Eye on the Island

Desima Connolly discusses the practicalities of life on Rathlin 

As Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island, Rathlin can attract quite a lot of media attention. In summer in particular it is not uncommon to find yourself sharing accommodation with RTE, BBC or European film crews.

Drawn by the environmental and archaeological aspects, they are also lured by the community plight and ‘otherworldliness’ of the island. 

In recent weeks the island found itself featuring on local news due to problems with ferry bookings and visitor numbers. During the winter, health and safety legislation dictates a maximum ferry passenger capacity of 27. In the summer, this rises to 140.

The island community are not exempt from the need for advance booking. In fact their travel can be restricted if external bookings are exceeded. However, islanders are practical by evolution, and it’s just another facet of island life to adapt to. 

Fully booked

The nature of island existence, from the available accommodation to the ferry schedule and limited passenger service, greatly affects cultural programming. In unsettled weather any planned activity demands a ‘Plan B’.

All activities must be organised according to ferry arrival and departure times. If events extend beyond the ferry return, accommodation, expenses and overnight stays are necessary. All events, equipment, catering and materials have to be delivered to and collected from the ferry, booked on and paid for – even the guests!

It can be great fun, with events being truly collaborative affairs. Instead of formally thanking a guest for their participation and seeing them off into the night, you can find yourself sharing room and board, assessing their culinary skills and witnessing the physical devastation the morning after a famous Rathlin social gathering. During the ‘Rathlin Airs’ Traditional Music Festival last year I delivered ferocious and merciless wake-up calls on many a bedroom door.

The winter travel implications allow for quieter ‘community focused’ activities, such as the current regular crafts weekends in ceramics and silversmithing, the community film club, the writers group and drawing classes. Summer seasonal events can include anything from music festivals to cultural evenings to public demonstrations to exhibitions.

Spring is in the air

Easter of course means holidays and the welcome return of the schoolchildren from mainland boarding into the warm folds of their families. Again, the cultural programming must be sensitive and realistic. There are certain times when a crafts class just cannot compete with family ties!

With the arrival of spring there is an upbeat air to the island. Snowdrops and daffodils grace the roadside banks, buds appear on the trees, the hares reappear in the morning fields, even the island children have an extra spring in their step.

In the local shop you can find yourself discussing the moon’s visibility in the early morning pinkish hue, or the seals sunbathing on the beached rocks six feet away. The summer visitor numbers chase them to farther coves, but in quieter months they frolic 4 feet from the shoreline and trace your path parallel in the water, curiosity getting the better of them. 

A natural cycle

All of the islanders understand nature with an unsettling degree of accuracy and undeclared mutual respect.

One local explained to me how the older generations studied and predicted the tides by tracing the revolving patterns of light shifting across a particular landscape.  The same man also tried to explain the tidal currents to me, but alas I am still getting to grips with the wind scales and directions.

I recently encountered locals giggling about how the weather forecast is regarded as sacrosanct to an islander. During mainland visits with friends or family, they find themselves recoiling in horror when someone dares to talk over the latest broadcast. I can relate to that. The meteorological website is now listed on my ‘favourites’ (www.met-office.gov.uk for those of you planning a visit to the island soon…).

You do get the feeling that the meaning of life exists amidst all this native natural philosophising. That amongst the predictable natural systems, there is always the element of the unpredictable, which deserves a certain respect and reverence. That’s why locals never wholly trust the sea.

Writers group on CNI

Further insight into the island way of life can be gained from soon to be published articles here on the culturenorthernireland.org website. Written by members of the Rathlin Writers Group, the authors range in age from 24 to 81, and showcase geological, historical and literary reviews, as well as autobiographical tales, which wonderfully depict the island’s gradual modernisation.

The writing offers privileged glimpses into the Rathlin way of life from the islander’s perspective. Unusual, as most writing about the island is undertaken by non-islanders. It’s about time the community published their unique and colourful voice, and hopefully it will be the beginning of further literary endeavours. The island is steeped in myth and stories of old, not to mention remarkable contemporary dramas.

Putting Rathlin on the map

The island children have also been getting creative, putting Rathlin on the map – literally! Working with one of our crafts tutors they are modelling a 3D ceramic map of the island which will be permanently displayed in the harbour area. If the current developments are anything to go by, it will portray a unique and imaginative guide – though visitors beware! Unbeknown to locals, there are gigantic hares, scary wolves and curvaceous toppling lighthouses lurking amongst the hillocks of Rathlin!

By Desima Connolly