Place:Rathlin Island, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

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NameRathlin Island
Alt namesRathlin
TypeParish
Coordinates55.30805°N 6.23062°W
Located inCounty Antrim, Northern Ireland
source: Family History Library Catalog


Historical description

Extracts pertaining to local and historical information are taken from a Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis published in 1837.


RATHLIN, an island and parish, in the barony of CAREY, county of ANTRIM, and province of ULSTER, 65 miles (N.) from Ballycastle; containing 1039 inhabitants. This island, which is situated off the northern coast of Antrim, nearly opposite to the town of Bally-castle, in lat. 54° 36' (N.), and lon. 9° 15' (W.), and which is regarded as the Ricnia of Pliny and the Ricina of Ptolemy, has received various appellations from different writers. By the Irish historians it is called Recarn, or Recrain; by Buchanan, Raclinda; by Mackenzie, Rachri; by Ware, Raghlin; and Raghery by Hamilton, who derives that name from Ragh Erin, signifying the "fort of Erin." Its present name, which has been adopted by all modern writers, is but a slight modification of that given to it by Ware. St. Comgall is said to have landed in this island with the intention of founding a cell, but was expelled by a band of soldiers. In the sixth century, however, a church was founded here by St. Columba, who placed it under the superintendence of St. Colman. But the foundation of this religious establishment is by some writers attributed to Lugard Laither, who was abbot about the year 590, and by others to St. Legene, abbot of Hy, by whom it was repaired about the year 630. In 790, a body of Danish pirates, in their first descent upon the coast, laid waste the whole island and destroyed the monastery, which was soon afterwards restored; it was again destroyed in 973, by the Danes, who martyred the abbot, St. Feradach; since which time no subsequent notice of it occurs. King John granted the island to Alan of Galway; and Robert Bruce, when driven from Scotland by the success of Baliol, his competitor for the crown, took refuge here, where he fortified himself in a castle, of which a fragment still remaining bears his name. In 1558, the Earl of Sussex, then Lord-Deputy, attacked the Scots who had taken possession of the island and expelled them with great slaughter; and so much did the place suffer from the repeated ravages of the English and Scots, that it is stated in a manuscript history of the country to have been totally uninhabited in 1580.

The island is about six miles and a half in length, and about a mile and a half in breadth near the centre; the eastern portion curves towards the main land, from the nearest point of which it is about three miles distant, forming a small enclosure which is called Church bay. It comprises, according to the Ordnance survey, 3398 3/4 statute acres, including 30 1/2 acres under water: about three-fourths consist of rocks and stony pasture, and the remainder of arable land of medium quality. It is fully exposed to the northern ocean, and the tides running here with great impetuosity, the sea is often so rough as frequently to deter tourists from visiting it. The western side is rocky and mountainous, and the appearance of the coast strikingly magnificent; brown rocks and still darker masses of basaltic pillars are in some places contrasted with chalk cliffs: on the northern side the precipices towards the sea rise to the height of 450 feet without any projecting base. The soil is a light mould, intermixed with fragments of basalt and limestone; the valleys are rich and well cultivated, and arable land, meadows, and a variety of rocky pastures are scattered over the whole island. The substratum of nearly the whole island is basalt and limestone, and on the eastern side especially it forms beautiful ranges of columns, differing from those of the Giants' Causeway only in their dimensions, and in the greater variety of their arrangement, being found in the same places perpendicular, horizontal, and curved. Considerable beds of hard chalk extend for some distance along the southern shore, and in some places, as near Church bay, where they are intersected by basaltic dikes, the hard chalk or limestone is found to possess phosphoric qualities; beds of puzzolana are also found here, and on the shores a substance resembling pumice stone. Mr. Hamilton traces a vein of coal and iron-stone passing under the sea from the mines at Ballycastle to this island, which he thinks has been separated from the opposite coast by some convulsion of nature. Barley of excellent quality and cattle are sent off from this place; the former is chiefly purchased by Scottish merchants. Kelp was formerly made in great quantities; its manufacture was the chief source of wealth to the inhabitants, but since the bleachers have discontinued the use of it, there is very little demand; the chief markets for it are Campbelltown and Glasgow There are two storehouses, one for kelp and one for barley, erected by the Rev. Mr. Gage, proprietor of the island, for the purpose of collecting the produce of his tenantry; there is also a mill for grinding oats. The horses, cattle, and sheep are all small. Church bay, though affording good anchorage, is entirely exposed to the violence of the western winds, during the prevalence of which no vessel can ride here in safety; the only other havens are some small creeks on the eastern side, of which the principal is Port Ushet, where the small craft belonging to the island shelter during the winter. The inhabitants of this part of the island are principally fishermen, who make short voyages and carry on a little trade by way of barter; they all speak the English language; but in the western part of the island the Irish language is universal, and the inhabitants, from want of intercourse with strangers, have many peculiarities; they are a simple, laborious, and honest people, entertaining an ardent affection for their island, which alone they regard as their country, and speak of Ireland as of a foreign land. They are very dexterous in seeking for the nests of sea fowl, for which purpose they swing themselves down the face of the precipices by means of a rope secured to a stake on the summit. Both Catholics and Protestants generally live together in the greatest harmony, undisturbed by the difference of religion; they frequently intermarry; scarcely was an individual ever known to emigrate formerly, but many young men have gone to America of late years. There is neither any town nor regular village; the dwellings of the inhabitants are irregularly scattered throughout the island. The proprietor, the Rev. R. Gage, is constantly resident and acts as magistrate. A coast-guard station for one officer and six men, one of the eight that constitute the district of Ballycastle, has been established here.

The living is a rectory, in the diocese of Connor, and in the patronage of the Bishop; the tithes amount to £60, which is augmented with £27. 14. from Primate Boulter's fund. The glebe-house has been condemned as unfit for residence, and the curate has a house and garden rent-free provided by the incumbent, who pays him a stipend of £60. The glebe comprises 15 acres, valued at £18. 15. per ann., making the gross income of the benefice £106. 9. The church, towards the erection of which the late Board of First Fruits contributed a gift of £800, is a neat small edifice with a square tower, erected in 1815. The R. C. chapel is a plain building. About 180 children are taught in three public schools. There are some slight remains of the ruined fortress called Bruce's castle, of the original foundation of which there is nothing upon record. Nearly in the centre of the island are some small tumuli; in one of these was found a stone coffin, near which was an earthen vessel, and a considerable number of human bones; and on the small plain where these tumuli are placed have been found brazen swords, spear-heads, and a large fibula, which are deposited in the museum of Trinity College, Dublin. Near the Black Rock, on the south of Church bay, are four remarkable caverns, which, though penetrating a basaltic mass and at a point remote from any calcareous formation, have calcareous stalactites depending from the roof, which by their continual dropping have deposited an incrustation, about an inch in thickness, on the floor beneath.

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