Basic Facts about the British Isles and the relationship between them.

Basic Facts: Introduction

United Kingdom, Great Britain, Ireland, Northern Ireland, British Isles.

Everyone has heard these terms, but few outsiders know exactly what each is.

british isles map

Basic Facts: Introduction

United Kingdom, Great Britain, Ireland, Northern Ireland, British Isles.

Everyone has heard these terms, but few outsiders know exactly what each is.

The relationship between different territories within the United Kingdom is probably more complicated than is the case in any other country, so take a few moments the basic facts so that you know exactly what the national geography of the British Isles is all about.

Basic Facts: what countries make up the British Isles?

The term “British Isles” refers to two isles situated close to each other, Ireland and Britain, plus the dozens of smaller ones that geographically belong to these two.

The British Isles are made up of two countries: the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.


united kingdom map

Basic Facts: what countries make up the United Kingdom? Did you know there is no such thing as a country called Great Britain?

The country is actually called United Kingdom or UK for short.

The UK is made of two sub-entities, Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is why the official name is, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Which means Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but not part of Great Britain.

Most non-British don't know this. Even some Brits don't. I recall a time when I went to the Greek Embassy in London to get a passport for my child. The passport officer who was processing the application and knew we came from Northern Ireland was about to enter “Great Britain” as our country of residence. I pointed out to him that technically, Northern Ireland was not part of Great Britain but the UK. He looked at me in disbelief. “I have been here for so many years,” he said, “and this is the first time I hear this”.


Basic Facts: What countries are part of Great Britain?

Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland and Wales (plus adjacent islands), i.e. it is the name of the bigger of the two islands.

Basic Facts: What is Northern Ireland?

By contrast, Northern Ireland, is a piece of land across the sea on the second of the two islands, Ireland.

Though it is on the island of Ireland, it is not part of the country of Ireland, the Republic of Ireland.

Complicated? Don't worry, things usually are on this part of the world.

So, Northern Ireland is not part of the Republic of Ireland but rather, together with Great Britain forms the country called United Kingdom. It is part of the same country as England, Scotland and Wales.


Differences between Northern Ireland and Mainland UK

  • Banknotes and money in Northern Ireland

    Though part of the same country the Northern Irish still want to be different from their brethren across the sea.

    Take money for example. Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales all have the same currency, Sterling, or the British Pound as it is also called.

    Yet, they all print their own bank notes and mint their own coins. And while you will get away with English banknotes in Scotland and Scottish ones in England, Northern Ireland ones are different.

    Every time I tried to pay with Northern Ireland banknotes in England or Scotland the reply invariably came: “What is this?” Eventually they always accept them because Northern Ireland banknotes are legal tender and of exactly the same value as their English and Scottish counterparts. After a while I started enjoying perplexing sales people with strange Northern Ireland banknotes and have them run to their manager for advice with the people queuing behind me thinking I was trying to pull one off! Just the look of disbelief when they first see the Northern. Irish notes is worth all the hassle.

  • Bringing a car over from UK mainland to Northern Ireland

    When we moved from England to Northern Ireland and I declared my address to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, they gave me a certificate of export for my car and I had to re-register it in Northern Ireland. Why in the world give me a certificate of export when I was only moving technically within the same country, within the UK? These Brits are strange!

  • Mortgages and Insurance in Northern Ireland versus the UK

    When we started looking for a mortgage to buy a house we discovered that most mainland British banks did not give mortgages for Northern Ireland. “But it is the same country,” I tried in vain to explain.

    And when we tried to insure our car we likewise discovered that most mainland British insurance companies did not insure cars in Northern Ireland. Thankfully, things have improved recently both in terms of mortgages and insurance.

  • So while Northern Ireland is technically part of the UK and therefore part of the same country as England, Scotland and Wales, there are differences.




island of ireland map

Basic Facts: The Island of Ireland

Apart from the UK (N. Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales) the other country of the British Isles is the Republic of Ireland, usually called “Ireland” for short.

However, the country of Ireland does not coincide with the island of Ireland.

Confused again? You ain't seen nothing yet.

One island, Two Countries: about Ireland

The Republic of Ireland covers about 80% of the area of the island of Ireland. The remaining 20% is Northern Ireland, a different country.

When did Ireland separate from the UK?

Once both parts belonged to the UK. But in 1921 the southern part opted to separate and eventually became independent while Northern Ireland opted to remain in the UK. So, one island, two countries.


What is different and what is common between (the Republic of) Ireland and Northern Ireland

  • In the South the currency is the Euro; in the North it is the British Pound.
  • In the South they measure speed and distances in kilometers; in the North in miles.
  • In the South it is kilograms; in the North kilograms and lbs.
  • The good thing is that in both countries they speak English, though in the South Gaelic is also used, especially in road signs.
  • They both drive on the left side of the road .
  • They both have the same three-pin electric plugs. Believe me, it helps!




counties of ireland map

Basic Facts: What is Ulster

Another name you need to be aware of is Ulster. The whole island of Ireland is made up of four provinces or geographical areas: Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught. Each province is subdivided into nine counties.



Ulster map

What are the counties of Ulster?

Munster, Leinster and Connaught belong to the Republic of Ireland so no confusion there. However, Ulster is divided.

Six counties make up Northern Ireland:

  • Antrim
  • Armagh
  • Down
  • Fermanagh
  • Londonderry
  • Tyrone.
  • Three counties are within the Republic of Ireland:

  • Cavan
  • Donegal
  • Monaghan.
Northern Islanders will often use the name Ulster to refer to their little part of the world. When you hear this be aware that technically Ulster covers counties in both North and South. You will need to know this when, for example, you read about the different flags, for there is one Ulster Flag for the six counties that make up Northern Ireland and another Ulster Flag for the nine counties.




Basic Facts: Conclusion

So there, I have spent one and a half hours trying to explain the "hows" of UK and Ireland political administration.

And I haven't even mentioned the Isle of Man or the Channel islands or... Ok, ok, I will stop here.

Bottom line? To understand British political administration you need a degree in Political Science or, at least, the prerequisites for it!

At any rate, do enjoy Northern Ireland and if you are lucky enough to visit the Republic of Ireland and cross over to Mainland UK, you won’t regret it. They are great countries to visit!



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