In Northern Ireland, I drive around the coast road to the pretty harbor of Ballintoy and beyond, passing the Giant’s Causeway and dramatic Dunluce Castle, clinging precariously to a cliff edge.
Much of this coast has been used for filming the hit HBO drama Game of Thrones but – like the tale of Robert the Bruce – its own history is just as fraught with violence and intrigue. Northern Ireland forms part of the historic province of Ulster, the northernmost of the four Irish “thrones” of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught.
“During the 16th century the most powerful clans were those of the north, and they fought a seven-year war against the English [who first colonized Ireland in the 12th century],” says historian Ken McElroy. “They were very successful but became over-confident and marched south, where they were heavily defeated for the first time. They retreated back to Ulster but the chieftains knew they would probably end up in the Tower of London, with their heads chopped off, so they fled for Catholic Spain in 1607. This period is known as the Flight of the Earls. They took with them what was left of Gaelic Ireland; the Irish language, the Brehon Laws, and the old feudal systems.”
In what became known as the Plantation of Ulster, James I of England confiscated all their lands and brought in lowland Scots Presbyterians to farm it. These new arrivals were given the better lowlands, leaving these wild coastal regions to the natives and starting a religious divide that persists to this day.
A bloody native uprising in 1641 that left thousands dead and was put down with equal brutality did not help relations between the two factions. The Virginia Plantation in Jamestown was founded in the same year as the one in Ulster and must have soon seemed like a better idea.
“These Ulster Scots were not treated much better than the Catholic Irish – they had no vote and their marriages were not recognized, for example,” says Ken. “In the 18th century more than 200,000 left for America, where they provided seven of the first 30 American presidents.”
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