Rathlin Island by Shirley McDermott



On a calm sunny summer day Rathlin Island, six miles off the North Antrim coast in The Sea of Moyle, is idyllic. It has dramatic cliffs and seascapes and a rich variety of marine and birdlife. However its rocky shores and wild weather and tides have caused many shipwrecks, despite its having three 'listed' lighthouses around its perimeter.


The unusual 'Upside -down' West lighthouse provides the R.S.P.B. with a top class viewing platform to observe a wide range of nesting seabirds including Puffins and the numerous wrecks are a magnet for amateur and professional divers, despite the dangerously strong tides.


Rathlin has had a very violent history. Its natural defences have meant that it has been considered a refuge and there was an early monastic settlement there, but it was the first part of Ireland to be ravaged by Viking raiders in 796 A.D


Robert the Bruce famously retired to the early 13th century castle on the Island in 1306 after his defeat at Methven. It was in a cave at the eastern end of the island that he was reputed to have been inspired by the persistence of a spider in building its web and resolved to return to fight again in Scotland.



The ownership of the island was fiercely contested between Ireland, Scotland and England for hundreds of years although The Earl Of Antrim aimed to settle the question in 1617 by saying it must be Irish because it has no snakes!


Its value as a refuge fell tragically short in 1575 when Sir Francis Drake and John Norreys attacked the castle and massacred 600 wives, children and elderly relatives of the Ulster

McDonnells, led by Sorley Boy - Samháirle Buidhe McDomhnaill. They had been taken there to avoid the fighting on the mainland. In 1642 it again saw atrocities when Scottish Covenanters under Campbell threw scores of McDonalds over the cliffs to their deaths.


More peaceful times came in 18th Century with the purchase of the island in 1746, by the

landowning clergyman Sir John Gage who constructed the Manor House which was occupied by his family for the next 200 years. The 3 lighthouses were constructed and a Kelp Burning industry developed , which saw the population swell to over a thousand at one stage.


In 1898. Gugliemo Marconi's assistant George Kemp and a Trinity student Edwin Glanville , aided by local workers set up an 80 ft. aerial on Rathlin and their transmissions were received by Marconi in Ballycastle. This triumph was quickly followed by tragedy when Glanville tripped and fell over a cliff to his death.


Regular transmissions became important in predicting the arrival of shipping in the major U.K ports thereafter.



In 1917 H.M.S Drake was torpedoed and sank in shallow water off Rathlin, tragically with the loss of 19 lives. It is now a listed Monument and very popular diving site. In 1940, the body of an Italian waiter from The Savoy Hotel, Giuseppe Capella, was washed up on the island and buried in the local churchyard. He had been one of 800 civilian internees drowned when the Blue Star ship Arandora Star, en route from Liverpool to Canada, was torpedoed west of Bloody Foreland. Bodies were washed up along coasts from Mayo to Stornaway in the weeks after this appalling tragedy, which is commemorated with a plaque at Liverpool Pierhead amongst other cities.



Richard Branson narrowly escaped death in the sea off Rathlin Island in 1987 when after completing the first transatlantic hot air balloon trip across the Atlantic, landing at Limavady, the balloon was damaged and swept back up into the air bouncing out of control across the sea. Co-pilot Per Lindstrom successfully baled out but Branson was swept on and forced eventually to jump from 60 ft. up into the sea. He was rescued by local boatman Tommy Cecil and after recuperation on the island showed his gratitude with a £25,000 donation which funded the restoration of the now derelict Manor House.


Subsequently the building was transferred to the ownership of the National Trust and is now managed and operated by The Rathlin Development Association and leased for use as a 3*hotel, following a £1,00,000 refurbishment funded by Grants from Coastal Community and Rural Affairs bodies.



This small island has had a troubled past but, hopefully it can now look forward to a peaceful future as a small scale and specialist tourist destination.


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