Wednesday 15 August 2012

Rathlin Island

As documented here and here, I am endeavouring to visit all of Ireland's inhabited off-shore islands.  Last year I went to Cape Clear, in Co. Cork, and last week I went to Rathlin Island, off the North Antrim coast.  So that's one on either end of the island of Ireland ... and, at the current rate, I'll have visited all the islands around about my 75th birthday.  Might need to increase the rate slightly.

A few quick facts about Rathlin: it is shaped like a capital 'L' (as seen upside down) and is 6km from east to west and 2.5km from north to south. The island is almost as close to Scotland as it is to Ireland.  To get there, you take a ferry from Ballycastle, 10km away.  You can buy ferry tickets on the day although it is advisable to book ahead for weekends in the summer.  Depending on whether it's the fast or slow ferry, the journey will take between 20 and 40 minutes.

Ballycastle Harbour
1 x mama, 1 x aunt

The morning we went was sunny (!), the sea was calm and we had a marvellous view of Marconi's cottage (where he pioneered wireless radio transmissions) and some friendly porpoises.*

The first thing we saw on Rathlin was the village at Church Bay, which consists of a six-pupil school, two churches (one Catholic, one Protestant), a hotel (which houses pub, restaurant, shop and medical centre), a second pub, a post office, a visitor centre and a fish and chip shop. It is entirely typical that an Irish island with a population of fewer than 100 people should have two churches and two pubs.

Church Bay
Manor House
The Village
Rathlin is a famous bird sanctuary and home to a colony of puffins.  The ferries are met by two buses, which will take you to the RSPB sanctuary at the West Lighthouse for a small charge - the entertaining commentary is free.  But I begged to go to Bruce's cave** first - or at least the East Light, which is the nearest accessible point. En route we spotted cows, cottages and Scotland in the distance.

The cave is only accessible by sea, so this is the closest I could get to a photo of it: I drew the line at lowering myself over the cliffs.

Bruce's Cave is about 10m down and round to the right
The route to and from the lighthouse is a loop and on our way back we visited the two churches.  The Catholic Church contains a stained glass window in honour of St Eithne, which I found pleasing.  My aunt remarked that she didn't realise there was a St Eithne (thought she was some rando, made-up saint) but clearly the people of Rathlin do.

The Church of Ireland church has, rather beautifully, pebbles inset into its walls.

Its churchyard is also the (multi-denominational) graveyard for the islanders and contains these graves: all sailors who were washed ashore in World War I.

We stopped at the Manor House hotel for tea and scones and a slice of island life as we waited for our tea to be made.  I watched (and eavesdropped, sorry) fascinated when the postman came in with stack of letters and mail order catalogues and much discussion of ordering and receiving of parcels.  I know we hear all the time about the internet revolution - but can you imagine just how much the internet and online shopping have changed island life?

After scones, we got the bus to the West Light, unusual - even unique? - in that it's upside down.

The light, you'll notice, is at the bottom of the building, instead of the top.  There was an explanation concerning cliffs, sea levels and optimal heights for ship-to-shore light viewing but I didn't entirely understand it ... sorry!  Apart from the unique lighthouse configuration, this is where the RSPB hangs out and volunteers will point out different birds to you, lend you binoculars and help you work out what you're seeing through the fixed telescopes.
1 x blogger plus new puffin friend
Kittiwakes, razorbills and one peregrine falcon - honestly, they're all there.
To complete our lighthouse set, we walked to the South or Rue Light.  Close by is the ruined smugglers' house.  No smugglers now but lots of seals.

Our last stop was back in Church Bay for fish and chips.  I had read that Emma's Chip Ahoy was 'award-winning'.  It was suggested, meanly, that the award was for best fish and chips on the island, but actually the award in question was impressive and the fish and chips (fresh mackerel) delicious.

And then - it was time to say goodbye.

On the boat back to Ballycastle I pondered two things. First - that my island-hopping seems to coincide with rare good weather in Ireland. Second - could I live on a small island?  I don't know ... but I'm excited to explore the next one.

*One of our party thought they were sharks ... but the consensus was porpoises

**The Bruce of the story is not some stray Australian who was marooned on the island but rather Robert the Bruce, now best known as yer man the narrator of Mel Gibson's Braveheart ... The real, historical Bruce was king of Scotland in the 14th century.  Before he became king, however, he was defeated in battle and forced to hide on Rathlin.  The legend is that he fell asleep in a cave while watching a spider struggling to spin a web across the cave mouth.  When Bruce awoke, there was a beautiful web - seeing it, he resolved to  keep on fighting.

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