Despite the widespread prevalence of infection with Coxiella burnetii, there have been few large population-based studies examining the epidemiology of this infection. The aim of this study was to examine the distribution and determinants of C. burnetii past infection in Northern Ireland (NI). Coxiella burnetii phase II specific IgG antibodies were measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay in stored serum from 2394 randomly selected subjects, aged 12–64, who had participated in population-based surveys of cardiovascular risk factors performed in 1986 and 1987. The overall prevalence of C. burnetii antibody positivity was 12.8%. The prevalence of sero-positivity was slightly higher in males than that in females (14.3% versus 11.2%, P = 0.02). Sero-positivity was low in children (<10%), increasing to 19.5% and 16.4% in males and females, respectively, in the 25–34 age group and subsequently remaining fairly steady with increasing age. Sero-positivity among farmers, at 48.8%, was significantly higher than the general population. More sero-positive than sero-negative women had a history of a miscarriage or still-birth (19.5% versus 9.8%, P < 0.001). In conclusion, this study demonstrated a high prevalence of evidence of past C. burnetii infection in NI. Associations between past C. burnetii infection and age, sex, social class, occupation and reproductive history were seen. We estimate that 20% of Q fever infections in NI occur in farmers.