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Northern Ireland, integral part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, situated in the northeastern portion of the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland is bounded on the north and northeast by the North Channel, on the southeast by the Irish Sea, and on the south and west by the Republic of Ireland. It includes Rathlin Island in the North Channel and several smaller offshore islands. Northern Ireland is also known as Ulster, because it comprises six of the nine counties that constituted the former province of Ulster. The total area of Northern Ireland is 14,148 sq km (5463 sq mi).
Land and Resources
Northern Ireland has an extreme northern to southern extension of about 135 km (about 85 mi) and an extreme eastern to western extension of about 175 km (about 110 mi). The shoreline is characterized by numerous irregularities and is about 530 km (about 330 mi) long. The major indentations are Lough Foyle in the north and Belfast, Strangford, and Carlingford loughs in the east. A striking feature of the northern coast is the Giant's Causeway, a rock formation consisting of thousands of closely placed, polygonal pillars of black basalt.
The country consists mainly of a low, flat plain in the approximate center of which is Lough Neagh (about 390 sq km/about 150 sq mi), the largest lake in the British Isles. Other important lakes are Lough Erne and Upper Lough Erne. Apart from several isolated elevations, three major areas of considerable height are the Sperrin Mountains in the northwest, the Antrim Plateau along the northeastern coast, and the Mourne Mountains in the southeast. The highest point in the country is Slieve Donard (852 m/2796 ft), a peak in the Mourne Mountains.
The chief rivers are the Foyle River, which forms part of the northwestern boundary and flows into Lough Foyle at Londonderry, and the Upper Bann and Lower Bann rivers. The former rises in the Mourne Mountains and empties into Lough Neagh; the latter flows out of Lough Neagh to the North Channel. Among the many other rivers are the Main, Blackwater, Lagan, Erne, and Bush. Because of the generally flat terrain, drainage is poor, and the areas of marshland are extensive.
The climate of Northern Ireland is mild and damp throughout the year. The prevailing westerly winds from the Gulf Stream are largely responsible for the lack of extreme summer heat and winter cold. The average annual temperature is approximately 10њ C (50њ F); temperatures average about 14.4њ C (about 58њ F) in July and about 4.4њ C (about 40њ F) in January. Rainfall is distributed evenly during the year. The annual precipitation frequently exceeds 1016 mm (40 in) in the north and is about 760 mm (about 30 in) in the south. The level of humidity is high.
The most valuable natural resources of Northern Ireland are its fertile soil and rich pasturelands. Natural waterpower is abundant. The chief minerals are basalt, limestone, sand and gravel, granite, chalk, clay, and shale; bauxite, iron ore, and coal also are found in small amounts. Peat is important as a fuel.
Plants and Animals
In general, the plants and animals of Northern Ireland are similar to those of the island as a whole. The only distinctive plant is a species of wild orchid, Spiranthes stricta, found in the valleys of the Upper and Lower Bann rivers. Distinctive species of animal life include the pollan, a freshwater variety of whitefish found in Lough Neagh and Lough Erne.
The majority of the people are of Scottish or English ancestry and are known commonly as the Scotch-Irish. The remainder of the population is Irish, principally native to Ulster.
English is the sole official language. Unlike the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland does not encourage the use of the Gaelic language.
The population of Northern Ireland (1992 preliminary) was 1,610,300. The overall density was about 113 persons per sq km (about 295 per sq mi). The population is unevenly distributed, with greater concentrations in the eastern half. It is almost equally divided between urban and rural dwellers.
The capital and largest city of Northern Ireland is Belfast (population, 1991 preliminary, 279,237), which is surrounded by heavy industries including shipbuilding and textiles. The other major city in Northern Ireland is Londonderry (72,334).
Northern Ireland is divided into 26 districts. Each district is governed by an elected council.
Religious affiliation has been a key determinant in Northern Ireland's history, politics, and social life since the 17th century. At various times it has determined access to voting and jobs, standards of living, and education. In modern times it has come to symbolize the differences between the descendants of the original Irish inhabitants and those of the settler community. The descendants of the Scottish and English settlers are predominantly Protestant; those of the original Irish inhabitants are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. In the early 1990s, almost 51 percent of the population regarded themselves as Protestant, and almost 39 percent as Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholics are the largest single denomination. The largest Protestant denominations are the Presbyterian, the Church of Ireland, and the Methodist. Unlike England, Northern Ireland has no established, or state, church. The Church of Ireland, at one time a branch of the Church of England, was disassociated from the state in 1871.
Education in Northern Ireland is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 15. The educational system is essentially similar to that of England. In the early 1990s Northern Ireland had nearly 1100 primary schools, annually attended by approximately 191,000 pupils and staffed by more than 8200 teachers. Secondary and special schools numbered about 275 and were attended by about 147,000 students taught by 10,300 instructors. The country has two universities: Queen's University of Belfast, founded as Queen's College in 1845, and the University of Ulster (1984), with campuses in Coleraine, Belfast, Jordanstown, and Londonderry. The total annual university enrollment in the early 1990s was about 17,000. Two colleges, the Belfast College of Technology (1901) and the Union Theological College (1978), are in Belfast.
Originally, Northern Ireland was culturally indistinguishable from the remainder of Ireland. However, with the waves of colonization from England and Scotland during the 17th century, the northeastern province of Ulster evolved a distinctive cultural identity. The settlers, who came to form a majority in the region, were British in culture and tradition, and Protestant in religion; their descendants are committed to keeping the province constitutionally allied with Great Britain. The Irish inhabitants, in a minority and for centuries politically and economically marginalized, had as their goal the reunification of the island of Ireland. In addition, Northern Ireland is considerably more urbanized and industrialized than the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland shares the early cultural glories of all Ireland. To Ulster belongs one of the two great cycles of Irish myths that contain the exploits of CЯ Chulainn and the tragic story of Deirdre (see Gaelic Literature). There is a thriving theatrical movement in Belfast, and much literary activity. Belfast is the base of Opera Northern Ireland, which presents seasons at the Grand Opera House in the city, and also tours the province. A ballet company is based in the capital, as is the Belfast Philharmonic Society, one of Britain's leading choral societies. The Ulster Symphony Orchestra is among the leading orchestras of Britain. Queen's University hosts the annual Belfast Festival.
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