Northern Ireland

Rathlin Island enjoys a renaissance

Manor House, Rathlin
Image caption The Manor House is the first building to catch your eye when you get off the ferry

Just four kilometres off the county Antrim coast lies Rathlin - the only inhabited off-shore island in Northern Ireland.

It is home to 145 permanent residents and now features the newly refurbished Manor House guesthouse.

The 18th century building had been closed for a number of years before its £1m facelift, paid out of the public purse.

It seems like a lot of money for such a small place.

Image caption The island of Rathlin is enjoying a small renaissance

However, north Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey said such investment was "vitally important".

"Rathlin is a jewel in the crown of our tourist product in Northern Ireland and it greatly enhances what we already have on the north coast," he said.

Image caption Rathlin is "a fantastic place to be" says Michael Cecil

"It's a very special place, and so this isn't just an investment for the island but for everyone in Northern Ireland."

Michael Cecil, chairman of the Rathlin Community and Development Association, said the reopening of the Manor House was very important to the future of tourism on the island.

"It's the next stage in our development, it's a focal point for the island, the first thing you see when you get off the ferry," he said.

Image caption Safe harbour: More and more people are calling the island their home

"It will attract new business and compliment existing businesses.

"It's an investment in the future - it's £1m spread over the next 25 to 30 years, so when you break it down, it's not a big lot of money."

Born and bred on Rathlin, Michael said it was "a fantastic place to be".

"It's closely connected to the mainland, 20 minutes and we can be in Ballycastle, so it's not that isolated but it's separated and it's different," he said.

Image caption Margaret McQuilkin returned to the island after living for 32 years in Belfast

The island is enjoying a renaissance.

Its population has almost doubled in the past 30 years and other than the Manor House project, islanders are preparing for a new ferry, a harbour and are hopeful of more social housing in 2017.

Image caption Picture postcard pretty ... the harbour at Rathlin island

Margaret McQuilkin runs the Coolnagrock Bed & Breakfast on the island.

She moved to Belfast for 32 years before returning to Rathlin a decade ago.

She said projects like the Manor House have changed the island's prospects.

"To see the Manor House reopen is massively important for the island. Tourism really is one of the main employers, now it might be still seasonal but it definitely is important for the island.

"Plus, we love to show our island off to other people," she said.

"Without the investment, I don't think we would have the viable island that we have at the minute. The island is buzzing.

"When I started school on the island there were 30 in it, when I left it was down to 12 - at one stage it was down to three and now they're up to ten.

"That is the future of the island and it's wonderful to see."

Image caption Aoife Molloy visited Rathlin nine years ago and fell in love with island life

Aoife Molloy helps run the island's only shop.

She came from Belfast to visit for a summer nine years ago, but has stayed to raise her family on Rathlin.

"For me, personally, it's the sense of community," she said.

"One of the outstanding moments has to be whenever I had my first child and we came back to the island and the ramp on the boat went down and there were maybe 30 or 40 people standing there with banners and balloons - just that sense of belonging, you just wouldn't get that anywhere else.

"In Belfast, you could be living and your next door neighbour probably wouldn't even know you'd had a baby but here everybody embraces it, everybody embraces the kids and you feel like part of a family.

"We've gone from an aging population to ten or 12 babies being born in the past five years. It's fantastic."

The new operators of the Manor House are Ballycastle couple, Genevieve and Brian McLernon.

Image caption To the manor born... the McLernons plan to open the guesthouse to tourists in the new year

Mrs McLernon said they understood how important the guesthouse is to the island and plan to open to tourists in the new year.

"I guess we do feel under pressure, but it's also a privilege to take on something like this which is steeped in history," she said.

Mr McLernon added: "Rathlin's just a magnet, once you come here you just don't want to leave it you just want to keep coming back.

"It's the people, it's the scenery, it's just everything.

"It's a place you think time just stands still. If you get off the boat just leave your watch on the boat because this is it, this is beauty."

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