Ireland's northernmost province of Ulster consists of nine counties, six of which form Northern Ireland. The province's name in Ulster-Scots is "Ulstèr", and in Irish "Cúige Uladh", which literally translated means "the Fifth of the Uladh", referring to the ancient five provinces of Ireland.
Even though Ulster is in the north of Ireland, it is important to know that Ulster is not the same as Northern Ireland - three of the counties in Ulster are actually a part of the Republic of Ireland. (Plus, geographically speaking the county found the furthest to the north on the Emerald Isle politically belongs to "the South" - the Republic of Ireland).
Ulster encompasses the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone. Since 1921, Antrim, Armagh, Derry (Londonderry), Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone have been a part of Northern Ireland. Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan are the three Ulster counties which stayed within the Free State and which later became known as the Republic. All nine counties together make up the north of Ireland, geographically, and six of the nine make up the country of Northern Ireland.
Here is a closer look at all nine counties in Ulster.
Antrim (in Irish "Aontroim", in Ulster-Scots "Coonty Entrim") is one of six counties of Northern Ireland, which means it is a part of the United Kingdom. The county of Antrim is around 1,176 square miles (3,046 square kilometers) in size and home to a population of about 618,000.
In GAA circles players from Antrim are called "the Glensmen" (referencing the idyllic Glens of Antrim), the name "the Saffrons" (referencing the county colors) is also quite common.
Armagh (in Irish "Ard Mhacha") is one of the "Six Counties" of Northern Ireland, and thus part of the United Kingdom. Stretching over 512 square miles (1,254 square kilometers), it is home to around 174,792 inhabitants. The county town of Armagh used to be the City of Armagh, the "Cathedral City".
The name Armagh references the "hills of Macha", a mythological goddess or queen that plays a major part in the early Irish epics. Armagh is sometimes still known by the nickname "Cathedral County" but it is more often called the "Orchard County," - thanks to the plentiful apple and pear trees in the county. South Armagh was also known as "Bandit Country", mainly due to the strong cross-border activity of nationalist paramilitaries during The Troubles.
Stop into St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh city center, or spend a day on the shores of Lough Neagh.
Cavan is one of the three Ulster counties belonging to the Republic of Ireland. It claims to have over 365 lakes (and "more when it rains," or so the joke goes) - a lake for every day of the year. The county spans 746 square miles (1,932 square kilometers), with a population of around 76,000 people.
Poor Cavan is a butt of jokes in Ireland, with the Cavan man known for being too cheap to spend any money. The quiet county is fairly rural and is mainly home to farms, countryside and forest parks perfect for slow strolls. Head to Killykeen Forest Park for a wooded picnic area, or stop into Cavan Cathedral if the weather turns rainy.
County Derry - or Londonderry, Names Are Important Here
Derry (in Irish "Doire", in British-English "Londonderry", in Ulster-Scots "Lunnonderrie") is part of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. It is officially Co Londonderry but is nearly always known as simply Derry. The county is 801 square miles (2,108 square kilometers) in size and home to a population of about 247,000 inhabitants. The original name "Derry" stands for an oak forest, explaining the nickname of the county - "the Oak-Leaf County" (the county arms sport an oak leaf). The addition "London-" was brought in to honor the investment made by the city in the plantation era (and is thus only in current use in unionist circles).
After Belfast, Derry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland. It is famed for its city walls, which date back to the 17th century. The area was briefly autonomous in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and there is now a museum dedicated to "Free Derry."
Derry is sometimes known as "Stroke City" thanks to its double name. The unwieldy name of "Derry/Londonderry" had to be read on the radio as "Derry-stroke-Londonderry", so a local DJ suggested shortening the whole affair to "Stroke City" - and it caught on.
Donegal is the northernmost county in the Republic, and extends further north than any county in Northern Ireland, sprawling over an area of 1,877 square miles (4,830 square kilometers). Though large, the country is sparsely populated, with just over 150,000 people. The gorgeous rugged landscape has Ireland's highest cliffs - the Slieve League, which are a beautiful alternative to the more crowded Cliffs of Moher further south. For an even more remote wilderness outpost, make your way to Glenveagh National Park.
County Down - Majestic Mountains and a Long Lough
Down (in Irish "An Dún" or "An Dúin") is one of the "Six Counties" in Ulster which belong to Northern Ireland, and are a part of the United Kingdom. The county measures in at 952 square miles (2,466 square kilometers) in size with around 531,000 inhabitants.
The Irish name simply means "the fort". Nicknames are "Mourne County" (the Mourne Mountains dominate the south of the county), while Hurlers from Down are called "the Ardsmen" (with the Ards peninsula apparently bringing forth most of the hurling talent).
Down is often ranked as having some of the best golf courses in the world - particularly the Royal County Down. For nature lovers, Tollymore Forest Park has enchanting scenery and plenty of trails to explore. For real wilderness, plan a stop to climb the Mourne Mountains.
County Fermanagh - the Lakelands, Full of Castles
Fermanagh (in Irish "Fear Manach", in Ulster-Scots "Coontie Fermanay") is part of Northern Irish Ulster and the United Kingdom. Around 57,500 inhabitants live on 653 square miles (1,852 square kilometers). It is the smallest of the six counties in Northen Ireland.
The name of the county references "the men of Manach", Fermanagh's nicknames are "auch als", "Maguire County" (referencing the once ruling family), "Lakeland", "Lake County" or "Erne County". The lakes are a major draw for fishermen and boaters.
Major attractions in the county include the stately Enniskillen Castle and the old monastery site at Devenish - a small island on Lower Lough Erne that can be reached by ferry from Trory Point.
County Monaghan is the last of the three counties in the province of Ulster that are actually part of the Republic of Ireland. It is mainly known for being the home of Patrick Kavanagh, one of Ireland's most beloved poets. He writes about Monaghan in his poems "Stony Grey Soil" and "Shancoduff."
The county is spread out over 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers) and is home to about 60,000 people. The rural county has traditional pubs set in the countryside, and one tourist attraction is the round tower of Clones.
County Tyrone - Right in the Middle
Tyrone (in Irish "Tír Eoghain", in Ulster-Scots "Coontie Owenslann") is one of the six Northern Irish counties and thus part of the United Kingdom. With a size of 1,218 square miles (3,263 square kilometers) and around 150,000 inhabitants, it is centered around the largest town in the county - Omagh.
The county name denotes the "land of Eoghan" (or "land of Owen"), the possessions of an Irish princeling of the semi-mythological era. Referencing more recent rulers and their daring deeds, Tyrone is also known as "O'Neill County" or "Red Hand County".
For a taste of what it would have been like to leave Ireland and set sail as an immigrant to America, visit the Ulster America Folk Park. Otherwise, skip the costumed characters and experience the untouched wilderness in the Sperrin Mountains.