History of Rathlin

People have lived on Rathlin for at least 8,000 years, making it probably the first Irish island to be inhabited. Ancient axe heads (from 5,000BC), Bronze Age graves (3,000BC) and an Iron Age fort (500BC) are among the marks they have left behind.

By the time of the Irish Famine in the 1840s, the population was more than 1,000 and the island is covered with reminders of life during those times. About 500 people left Rathlin Island in 1846 alone, bound for North America, on a ship financed by the Gage family.

Pre-history
Rathlin was probably the first Irish island to be inhabited, perhaps as early as 7,000BC. Human remains dating back almost 4,000 years were discovered in 2006, near McCuaig’s bar. A man’s body was found curled in a foetal position, with a food vessel, typical of a Bronze Age burial of 2,000BC. By 2,500BC Rathlin had a thriving export business in porcellanite axes, based on a quarry in the west of the island. The axe factory is closed to visitors but you can see samples at the Boathouse Visitor Centre.

http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/article.aspx?art_id=1249

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Vikings
The first recorded raid by Vikings in Ireland was on Rathlin in 795, when the church was burned. Outside Dublin, Rathlin is also the only known site in Ireland of a Viking cemetery. Among the items discovered in the graves are a sword, a bronze ladle and a magnificent 9th-century silver brooch, made by a Norse craftsman in Irish style (right). It is now in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. A hoard of Hiberno-Norse coins dating to the 1040s has also been found.

Loscad Rechrainne o geinntib, ‘the burning of Rechru by heathens’

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Robert Bruce
Local legend has it that a cave on the north coast was where Robert The Bruce hid out after being defeated at the Battle of Perth in 1306, during his fight against the English for the crown of Scotland. During his lonely exile he watched a spider patiently trying again and again to spin a web across an impossible gap and eventually succeed. Inspired, he returned to Scotland, to win victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Bruce’s Cave can only be reached by boat but a ruin above, called Bruce’s Castle, may help you relive the legend – which owes much to writer Sir Walter Scott.

Bruce and Rathlin
BBC: The spider legend
Searching for Bruce’s cave
Caves of Rathlin

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Rathlin Island Guide 1888
From George Henry Bassett’s The Book of Antrim, 1888

THE Island of Rathlin, at its nearest point, is over 7 miles from the mainland. It is about this distance north of Ballycastle, with which it has a connection Tuesdays and Fridays weekly by sail boat for the transit of mails and passengers. In winter, however, the sea is often so rough that the bravest boatmen are not able to make regular passages. During the summer season there are frequent trips from shore to shore. Rathlin is one of the show places which tourists should not fail to visit. Many writers have found names for this island, but it will be sufficient to quote that of Hamilton. He calls it Raghery, from Ragh Erin, the fort of Erin. The natives are known along the Antrim coast northwest of Ballycastle as Ragherymen. Rathlin is the name given to it by Ware, the t only being added.
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Massacres

 

Bruce's Castle

THE entire population of Rathlin has been wiped out twice by invaders, the most notorious incident being in 1575 when 600 men, women and children were butchered. Sir Francis Drake is often blamed for his role – he was in charge of the English fleet that transported the troops of Colonel John Norris to the island and provided a blockade against Scottish help arriving. Continue reading

Rathlin Wrecks

Drake wreck

HMS Drake

Rathlin is surrounded by some 40 wrecks, the most famous of which is HMS Drake in Church Bay. Capable of a top speed of 23 knots, she was one of the fastest and heaviest cruisers of her time and was escorting a transatlantic convoy.

She was hit in Rathlin Sound by a torpedo from German U-Boat U-79 early on October 2, 1917, killing 19 of her crew. Her Captain, SH Radcliffe brought her into Church Bay but she was too heavily damaged to be saved and soon sank.

The SS Lugano and HMS Brisk were sunk during the same attack – probably by mines laid by U79 and the wrecks lie in Rathlin Sound just over a mile from each other. The technically challenging dive to the SS Lugano is considered one of the best in the British Isles. There was no loss of life on the Lugano but 31 crew died on HMS Brisk. Although her bow section sank, the stern section of the ship was towed into dock in Londonderry.

In 1962, the wreck of HMS Drake was hit by the Fleetwood trawler Ella Hewitt, which soon joined the cruiser on the seabed in the middle of Church Bay.

List of Rathlin wrecks

SS Tuscania, first US troopship to be torpedoed in WWI

The story of HMS Drake

Diving Rathlin’s North Wall

Sponges on Rathlin’s North Wall (video)

Diving on the SS Loughgarry (1min video)

Diving on the SS Loughgarry (excellent 5min video)

Rathlin Writers

The Call

The call came he was there
The challenge was great but would he dare
To cast aside all hesitations
To take his chance, no reservations

To seize and forge the dream he sought
Indifference around he fought and fought
To make his world a better place
To live content with God’s great grace

A man who faced all-conquering seas
Yet rose again to fortune seize
The battles fought his liberation
The prize achieved his jubilation

With mediocrity all around
A man like this can still astound
We grieve and remember him
And his almighty heart within

Mary Cecil

Obituary of Tommy Cecil

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The Harsh Winds of Rathlin: Stories of Rathlin Shipwrecks by Tommy Cecil. ISBN 0-948154-65-9

Rathlin’s Rugged Story: from an Islander’s Perspective by Augustine McCurdy. ISBN 0-948154-54-6. Rathlinman’s books

A History of the Island of Rathlin by Mrs Gage. ISBN 0-948154-87-X

Flora of Rathlin Island by Margaret J Dickson

Rathlin: Its Island Story by Wallace Clark. ISBN 0-948154-76-4

Birds of Rathlin by Gerry Bond

Rathlin Island: As I Knew It by Alex Morrison. ISBN 0-948154-33-11-11

Rathlin Island and the Modern World (ebook) by W Forsythe

FICTION

The Friends of Rathlin Island by Stewart Dalby. ISBN 0-9780954423391

Turbulent Priests by Colin Bateman. ISBN: 0-9780006498018

Rathlin Writers Festival

The Manor House

The Manor House at Rathlin harbour

The Manor House

The large Georgian house which dominates Rathlin’s harbour was built in the 1870s for the Gage family, who bought the island in 1746 from Lord Antrim for £1,750. The main house also incorporated work-rooms for weavers built in the 1760s and some former cottages. The Gages also built the island’s walled garden (it is said that the soil for it was shipped from Scotland), corn mill, a boat-house and kelp store.

The last member of the family to live at the Manor House was Brigadier Rex Gage, CBE, MC, who died in 1973. It lay derelict for a while before it was taken over by the National Trust and then re-opened in 1998 as a 12-room hotel.

www.rathlinmanorhouse.co.uk

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A Rathlin countess

One of the more remarkable members of the Gages was Dorothea. On a visit to Baden Baden in 1864, she attracted the attention of Prince Albrecht of Warbeck and Pyrmonte. He pursued her to Rathlin and they married in Dublin Castle the same year. She was made Countess von Roden in 1867 and died in Germany in 1883 at the age of 48.
Antrim biographies