A Day Trip to Rathlin Island

RATHLIN ISLAND

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, 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.

It’s thought to be the first Irish island to be inhabited.

Forming a distinct L-shape, Rathlin Island is six miles long west to east, four miles long north to south and no more than two miles in width.

It’s currently home to around 100 people with a grand total of 9 children enrolled in the primary school.

BALLYCASTLE TO RATHLIN ISLAND FERRY

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 tidal patterns of this area are unusual because of the Atlantic waters from the west narrowing to enter the North Channel.

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.

THE SEABIRD CENTRE

From May to August around 250,000 seabirds including guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and puffins gather on the cliffs and sea stacks, jostling for space to breed and raise their young.

At the Seabird Centre, volunteers are on hand to help visitors, pinpointing close-up sights to enjoy in the telescopes and handing out binoculars.

Thousands of seabird chicks cluster on clifftops and along cliff edges.

It is an amazing sight, in the truest sense of the word, and the sounds are smells are like nothing else I’ve experienced.

THREE LIGHTHOUSES

west lighthouse on rathlin island

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: 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

Approximately 40 shipwrecks rest 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.

THE ARANDORA STAR

At St Thomas’ Church, there’s 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.

A passer-by could not help but acknowledge the passing of centuries; the ebb of birth 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 of County Donegal when a U-47 commanded by U-boat ace, Günther Prie, launched its last and faulty torpedo.

It 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 Lighthouse and Coastgaurd at 7.05am.

A Canadian Destroyer rushed to the scene and seven long hours later rescued 868 survivors.

Heartbreakingly, 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.

Whole villages turned out to the funerals to show their respect; people dressed in Sunday best.

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 body had no identification that could be found.

But, the other carried papers to show he was Signor Capella who had worked as a waiter in the Savoy Hotel in London.

Today, the unmarked grave of the unidentified man has a ring of poppies at its feet.

And, 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 Rathlin Island 12th August 1940.

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 is then said to declare, “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

Stone fence in Ireland

Round pillars and stone walls are a strong feature of the landscape.

Legend has it that the Rathlin Island fairies were the most nimble in Ireland as they liked to dance on the round pillars, unique to the island.

In blazing sunshine the resident colony of seals is basking at Usher Point.

At the south of the island is Roonivoolin ( which means “point of the gulls”). 

And, the fields are home to elusive Irish hares, one of Europe’s rarest mammals.

THE GREAT HUNGER

Irish famine memorial murrisk may
Famine Memorial, Murrisk, County Mayo

In 1846 around 1000 people lived on the island.

That same year nearly 500 people left the island in search of an easier life across the Atlantic in a ship sponsored by the Gage family.

The potato blight threatened the very existence of many rural and island communities throughout Ireland.

A commemorative stone has been erected to the memory of those who left the island and it stands above Church Bay, where the remaining islanders flocked to say farewell, and would remain waving until the ship sailed out of sight.

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