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Counties of Northern Ireland

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Counties of Northern Ireland
CategoryFormer local government
LocationNorthern Ireland
Populations63,585 (Fermanagh)
651,321 (Antrim)
Areas512 sq mi (1,330 km2) (Armagh)
1,261 sq mi (3,270 km2) (Tyrone)
  • Grand jury (to 1898) / County council (1899–1973)

Northern Ireland is divided into six counties, namely: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry[n 1] and Tyrone. Six largely rural administrative counties based on these were among the eight primary local government areas of Northern Ireland from its 1921 creation until 1973.[1] The other two local government areas were the urban county boroughs of Derry[n 1] (geographically part of the County of Londonderry) and Belfast (geographically split between the counties of Antrim and Down).

The six counties date from the Kingdom of Ireland; five were created between 1570 and 1591 in the Tudor conquest of Ireland, while county Londonderry dates from 1613 and the Plantation of Ulster.[2] The total number of counties in the island of Ireland is 32, with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland often respectively called "the Six Counties" and "the Twenty-Six Counties", especially by Irish nationalists opposed to the partition of Ireland. The 1898–1973 administrative counties were subdivided into county districts. The two-tier county/district system was replaced with a single-tier of "districts", numbering 26 in 1973 and rationalised into 11 in 2015. The areas corresponding to the six counties and two county boroughs remain in use for some administrative purposes, and the six historic counties retain a popular identity.

The counties

County County town Created[2] Area[3] Population (2021)[4] Notes
Antrim Antrim 1570 308,645 hectares (762,680 acres)[n 2] 651,321 Formed after Shane O'Neill's rebellion. Lost North East Liberties of Coleraine in 1613. The namesake town of Antrim was never the administrative centre of the post-1570 county.
Armagh Armagh 1571 132,698 hectares (327,900 acres) 194,394 Lost Slieve Foy to County Louth c.1630.[2]
Down Downpatrick 1570 248,905 hectares (615,060 acres)[n 2] 553,261 Formed after Shane O'Neill's rebellion.
Fermanagh Enniskillen 1588 185,097 hectares (457,380 acres) 63,585 Based on the territory of the Maguires.
Londonderry Coleraine 1613 211,826 hectares (523,430 acres)[n 3] 252,231 Merging of County Coleraine (formed 1603) with Loughinsholin (from Tyrone), North East Liberties of Coleraine (Antrim), and North-West Liberties of Londonderry (Donegal).
Tyrone Omagh 1591 326,550 hectares (806,900 acres) 188,383 Based on the Irish kingdom of Tír Eoghain. Lost Loughinsholin in 1613.


The English administration in Ireland in the years following the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland created counties as the major subdivisions of an Irish province.[6] This process lasted a period from the 13th to 17th centuries; however, the number and shape of the counties that would form the future Northern Ireland would not be defined until the Flight of the Earls allowed the shiring of Ulster from 1604.[1] Each county would have an associated county town, with county courts of quarter sessions and assizes.[6]

The area of the modern counties of Antrim and Down was the Earldom of Ulster based on John de Courcy's 1170s conquest of Gaelic Ulaid.[7] Between the late 13th and early 14th centuries it was subdivided into multiple shires based around centres of Norman power such as Antrim, Carrickfergus, and Newtownards.[7] The Bruce invasion (1315–18) saw the devastation of the Earldom of Ulster and its overlordship over the neighbouring Gaelic districts. With the murder of the last de Burgh earl in 1333, the resulting Gaelic recovery expanded Clandeboy and eroded the earldom's territory until by the 15th century only the areas of Carrickfergus and coastal enclaves in Down remained.[7]

It was not until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that Ulster would be shired into more counties. After the 1567 death and 1570 attainder of Shane O'Neill, much of Clandeboy was added to the surviving English enclaves to form the new counties of Antrim and Down, preparing for an abortive private English plantation. In 1584, Lord Deputy of Ireland Sir John Perrott created six counties in Ulster, based largely on the boundaries of existing lordships; four of the six are now Northern Ireland: Armagh, Coleraine, Fermanagh, and Tyrone. The noncooperation and later rebellion of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone made Perrott's scheme largely notional until the Nine Years' War ended and the Flight of the Earls allowed the Plantation of Ulster to reinforce the county government. The County of the town of Carrickfergus remained separate from County Antrim until the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, which also promoted the boroughs of Belfast and Derry to county boroughs separate from the adjoining administrative counties.


Each county is divided into a number of baronies, midway between a county and a parish. Baronies are now obsolete as administrative units, partially derived from the territory of an Irish chieftain. By the time the process of turning local Irish kingdoms into baronies occurred throughout the whole of Ulster by the early 17th century as part of the Plantation of Ulster, it was already being used for taxation and administrative purposes.[6]

Baronies were used for many records from the 17th to 19th centuries such as: the Civil Survey; Petty's Down Survey; the Books of Survey and Distribution; the 19th century valuation books and census returns. The Grand Jury representment system would also be based on the barony.[6]

Government and modern usage

The counties were also used as the administrative unit of local government introduced in Ireland under the 1898 Local Government Act along with county boroughs. In regards to Northern Ireland the cities of Belfast and Londonderry became county boroughs. The administrative counties and county boroughs were abolished as local government areas in Northern Ireland in 1972 and replaced with twenty-six unitary councils, many of which cross county boundaries.

The six administrative counties and two county boroughs remain in use for some purposes, including car number plates. The six counties were also used as postal counties by the Royal Mail for sorting purposes until their abolition in 1996. Outside government, the counties are used for cultural purposes, for example in the Gaelic Athletic Association.

The lieutenancy areas of the UK, with NI shaded orange

Lieutenancy areas

Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is divided into lieutenancy areas[8] (see map on right). These are areas that have an appointed Lord Lieutenant—the representative of the British monarch. Northern Ireland has eight lieutenancy areas:

NI Lieutenancy Area Current Lord Lieutenant Year of Appointment
Lieutenancy of County Londonderry Alison Millar 2018
Lieutenancy for the County Borough of Londonderry (in the City of Derry) Ian Crowe 2023
Lieutenacy of County Down Gawn Rowan Hamilton 2021
County Borough of Belfast Lieutenancy Dame Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle 2014
Lieutenancy of County Armagh 7th Earl of Caledon 1989
Lieutenancy of County Antrim David McCorkell 2019
Lieutenancy of County Tyrone Robert Lowry Scott 2009
Lieutenancy of County Fermanagh 3rd Viscount Brookeborough 2012

These boundaries of the above are contiguous with the six administrative counties and two county boroughs established by the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898.

Former counties

Former counties which formed part of the six modern counties of Northern Ireland:

See also


  1. ^ a b The county and city/county borough officially named Londonderry are often called Derry; see Derry/Londonderry name dispute.
  2. ^ a b Antrim and Down areas are calculated by combining the administrative county areas[3] with the areas of the wards of Belfast respectively west and east of the River Lagan as follows:[5]
    • 308,645 = 304,526 county Antrim + 4118.93 part of Belfast (all wards except Ormeau, Pottinger, Victoria)
    • 248,905 = 246,624 county Down + 2281.23 part of Belfast (Ormeau, Pottinger, Victoria wards)
    • 905.29 hectares of Belfast tidal area is excluded from both counties
  3. ^ 211,826 = 210,782 county plus 1,044 county borough.[3]



  1. ^ a b Connolly 2002 p.129
  2. ^ a b c Moody, Theodore William; Martin, Francis X.; Byrne, Francis John, eds. (25 March 2011) [1984]. "Map 45: Counties 1542–1613 [and Notes]" (PDF). Maps, Genealogies, Lists: A Companion to Irish History, Part II. A New History of Ireland. Vol. IX. Clarendon Press. 43, 108–109. ISBN 9780199593064. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  3. ^ a b c Northern Ireland General Register Office (1975). "Table 1: Area, Buildings for Habitation and Population, 1971". Census of Population 1971; Summary Tables (PDF). Belfast: HMSO. p. 1. Retrieved 28 August 2019.
  4. ^ "Census 2021 - Northern Ireland - County - Population". nisra.gov.uk. NISRA. Retrieved 24 October 2023.
  5. ^ Northern Ireland General Register Office (1975). "Table 4: Area, Population, Buildings for Habitation and Private Households — County Borough and Wards". Census of Population 1971; County Report: Belfast County Borough (PDF). Belfast: HMSO. p. 1. Retrieved 28 August 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d "Areas, regions, and land divisions". Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. Archived from the original on 24 August 2015.
  7. ^ a b c Connolly 2002 pp.589–590
  8. ^ "Northern Ireland (Lieutenancy) Order 1975". 1975.
  9. ^ Bardon, Jonathan: A History of Ulster, page 45. The Black Staff Press, 2005. ISBN 0-85640-764-X
  10. ^ a b Hughes and Hannan: Place-Names of Northern Ireland, Volume Two, County Down II, The Ards, The Queen's University of Belfast, 1992. ISBN 085389-450-7


  • Connolly, Sean J. (2002). Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923483-7.
  • Falkiner, C. Litton (Caesar Litton) (1904). "The Counties of Ireland". Illustrations of Irish history and topography, mainly of the seventeenth century. London: Longmans, Green. pp. 103–142: 127–128. Retrieved 28 August 2019.

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