From Antrim and Armagh to Down and Tyrone, there are six counties in Northern Ireland. Here’s everything you need to know!

Between cliffs carved by giants and rolling hills that sweep across emerald landscapes, Northern Ireland is traditionally divided between six counties. These six counties are Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (also known as Derry) and Tyrone, although it’s important to note that modern Northern Ireland is further sub-divided into 11 districts which cross these historic county lines.

These counties, though no longer serving as administrative units in the governance of Northern Ireland, continue to play a pivotal role in the cultural and historical fabric of the region. From the iconic basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim to the storied walls of Derry in Londonderry, each county offers a distinct glimpse into Northern Ireland’s complex, and often challenging identity.

In this article, we dig deeper into the region’s history and politics, as we answer the question, ‘How many counties are in Northern Ireland?’.

How many counties are in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland, a constituent part of the United Kingdom, is traditionally divided into six distinct counties. These counties are a legacy of the historical province of Ulster, of which Northern Ireland forms a part. The six counties are Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (also commonly referred to as Derry), and Tyrone.

Each county in Northern Ireland carries its own unique history and cultural identity, deeply influenced by the region’s complex and often turbulent past. Antrim, for instance, is home to the famous Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its remarkable basalt columns. Armagh, recognised as the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, is steeped in Christian heritage with its two cathedrals both dedicated to Saint Patrick.

Down, with its rolling hills and serene landscapes, has been a source of inspiration for many poets and writers. Fermanagh is renowned for its waterways, including Lough Erne, a magnet for boating and fishing enthusiasts. Londonderry, or Derry, has a rich yet divided history, evident in its well-preserved 17th-century city walls. Lastly, Tyrone, the largest county in Northern Ireland, offers a blend of rural beauty and historical sites, such as the Beaghmore Stone Circles.

Importantly, Northern Ireland’s six counties are no longer used as official administrative divisions, but rather, they are historical and cultural regions. Northern Ireland is now also divided into 11 local government districts. These districts were established in 2015 as part of a reorganisation of local government, and are responsible for local services like waste management, leisure and community services, building control, and local planning.

Map of Northern Ireland’s six counties. By Maximilian Dörrbecker.

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What are the six counties in Northern Ireland?

The six counties in Northern Ireland are:

  1. Antrim
  2. Armagh
  3. Down
  4. Fermanagh
  5. Londonderry (also known as Derry)
  6. Tyrone

Let’s take a look at each one in a little more detail:

1. Antrim

Antrim is known for its scenic coastlines and historical landmarks and hosts the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The county’s landscape is a mix of rugged coastlines, lush green valleys, and fascinating towns like Ballymena and Carrickfergus. Antrim’s history is evident in Carrickfergus Castle, one of the best-preserved medieval structures in Ireland.

2. Armagh

Often referred to as the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, Armagh is renowned for its two Saint Patrick’s Cathedrals and rich religious heritage. The county’s rolling hills and orchards, especially during apple blossom season, present picturesque, cider-filled landscapes. Armagh’s history is deeply interwoven with Irish Christianity and mythology.

3. Down

Down, with its serene landscapes, inspires artists and writers. The county is home to the Mourne Mountains, which inspired C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. Downpatrick, where Saint Patrick is believed to be buried, is a significant historical and pilgrimage site. The county also boasts Strangford Lough, an area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological importance.

4. Fermanagh

Known for its waterways, Fermanagh is dominated by Lough Erne, a haven for boating and fishing. The county’s landscape comprises a mix of water and woodland, offering natural beauty. Enniskillen, the county town, sits between Upper and Lower Lough Erne and is rich in history, including Enniskillen Castle and its museums.

5. Londonderry/Derry

Londonderry, colloquially known as Derry, is famous for its intact 17th-century city walls. The county presents a mix of historical and cultural experiences, including the Bogside neighbourhood with its political murals. The city of Derry/Londonderry, a focal point during the Troubles, now symbolises peace and cultural regeneration.

6. Tyrone

Tyrone, the largest county in Northern Ireland, offers a mix of history and nature. Notable sites include the Beaghmore Stone Circles and the Ulster American Folk Park, which explores emigration history. The Sperrin Mountains provide a backdrop for outdoor activities and reveal prehistoric remains, while Omagh, the county town, serves as a cultural hub.

The Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim. Photo by Sean Kuriyan on Unsplash.

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Does the county system still exist?

Northern Ireland’s county system was originally established for administrative and geographical purposes, and it’s evolved significantly over time, especially in relation to governance within both Northern Ireland and the broader context of the United Kingdom.

Historically, the six counties of Northern Ireland functioned as local government units, similar to those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Each county had its council responsible for local services like roads, public health, and housing. However, this changed in 1973 with the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 1972, which reorganised local government in the region.

This reorganisation led to the replacement of the six county councils and their lower-level urban and rural districts with 26 single-tier district councils. These district councils were responsible for local services, while more strategic services were managed at the Northern Ireland level. In 2015, a further reorganisation reduced the number of councils to 11.

Governance in Northern Ireland is distinct due to its history and the Good Friday Agreement (1998), which brought an end to decades of conflict known as ‘The Troubles’. This agreement established the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, a devolved legislature responsible for local governance in areas like education, health, and infrastructure.

The Northern Ireland Assembly operates within the framework of the United Kingdom but has significant autonomy in several domestic matters. Its powers are devolved from the UK Parliament in Westminster, which retains authority over matters like foreign policy, defence, and overall fiscal policy.

In the broader UK context, Northern Ireland’s governance is also unique due to the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, which recognise the region’s distinct cultural and national affiliations and allow for specific arrangements, such as the principle of consent for any change in the status of Northern Ireland (whether it remains part of the UK or unites with the Republic of Ireland).

While the county system in Northern Ireland no longer plays a direct role in local governance, it remains an important part of the region’s geographical and cultural identity. The counties are still used for purposes like statistical analysis, cultural and sporting activities, and by some organisations as administrative divisions. They are deeply embedded in the identity and history of Northern Ireland, reflecting its unique position within the United Kingdom.

Map of Northern Ireland (yellow), within the United Kingdom.

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How many districts are there in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland is divided into 11 local government districts. These districts were established in 2015 as part of a significant reorganisation of local government, replacing the previous system of 26 smaller districts, and the prior county system.

Here’s more information about the districts:

  • Administrative Role: Districts are the primary units of local government in Northern Ireland. They are responsible for providing a range of local services such as waste and recycling collection, local planning, public housing, road maintenance (except for main roads and motorways), environmental health, and leisure services.
  • Governance: Each district is governed by a council, which consists of councillors elected by residents of the district. These councils have the power to levy local taxes (rates) and deliver community services.
  • Boundaries: The boundaries of these districts were designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of local governance. They often combine areas from different historical counties.

List of the 11 Districts in Northern Ireland:

  1. Antrim and Newtownabbey
  2. Ards and North Down
  3. Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon
  4. Belfast
  5. Causeway Coast and Glens
  6. Derry City and Strabane
  7. Fermanagh and Omagh
  8. Lisburn and Castlereagh
  9. Mid and East Antrim
  10. Mid-Ulster
  11. Newry, Mourne and Down
How many counties in Northern Ireland
The Ulster, one of the flags of Northern Ireland.

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A history of Northern Ireland’s counties

The county system in Northern Ireland has its origins in the early 17th century, rooted in the historical context of Ireland as a whole and shaped significantly by British influence. Here’s a brief overview of the history of Northern Ireland’s county system:

Early Origins (Pre-17th Century)

Before the establishment of the county system, the area of present-day Northern Ireland was divided into several Gaelic territories ruled by local chieftains. These territories were not formally structured like counties but were rather loosely defined regions under the control of different clans.

Plantation of Ulster (Early 17th Century)

The most significant change came with the Plantation of Ulster, initiated by King James I of England in the early 1600s. This period saw the confiscation of lands from Gaelic chieftains and their redistribution to British settlers. As part of this process, the land was organised into counties, a system already in use in England and Wales. The aim was to establish control over the region and facilitate the administration of the new settlements.

Establishment of Counties (17th Century)

Six counties were formed in what is now Northern Ireland: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (also known as Derry), and Tyrone. These counties were similar in function to those in the rest of the United Kingdom, serving as basic units of local government and administration.

19th and Early 20th Century

The county system continued with the counties being used for various administrative purposes, including local governance, judicial affairs, and land ownership. Each county had a county town, which was the administrative centre. This period saw the rise of various social, cultural, and political movements within Ireland, including the push for Home Rule and the eventual partition of Ireland.

Partition of Ireland (1921)

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 led to the partition of Ireland into two self-governing entities: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland (which later became the Republic of Ireland). The six counties of Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, while the rest of Ireland eventually became independent.

Local Government Reorganisation (20th Century)

In the 20th century, the role of counties in local governance began to change. The most significant shift came with the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 1972, which abolished the traditional county councils and replaced them with 26 district councils, later reduced to 11 in 2015. This reorganisation was part of an effort to improve governance and address sectarian imbalances.

Today, the county system in Northern Ireland no longer functions as a basis for local government but remains a significant part of the region’s cultural and historical identity. Counties are still recognised in contexts like sports, cultural events, and geographical references. They symbolise Northern Ireland’s complex history, marked by colonization, religious and political conflicts, and the blending of British and Irish influences.

A mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.

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What’s the capital of Northern Ireland?

The capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast, a city renowned for its rich history, and for playing a pivotal role in both the industrial era and modern times. Situated at the mouth of the River Lagan on Belfast Lough, it is Northern Ireland’s largest city and serves as its economic and political centre.

Historically, Belfast played a significant role during the Industrial Revolution, particularly in shipbuilding, with the world-famous Harland and Wolff shipyard where the RMS Titanic was constructed. Today, Belfast is a dynamic city, known for its vibrant arts scene, including the Grand Opera House, the Ulster Museum, and a range of festivals celebrating music, film, and culture.

The city also reflects the complex history of Northern Ireland, with landmarks like the Belfast City Hall and the Peace Walls, symbolising both its historical divisions and ongoing efforts towards reconciliation and unity.

Belfast City Hall. Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.

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Is Northern Ireland a sovereign nation?

Northern Ireland is not a sovereign nation. It is part of the United Kingdom, which is a sovereign state. The United Kingdom comprises four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each of these countries has a distinct cultural and national identity, but in terms of sovereignty and international law, they are part of the UK.

Northern Ireland’s status within the UK is unique due to its history and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought an end to decades of conflict known as ‘The Troubles’. This agreement established a devolved government for Northern Ireland, giving it significant autonomy in certain domestic matters, such as education, health, and transportation, through the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, overarching sovereignty, including matters related to foreign policy, defence, and constitutional issues, remains with the UK Parliament in London.

The Union Flag is the official flag of Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

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How many counties are in the United Kingdom?

Counting the number of counties in the United Kingdom is not straightforward due to the various ways counties can be defined and the different administrative systems in place across the four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The concept of a ‘county’ varies between traditional counties, administrative counties, and ceremonial counties.

  • England: England has 48 ceremonial counties, which are areas appointed a Lord-Lieutenant, representing the Crown. For administrative purposes, there are 83 counties in England, which include metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties, unitary authorities, and London boroughs.
  • Scotland: Scotland’s traditional county system is no longer used for local government; instead, it has 32 council areas for administrative purposes.
  • Wales: Wales has 22 unitary authorities for administrative purposes. The traditional counties still exist but are not used for administrative functions.
  • Northern Ireland: As previously mentioned, Northern Ireland consists of six counties, although these are no longer used for local government purposes.

The total number of counties across the UK depends on whether you are counting traditional, administrative, or ceremonial counties. The number varies significantly based on these definitions, with over a hundred when considering all types across the UK.

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How many counties are in the Republic of Ireland?

The Republic of Ireland consists of 26 counties. These counties are part of the traditional Irish county system, which predates the partition of Ireland in 1921.

After the partition, 26 of these counties formed what is now the Republic of Ireland, while the remaining six counties became Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom.

The 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland are grouped into four provinces: Leinster, Munster, Connacht, and Ulster (part of Ulster is in Northern Ireland). Each county in the Republic of Ireland has its local government and distinct cultural identity.

Map of the British Isles.

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So, how many counties are in Northern Ireland?

The six counties of Northern Ireland are Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone. Each county, with its unique heritage and landmarks, contributes to the distinct character of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

From the iconic Giant’s Causeway in Antrim to the historic walls of Derry in Londonderry, these counties offer a window into the region’s complex past and present. While the county system no longer serves as a basis for local government, it continues to hold significant cultural and historical importance.

Understanding these counties provides valuable insight into the diverse and intricate nature of Northern Ireland, reflecting its unique position at the crossroads of British and Irish histories.

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FAQ: How many counties are in Northern Ireland?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic, ‘How many counties are in Northern Ireland?’:

Q1: How many counties are there in Northern Ireland?

There are six counties in Northern Ireland. The counties are Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (also known as Derry), and Tyrone.

Q2: Are these counties used for administrative purposes?

No, these counties are no longer used as a basis for local government in Northern Ireland. This role is now fulfilled by 11 district councils, established in 2015.

Q3: Do the counties in Northern Ireland have historical significance?

Yes, each county has its own unique history and cultural identity, with landmarks and traditions that reflect the region’s complex past.

Q4: Are these counties part of the United Kingdom?

Yes, the six counties of Northern Ireland are part of the United Kingdom.

Q5: Is the county system in Northern Ireland similar to that in the rest of the UK?

The historical county system in Northern Ireland is similar to that in the rest of the UK, but the current administrative structures are different.

Q6: How are the counties in Northern Ireland used today?

While not used for administrative governance, they are significant in cultural, historical, and geographical contexts, such as in sports, heritage, and as a means of regional identification.

Q7: How do the counties of Northern Ireland differ from those in the Republic of Ireland?

Northern Ireland’s counties are part of the UK and have a distinct history, especially concerning the partition of Ireland, whereas the Republic of Ireland’s counties are part of a separate sovereign nation.

Q8: Are there any major cities located in these counties?

Yes, for example, Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, is located in County Antrim. Each county has significant towns and cities contributing to the region’s economic and cultural life.