I think the latter again tends to be a tad more politically charged.

    I'm fairly certain you can safely get away with referring to the two as "Ireland" and "Northern Ireland" and no-one will take any offence.

    1. Very true, Paul, thanks for adding that! We never say 'Southern Ireland', just Ireland or 'The Republic of Ireland' if we're trying to be very exact.

      Ireland and Northern Ireland would be the names in most common usage.

  3. Interesting that Ulster's only part of what we think of as Northern Ireland. Kind of like how so many people interchangeably refer to the Netherlands as Holland, but that's only two provinces of the entire country.

    Both sides of the border, Republic and the province, are places that I'll keep coming back to as a writer... just not in the pleasant sort of way, in the legacy of sectarian violence kind of way.

    1. All of Northern Ireland is in Ulster, but not all of Ulster is in Northern Ireland :)

      I am terribly guilty of called The Netherlands Holland, even though I know the difference. My only excuse is that the Netherlands has twice as many syllables!

      The legacy of sectarian violence will be around for a long time yet. It's good to see writers dealing with it.

    2. Oops! That's what I get for not checking what I was writing before clicking on publishing.

      I like writing about the aftermath, if you will... and the sort of people who are just waiting for the fighting to break out again.

  4. Lovely post. Lots of the roadsigns up North have L'derry on them. They're too long and expensive otherwise and just get vandalised anyway!

  5. I admire that you've written this post, but I don't think I agree with it in full. I think it's important for people to realise that national identity is something fluid and there are never fully safe terms to use when defining a person, or writing about a character. Every term is loaded.

    I know you've written this blog-post with a friendly and engaging tone but it is so much more complicated than dropping in "an Ulster or two." The problem with national identities are that no one term is ever completely safe or political neutral. Hence, the challenge for fiction and poetry writers across the board, and not just in Northern Ireland. As a resident of Co. Tyrone, I firmly identify myself as Irish, hold an Irish passport.. but am in no way a raging republican. To read your post citing Northern Ireland as an allegedly correct definition of the land I live in is difficult for me to reconcile. I'm writing this not to offend, rather suggest that the issues experienced in many countries, especially those in a post-colonial stage are very complex. What you write about Donegal being "the North" and about people from Unionist backgrounds calling it Londonderry are just examples of the bubbling tensions, feelings, opinions and allegiances that fill Irish society.

    In my opinion, there are no safe or correct terms and I think that the only way writers can write Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Black North.. whatever.. is to understand their character motivations and have the identity issues subtly inform their ways of life. For poetry, we see Heaney try and deal with his identity issues in a very obvious way, but the more insightful and I think, truer representation of being Irish/Northern Irish - a person who exists on this island - is done by Paul Muldoon, where he talks about bombs going off but he was actually away up the field taking magic mushrooms. It's this intertwining of individual experience, merged with the events that preoccupy the poet that I think make up the grey area that is "identity."

    So really, getting bogged down in the definitions is troublesome. Of course to write a character called Billy Thompson from the Shankill who views his home as Northern Ireland, UK is completely accurate for that character that has been devised. But I think it's an easy way out. I thin our identity is moulded and shaped by our upbringing and that is isn't something that is as overt as my character example. Identity is about being innately connected to something, or aspects of something - considering it your home, etc. You can't box off Northern Ireland into a little realm in the very same way that you can't say that someone from Killarney or Dingle are the same.

    Very much enjoyed reading your blog though - some interesting discussions! :)

  6. Hello, thanks for stopping by!

    I do agree that I've been overly simplistic here - to be honest, I was very shocked at the level of ignorance displayed about Ireland during the Olympic coverage, and that is what motivated this little series of posts. I intended this to be a very broad look at the most obvious things likely to exasperate or otherwise bother an Irish person. There is definitely a huge range of subtleties to Irish identity beyond these very basic brushstrokes.

    I am also very conscious that I am writing as a citizen of the Republic and not of Northern Ireland, so all I can offer is a very broad listing of terms about which I have been raised to be cautious. I'm just not qualified to comment beyond that, and on reading your comment I realised that I didn't make that clear enough. This series was never supposed to be a full examination of identity, but since I didn't clarify that, I see that my posts have been reductive.

    I am glad that you enjoyed the read in spite of the issues, though, and I really appreciate you taking the time to comment thoughtfully. It's been nice to virtually meet you!

    1. I have also slightly edited the original to reflect your comments, but I decided not to alter everything you drew my attention to, because I would prefer to leave the original broadly intact with your accompanying comment. I think that the combination makes for interesting reading and a nice illustration that bloggers get it wrong too - always a useful reminder! I hope that decision doesn't offend.

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