Rathlin Island has a rare, untamed beauty, and truly is an enchanting island, especially on a day like today when the sun is shining and blessing us with 20 degrees of glorious heat. County Antrim lies to the South, the Inishowen Peninsula of County Donegal to the West, the Mull of Kintyre of mainland Scotland lies to the East while Islay of the Hebrides lies to the North.
Rathlin ( Reachlainn) is Northern Ireland’s only offshore inhabited island and people have lived there for over 7000 years and some believe it was the first Irish island to be inhabited. Its name comes from the Irish word, reachra and natives of the Island call it Raghery.
Forming a distinct L-shape, Rathlin is six miles long west to east, four miles long north to south and no more than two miles in width. It is currently home to around 100 people with a grand total of 9 children enrolled in the primary school.
Rathlin Island to Ballycastle Ferry
The Hollow of the Sea
Once out of Ballycastle Bay the Rathlin to Ballycastle Ferry crosses the Sea of Moyle (whose currents are referred to as Brochán or Boiling Porridge) over the six miles to the island. The brochure tells me “the tidal patterns of this area are unusual because of the Atlantic waters from the west narrowing to enter the North Channel. The position of Rathlin in the tideway causes many variations…At certain stages of the tide, a turbulence occurs in the centre of the channel known as Slough na Mara “the hollow of the sea”; a whirlpool in the sea south of Rue point.
I have felt this hollow of the sea in the hollows of my stomach and soul on one occasion many moons ago when I was returning from the island after an evening’s drinking session. Well, it was supposed to be a walking weekend but my friend and I fell into bad company, or perhaps, very good company and there was not a lot of walking to be done. Although my friend was similarly hung over, she couldn’t help but be impressed that the forty shades of green of Ireland rotated along my face as my hangover and the hollow of the sea collided.
From May to August around 250,000 seabirds including guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and puffins gather on the cliffs and sea stacks. At the Seabird Centre, RSPB volunteers are on hand to help, pinpointing close-up sights to enjoy in the telescopes and handing out binoculars.
Thousands of seabird chicks cluster on clifftops and along cliff edges, and the sights, sounds and smells are a rare and exhilarating experience.
The Three Lighthouses of Rathlin
Rathlin Island’s wild coastline and strategic importance as the narrowest point between Scotland and Ireland saw the need for three lighthouses to be built on the island whose sound is the foggiest in Europe: The West Light, the East Light and the South Light.
The West Lighthouse is the only upside down lighthouse in Ireland, has a red light and not the usual white and is part of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland Trail.
Rathlin Island Shipwrecks
There are approximately 40 shipwrecks in the waters around the Island. On the day of my trip, some great wee events had been organised by Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival.
HMS Drake torpedoed in World War 1 is marked by a yellow hazard buoy in Church Bay and can clearly be seen on the approach to the island. It is a favourite spot for divers as the wreck site has good visibility and lies at 49-62 feet.
Sinking of the Arandora Star
At St Thomas’ Church, there was a haunting exhibition about the sinking of the Arandora Star, an almost forgotten and controversial tragedy.
To enter the church you have to pass along the graveyard. It is a dramatic site for a burial, right on the edge of the water with panoramic views. I could sense the passing of centuries, the ebb of birth, life and death: the oldest stone in the graveyard is dated 1665.
SS Arandora Star was a British passenger ship of the Blue Star Line. She was built in 1927 as an ocean liner and refrigerated cargo ship, converted in 1929 into a cruise ship and requisitioned as a troopship in the Second World War. At the end of June 1940, she was assigned the task of transporting German and Italian internees and prisoners of war to Canada. On 2 July 1940, she was sunk in controversial circumstances by a German U-boat with a large loss of life, 805 souls.
When Italy entered the Second World War, The British War Cabinet ordered that all Italian men between the ages of 18 and 70 living in the UK be interned.
On her final voyage, the Arandora Star set sail from Liverpool on 27-30 June or 2nd July 1940 (there is some disagreement as to the actual date) headed for Newfoundland, Canada with 734 Italian internees, 479 German internees, 86 German prisoners of war and 200 military men. Her crew comprised of 174 officers and men. She was not marked with a White Star or flying a Red Cross Flag to indicate she was carrying civilians.
On 2nd July 1940, she was about 75 miles west of the Bloody Foreland when a U-47 commanded by U-boat ace, Günther Prie, launched its last and faulty torpedo which struck the Arandora Star, knocking our her turbines, generator and emergency generator. All lights and communications on the ship were immediately out of action but she was able to put out a distress signal which was acknowledged by Malin Head at 7.05am.
A Canadian Destroyer rushed to the scene and seven long hours later rescued 868 survivors but the Arandora Star had sunk within 35 minutes and 805 men lost their lives. For weeks, the bodies of the dead were removed from the waters stretching from County Mayo to the Western Isles of Scotland.
Along the coastal communities of Ireland, famine graveyards were reopened to house this influx of the dead and whole villages turned out to the funerals to show their respect.
On 10th August 1940, two bodies were spotted near the West Light Lighthouse and island men entered the rough waters to bring them to shore. One man had no identification and the other carried papers to show he was Signor Capella who had worked as a waiter in the Savoy Hotel in London.
The unmarked grave of the unidentified man has a ring of poppies at its feet.
Freshly picked island flowers in a glass jar of water embrace the simple headstone engraved in simple lettering to mark the grave of Signor R.J. Capella, buried on 12th August 1940.
Peacekeeping is an Art
“Peacekeeping is an art. It’s harder than fighting a war” states Major General Patrick Cammaert who is an international peacekeeping expert and has served as a military advisor to the United Nations. My friend Kate, sister Brenda and I contribute to this Pinterest Board to acknowledge our common, human fragility in the face of this war-ravaged world.
If you would like to contribute just send me a message. I would be delighted to hear from you.
The amazing coastline of the island is mainly limestone, chalk and basalt cliffs, with the highest point on the island towering 440 feet above the Atlantic. The scenery is truly wild and rugged and today it was softened by a gentle haze.
Children of Lir
Lir was a famous Irish Chieftain whose wife, Eva, died leaving him with a daughter and three sons.
He then married the half-sister of his dead wife, Aoife, who in the way of all good stories, was jealous of Lir’s love for his four children. She told them they were going on a trip to visit their grandfather. On the way there, she encouraged them to go swimming in a lake. The children were enjoying their swim, only to look up and see Aoife standing at the water’s edge in her father’s magic cloak.
The wicked stepmother cast a spell on them, turning them into beautiful white swans with the final words “I leave you with your voice however and the most beautiful singing ever heard”. And so, the Children of Lir were destined to spend nine hundred years in exile. Three hundred of those years were passed on the Sea of Moyle, Struthe na Maoile, and the hauntingly lonely cries of the swans were said to be heard around Ballycastle Bay.
When Christianity came to Ireland, the Children of Lir regained human form. Old and weak, they were baptised and died together.
Robert the Bruce
The legend tells of Robert the Bruce and his small army of around 300 men fleeing to Rathlin Island in 1306 to evade the English Army and recover from their defeat at Perth. The King took refuge in a cave under the East Lighthouse at Altacarry.
It was there the King was inspired by a persistent spider try and fail six times to complete its web. The spider succeeded on the seventh attempt, The King then declared “If this small creature has the tenacity to keep trying until it succeeds, then so can I”. He and his men returned to Scotland to the Battle of Bannockburn and victory.
Stone Walls, Round Pillars, Fairies, Hares and Seals
Rathlin round pillars and stone walls are a strong feature of the Rathlin Island landscape. Legend has it that the fairies were the most nimble in Ireland as they liked to dance on the round pillars.
Today the resident colony of seals is basking at Usher Point.
At the south of the island is Roonivoolin ( which means “point of the gulls”) where Wild, Irish Seaweed is harvested by hand for Roscara Soothing Seaweed Lotion.
The waters are pristine and nearby fields are home to elusive Irish hares, one of Europe’s rarest mammals.
The Great Hunger
In 1846, with a population of over 1000 on Rathlin Island, nearly 500 people left the island in search of an easier life across the Atlantic : the potato blight threatened the very existence of many rural communities throughout Ireland. A commemorative stone has been erected to their memory high above Church Bay.
And, Frances Black, called “the sweetest voice of Ireland” by Nanci Griffith, and now a member of the Seanad beautifully and movingly portrays the heartbreak in her song “The Island”.
You just won’t forget your time spent on Rathlin Island.
Beir Bua Agus Beannacht,
Unique Perspectives From the Islanders
Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds
Rathlin: A Drop in the Ocean? No, a Rock in the Irish Sea
The Children of Lir
Robert the Bruce on Rathlin
The Nature of Rathlin and Its Townlands
The Men That Came in From the Sea