Haven of peace on Rathlin Island

By Brendan Anderson
BBC News

Image caption,
The cliffs at West Point on Rathlin Island provide breath-taking views

Rathlin Island, six miles north of the Antrim coast, is home to just over 100 people whose way of life is shaped by the spectacular landscape in which they live.

The pace of life on Rathlin is gentle and everyone has their place in the island family.

And while the islanders form a close-knit community, newcomers are welcomed and find an easy acceptance.

The traditional skills of fishing, farming and boat-building are still carried on, but, as a BBC Northern Ireland television programme shows, more young people are choosing to set up businesses to support the growing tourist trade.

Teresa McFaul has four children and one grandchild, Rowan, who was born in May and is the youngest islander.

"If there is a function on, everybody goes, down to the new baby. It's just part of what you do," she said.

She admits she has "to be in the middle of everything" and is an enthusiastic member of the island's drama group.

"Since we first started the drama group, I've been involved in every production. Every year I would look up plays and sort out who would suit the parts and annoy them," she said.

Image caption,
Michael and Shauna Cecil with two of their three children

"From about February, everybody hides from me."

Michael Cecil, one of the skippers with the Rathlin Ferry Company, has lived on the island all his life.

He is the current chairman of the island's development and community association.

Michael has one child attending the island's primary school, another ready for secondary school and his oldest child is attending university.

For island children, the transition from primary to secondary school involves living away from home.

"We are in the process of getting Orlagh ready for boarding school. I think she's looking forward to it, but it's a nervous time for everybody, an anxious time. It will work out," Michael said.

Ferry lifeline

Orlagh is the only pupil in Rathlin's P7 primary school class and one of just nine children attending the school.

When she moves to boarding school in Belfast, she will rely on the ferry to get her home at weekends. The ferry is the island's lifeline and is one of Rathlin's biggest employers.

Parents accept that sending their children to boarding school is part of the islanders' way of life.

Noel McCurdy spent 20 years working on lighthouses around Ireland before returning to Rathlin, where, among other jobs, he is the island's postman.

"People tend to have a second job. My other job would be (with) the water service and the Irish Lights," he said.

"The lighthouse service job is basically call-out only and you do a bit of maintenance once a week or once a fortnight."

The islanders have always had to be self-sufficient. They have to provide services that other people take for granted.

Michael Cecil said Rathlin's volunteer fire crew meets on most Monday evenings for pump practice using water from the lake.

"It's normally what we would use for any fire on the island. Believe it not, water is quite limited on an island. We have a very limited fresh water supply at the fire hydrants, so most times, for gorse fires, we would have to find water at another location, from the lake or the sea or small streams."

Image caption,
Teresa McFaul's grandson Rowan was born in May making him Rathlin's youngest islander

The discovery of oil off the County Antrim coast has raised concerns about possible environmental impact on Rathlin. Some islanders feel that drilling off the island could have serious repercussions for the future.

"People would be concerned that there would be some damage to our tourism sector or maybe some environmental damage," Michael Cecil said.

"The uncertainty is probably the biggest concern. We don't know what is going to happen, we don't know when it is going to happen.

"If we had some clarity on that, it gives people a focus."

Michael feels that a campaign of total opposition to drilling operations would tend to split the Rathlin community.

"My preferred approach would be to sit down and engage with government, engage with the oil companies, make sure all environmental protection is in place, all the legislation is followed, all the health and safety procedures and possibly extract some community benefit from any potential revenue that's there," he said.

"It's a beautiful place and it should be left as a beautiful place for the next generation."

True North: A summer on Rathlin is screened BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday 21 October at 22:35 BST.

Around the BBC