Rathlin Island by Shirley McWilliams, N.I.T.B. (Family Links Magazine, January, 1982)
Rathlin lies in the narrow North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland traditionally called the Waters O'Moyle just eight miles from the seaside resort of Ballycastle, Co. Antrim; home of the world famous Oul Lammas Fair, held every year on the last Monday and Tuesday in August.
The island is L-shaped, about nine miles long and a mile across. It is completely treeless, although a few years ago an attempt was made to plant a forest -- but the powerful salty winds stunted the growth of the trees and the project was forgotten. Rathlin with its heathery, rocky ridges, interspersed with meadows, valleys and rushy lakes is both beautiful and mysterious even when seen from the mainland, because the south coast consists of a magnificent range of white cliffs about 200 feet high. The lack of trees does not detract from Rathlin's beauty; on the contrary, no other Irish island has such white cliffs, and as they shine across the blue 'sound' Rathlin exerts a powerful fascinationon the beholder.
Population. There were once more than a thousand people on the island, an indication that in the days of sail its position between Ireland and Scotland made it a frequent port of call and gave it trading and strategic advantages. But now the steamers pass it by; its harbour, the resting place for many years of HMS Drake, the World War I cruiser torpedoed in 1917, is too small and shallow and the population is just over 100.
The decline in the Islands fishing fleet and the absence of industry compelled the young to find security in other places in the world. Eventually their parents and other members of the various families followed them, somewhat reluctantly. They knew they were leaving a traditional way of life that could not be replaced, and a home of great beauty, history and, not least, perpetual peacefulness -- perhaps for all time.
The islanders are affectionately known as Raghery folk, and those that are left still cling to tradition. They are exemplary in their way of living. If the Catholic Church is in need of repair, its worshippers are invited to hold mass in the little Protestant Church and vice versa. There are now no policemen on the island because there were no arrests -- serious crime is unknown.
All around Church Bay lie the island's one liquor store, two shops, post office, telephone exchange, camp site, primary school (which has ten pupils) and its only guest house, run by Mr. and Mrs. Dominic McCurdy. Since STD (automatic dialing) arrived on the island in 1975, it is said that you can now phone more places in the world from Rathlin than you can from Manhattan Island. The island's one and only red public telephone box also stands in glorious isolation in Church Bay.
The 30 families that still live on Rathlin Island are a hardy and independent-minded people, whose houses stand apart from each other in the Scottish fashion rather than clustered in groups as on most Irish islands.
They are capable farmers, maintaining good herds of Hereford, Galloway and Angus cattle for which they do not need to seek buyers -- the dealers going out to the island to bid.
Rathlin people speak remarkably clear English -- not with the heavy brogue that one might expect in an isolated place. Some say that as their grandparents spoke Irish and learned English at school, they learned to speak it better than children to whom it was the native tongue. They are good at explaining their way of life, and their closeness to nature makes them well informed about it. They can name all the birds -- Rathlin is the home of a great bird sanctuary -- and identify all the wild flowers which are mainly those which flourish by salty shores; seapinks, milkweed, breadstraw, treemallow, small orchids, primroses, and of course, whins and broom.
Enemies. On a calm summer day Rathlin peacefully sits surrounded by the sea which varies in colour from light torquoise to deep sapphire, shaded with emerald and purple. With the hills of Scotland as a backdrop it is more reminiscent of an island in the Aegean Sea than one just off the coast of Ireland. It looks like paradise; but like any other island of its size, Rathlin suffers from the constant enemy -- nature. The islanders are superb seaman, but the heavy swells that run between it and the mainland cannot be underrated.
Storms come suddenly and unexpectedly, turning a tranquil coastal scene into a traveller's hazard. Supplies are bought in bulk and the monthly outing for groceries is no light task. Freak waves often cause difficulties and these, as the islanders can tell you, are more normal than freak.
If Rathlin's coasts are stormy however, so is its turbulent history. The island has been fought over by Norsemen, Normans and Scots, changing hands many times. In 1617 there was a lawsusit over the ownership in the Court of King James I -- should it really be a part of Scotland, an extension of the Outer Hebrides? Going back further with the arguments there were those who invoked the story of Saint Patrick banishing the snakes from Ireland. There were no snakes on Rathlin therefore, they claimed, it must be an Irish island.
The cliffs of Rathlin have numerous caves, with magnificent interiors, some iridescent with reflected light, some resembling a cathedral, with walls and pillars of white limestone. The most famous of these is Bruce's Cave, almost underneath the East Lighthouse. Here in 1306, Robert the Bruce hid after his defeat by the English at Perth. He saw a spider repeatedly trying to ascend to the roog of the cave by a gossamer strand, and eventually succeeding -- giving rise to the saying, 'If at first you don't succeed try, try again'. Inspired, he returned to fight on and gained the Scottish throne by the Battle of Bannockburn.
The visitor interested in Rathlin's history is advised to read Rathlin: Disputed Island, by Wallace Clark. Although it makes for fascinating reading, the island has too long a tale of battles, massacres and troubles brought about by its strategic position to tell here.
Legends. The North Channel, between the Antrim Coast and Scotland, has long been known as the Water O'Moyle, or the Sea of Moyle, and these waters were the setting for two of the most sorrowful of Irish Legends.
The best known and loved of these stories is that of the children of Lir; King Lir's second wife was a witch who, because of jealousy, changed his children into swans. They were condemned to swim for centuries on the Sea of Moyle until the first ringing of a Christian bell changed them back into children; their joy was short lived, however for they died soon after the transformation (this legend is the subject of a Sculpture by Rosamund Praeger in the old school house at the Giant's Causeway).
The other story is that of Dierdre (of the sorrows) and the sons of Usnach: King Connor wanted to marry Dierdre, his ward, but she was in love with Naisi. They fled to Scotland for safety but King Connor with false promises lured them back and had Naisi and his brothers killed, which act resulted in Dierdre committing suicide.
One version says that when the lovers returned from Scotland they landed at Carrig-Usnach, a rock at the east end of Ballycastle sands, another favours Portaleen Bay, south of Torr Head.
Antiquities. Pirates and smugglers had bases on Rathlin and a ruined house, called the Smugglers House near the South Lighthouse, has cavities in the wall probably used for hiding contraband.
In the Stone Age, Rathlin had an axe factory, and axe heads of porcellanite, identified as Rathlin-made have been found in many parts of the British Isles. The 'factory' site is at Brockley, near the middle of the island.
In early Christian times, Rathlin's apparently safe situation recommended it to the monks, but it ceasedto be an "isle of saints and scholars" in the
ninth century, when the Vikings came to plunder. There are traces of a monastic settlement between Brockley and the harbour. The monks of
Knockans (or their successors) have left a stone, 'sweat house', a form of early sauna bath, and east of the harbour there is a Celtic standing stone.
More recently, Rathlin was associated with another famous name, Marchese Marconi, the discoverer of wireless. Lloyd's station on the mainland
experienced difficulty in deciphering signals from ships which pass north of Rathlin and the possibility of using wireless for communicating the
information was considered. Lloyd's commissioned Marconi to establish a wireless link between Rathlin and Ballycastle, and in 1898 George Kemp,
Marconi's assistant, successfully completed this task.
When all is said about the beauty of Rathlin Island's visible features, however, its charm remains undefinable. Its people are hardy philosophers: its
high white cliffs are the walls of no ivory tower. The Island people look out upon the world, and the visitor and, like Bruce, gets the world's struggles