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. 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. Each county would have an associated county town, with county courts of quarter sessions and assizes.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is divided into lieutenancy areas (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: The counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone; and the cities of Londonderry, and Belfast. These are contiguous with the six administrative counties and two county boroughs, established by the 1898 Local Government Act.
Former counties which formed part of the six modern counties of Northern Ireland:
1 2 Antrim and Down areas are calculated by combining the administrative county areas with the areas of the wards of Belfast respectively west and east of the River Lagan as follows:
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
↑ 211,826 = 210,782 county plus 1,044 county borough.
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↑ Bardon, Jonathan: A History of Ulster, page 45. The Black Staff Press, 2005. ISBN0-85640-764-X
1 2 Hughes and Hannan: Place-Names of Northern Ireland, Volume Two, County Down II, The Ards, The Queen's University of Belfast, 1992. ISBN085389-450-7
Connolly, Sean J. (2002). Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford University Press. ISBN978-0-19-923483-7.
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.