Around 7,000 B.C. settlers crossed the narrow channel between Britain and Ulster to become Ireland's first inhabitants. Thirty centuries later they were peaceably joined by new settlers from what is now Scotland, who brought agriculture and commerce.
In continental Europe iron-making caused a technological revolution from 800 B.C. onwards. Prominent in the use of this material were the Celts. These were a group of peoples who spoke related languages and had similar beliefs and lifestyles, although they certainly did not regard themselves as one nation. By 700 B.C. the Celts were established in Central Europe north of the Alps. From there they spread to Asia Minor (the "foolish Galatians"), Italy, Spain, France and the "Islands of the Pretani" (British Isles). From 300 B.C. onwards iron was replacing bronze in Ireland, but archaeology suggests that Celts did not settle on the island in any great numbers until after the time of Christ.
Various Celtic peoples became the dominant caste in different parts of Britain and Ireland. However the majority of the population in Scotland and Ireland remained the Pretani. Those of Pretani stock in Scotland are usually called "Picts", while those in Ireland came to be labelled "Cruthin". In Ulster the Celtic Ulaid from Britain became an elite class. However, Ulster was sometimes still ruled by a Cruthinic king, either with the consent of the Ulaid, or through force. Generally, the two peoples united as Ulidians when faced with a common enemy, the Gaels.
The oldest story in Western European literature tells of an attack on Ulster by the combined armies of the other kingdoms on the island. Based at the court of the King of Ulster at Navan Fort were the Red Branch Knights. The tales of their prowess and chivalry often seem to have been directly plagiarised by the authors of the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The most fearsome of Ulster's Knights was Cuchulaian (Setanta) who was of ancient British stock. His exploits fighting "the men of Ireland" are certainly at least exaggerated, but Ulster did fight wars to preserve her independence from Southern aggressors. There are great "Walls of Ulster", such as the Dorsey in south Armagh, identified by archaeologists, which were used as fortifications against such attacks.
In the centuries after Christ, Ulster's Kings tended to rule over not just the territory of present-day Northern Ireland, but also counties Donegal, Louth and Monaghan. There were also tribal kings subservient to the King at Navan. Shifts in borders and allegiances were not infrequent but there tended to be four other kingdoms on the island - Munster, Leinster, Meath and Connaught, making five "fifths" in all. There is no evidence that anyone claimed the right to rule the whole island before the fifth century, and "high-kings" tended to be monarchs of one kingdom who hoped to subdue the others militarily. Few had substantial success. Ulster was continually under pressure from Gaelic tribes. The Cruthin and Ulaid forces were driven from Donegal and the citadel at Navan was destroyed around 450 A.D. South and west of the River Bann a tribe called the Airgialla took control as the Ulstermen retreated eastwards into Antrim and Down. Even here the Gaelic language was finally absorbed. The slow destruction of non-Gaelic power led many to leave for Scotland, particularly in the sixth century. The Romans named those coming from Ireland the "Scotti", from whence Scotland was named. Fergus Mac Ere stretched his Kingdom of Dalriada from North Antrim to Scotland around 500 A.D. Scotland's kings and queens and thus the British monarchy are descended from him. The Gaelic O'Neills set up a Northern Kingdom based on Donegal, and a Southern Kingdom around Meath. They crushed the Cruthin at Moneymore in 563. Although Northern O'Neill kings were slain in 565 and 628, Ulster's resistance to the Gaels received a near mortal blow at Moira in 637, and Dalriada lost its lands in Ulster after siding with the vanquished.
Over the centuries Ulster people became the dominant population in the Galloway and Ayrshire area of Scotland. To the native Britons they were "Creenies", which derives from Cruthin; to the English at the battle of the Standard in 1138 they were "Irish". The Ulster-Scottish kingdom of Dalriada continued until the close of the eighth century. Airgiallans migrated into the Hebrides and Argyll (e.g. the Campbells), while Hebridean soldiers or gallowglasses (e.g. the Gallaghers) immigrated back to Ulster from the 13th to the 16th century. There was a constant coming and going between Ulster and western Scotland. The Glens of Antrim were in the hands of Scottish MacDonalds by 1400, and for the next hundred years Scots came in large numbers. The 17th century immigration of a numerous Scots element need not be considered outside the preceding series, and the continuing movements to and fro since then have served to emphasise the essential ancient Britishness of the Ulster homeland. It also serves to show that the Gaelic Irish, who today claim to be the true Irish and rightful heirs to the land, were nothing other than yet another wave of invaders.
Ulster and America
During the last decades of the 17th century and the early years of the 18th century a small but steady stream of Ulster families sailed from Ulster to America. However, in the year 1718 the stream was changed to a mighty torrent. This flow of Ulster emigrants was almost entirely Protestant and mainly Presbyterian. Across the sea they sailed and there in the New World they became the pioneers and frontiersmen of early American life.
There were two main reasons for this emigration. One was religious and the other was economic. During the reigns of Charles II (1660-85) and James II (1685-88) the Ulster Presbyterians were persecuted for their faith. That persecution reached its peak in 1684 when many Presbyterian churches were forcibly, closed. (In that same year an Ulster emigrant organised the first Presbyterian church in America.) During the Williamite War the men of Ulster displayed great heroism and loyalty. They played a crucial role at Londonderry, Enniskillen and the Boyne and after the relief of Londonderry in 1689 the Presbyterians were treated more favourably. William III recognised his indebtedness to the Ulstermen but the death of William in 1702 brought this improved position to an end. Queen Anne detested dissenters and during her reign Ulster Presbyterians were harassed and persecuted. They were denied the religious liberty which should have been their right and so in search of freedom they looked towards America. They hoped that they would find there the liberty that they loved. There were also economic factors but primarily those who sailed west were sailing in search of freedom.
The Ulster emigrants, as has already been stated, were mainly Presbyterians and they brought their religion with them. As they established each new settlement they would first build a fort for protection from the Indians and then they would build a church and a school.
The Rev. Francis Makemie emigrated from Ulster and arrived in America in 1683. He organised the first Presbyterian Church in America and became the "Father of American Presbyterianism". It was thus an Ulsterman who started American Presbyterianism and in the years that followed, Ulstermen played a tremendous part in the spread of Presbyterianism in America. Nearly 300 ministers of Ulster extraction served in the ministry of American Presbyterian churches in the period 1680-1820.
In the field of education the Ulster settlers made one of their most important contributions to American life. They founded schools all over the country. One of the most notable was the Log College which was established at Neshaminy in Pennsylvania by William Tennent. This was in fact the forerunner of Princeton University.
In every aspect of American life the Ulster emigrants played a significant role. The first daily newspaper ever issued in America was printed by an Ulsterman, John Dunlap from Strabane, and another Ulsterman Horace Greeley founded the New York Tribune.
But the Ulster contribution was particularly strong in the political field and in the battle for independence and liberty. There the Ulster influence was decisive and the Ulstermen were firmly on the side of independence. Professor James G. Leyburn said of them: "They provided some of the best fighters in the American army. Indeed there were those who held the Scots-Irish responsible for the war itself".
On 2 July 1776 the American Continental Congress voted for independence. Two days later on 4 July it published the Declaration of Independence. Representatives from all the American colonies had come to the congress in Philadelphia and the mood was defiant and confident. This was the most crucial event in American history for it marked the birth of the American nation and Ulstermen were closely associated with it.
The original document is in the handwriting of an Ulsterman, Charles Thompson, who was secretary of the Congress and who was born in Maghera. It was first printed by an Ulsterman, John Dunlap of Strabane. It was first read in public by the son of an Ulsterman, Colonel John Nixon. The first signature on it was that of John Hancock, president of the Congress, whose ancestors came from County Down, and at least seven of the other signatories were of Ulster extraction.
One of the local forerunners of the Declaration was the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. This was adopted by a convention of Ulstermen which met in North Carolina on 31 May 1775. President William McKinley, himself of Ulster descent, wrote of these men that "they were the first to proclaim for freedom in these United States". Another local declaration was issued by Ulstermen in New Hampshire.
By the Declaration of Independence America was saying NO! to London and to arbitrary power and YES! to liberty and democracy.Ulstermen played a major role during the American War of Independence which lasted from 1775 to 1783. Twenty-five of the American generals were of Ulster descent as was half of the revolutionary army. One famous force of regular soldiers was the Pennsylvania Line and it was composed almost entirely of Ulstermen and the sons of Ulstermen.
George Washington, commander in chief of the American forces, said of these men: "If defeated everywhere else I will make my last stand for liberty among the Scots-Irish of my native Virginia". This was a testimony to the distinct identity of the Ulstermen and a tribute to their courage and their love for liberty.
The turning point in the war was the Battle of King's Mountain in South Carolina on 7 October 1780. A body of American militiamen defeated a British force twice its size and took 1,000 prisoners. The five colonels in the American force were all Presbyterian elders of Ulster stock and their men were of the same race and faith.
President Theodore Roosevelt made this comment on the Ulster contribution to the war: "in the Revolutionary war . . . the fiercest and most ardent Americans of all were the Presbyterian Irish settlers and their descendants". He described those Ulstermen as "a grim, stern people, strong and simple, . . . the love of freedom rooted in their very hearts' core".
The Ulster immigrants brought with them from the shores of Ulster a love of freedom and in America's hour of crisis they fought to defend their freedom. They had travelled far across the sea but their courage, convictions and commitment were undiminished.
The Scotch-Irish from Ulster became the pioneers and frontiersmen of early America, clearing the forests to make their farms and living in log cabins such as the one depicted above