Coming to Rathlin (1)
Peggy McFaul on the harsh realities of life in the 1940s and gradual modernisation
Coming to Rathlin is a series from three different authors, spanning different generations and with strikingly different perspectives.
My arrival to live on Rathlin, sixty years ago in 1945, was, to say the least, shattering. Leaving behind all the modern conveniences of the mainland was, as the song says, ‘how strange the change from major to minor’.
I had come with my younger sister to live with my mother and her new husband, a Rathlin man. It was a cold, damp blustery day in late October. The crossing in the mail boat had been anything but pleasant. Our ‘carriage’ awaited – a horse and cart. The roads were very rough and full of potholes and the only motors on Rathlin at that time were two cars and one tractor.
Open boats were the only connection between Rathlin and the mainland. Ranging between 20 to 30 feet in length, the majority had converted car engines, which were often temperamental, although sails were used as well.
The mail boat was mainland based and came three days a week. An island boat made a fortnightly trip to take light-keepers away on leave and bring back relieving keepers and supplies.
Trips were erratic due to weather and bad landing facilities here and on the mainland. Cattle were taken lying tied in the bottom of boats. Tractors and cars were brought in on two planks, tied across the gunwhales.
Home from home
Our new home was a small thatched cottage with a half door, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a dry toilet outside. There was a large open fire place with what was called a crane – a device from which, by hook and chain, pots and pans hung over the fire.
All bread was made on the griddle or in a flat bottomed oven pot. Water had to be carried from a well, quite a distance from the house. Fuel (for those who did not use coal) was a form of peat carried in sacks from where it was cut on the hillsides.
Paraffin lamps and candles were the only source of night light. Mattresses were stuffed with chaff and sheets and pillowcases made from flour bags.
How can I describe what it was like? Walking quarter of a mile from the well in a north east blizzard of sleet and snow, with two heavy buckets of water then going to a clamp of potatoes and scraping back snow, soil and straw to lift them out to wash them in the freezing water… But it all had to be done.
Adapting to island life
The three miles to the three small shops, school, churches and harbour, entailed a long walk when anything was needed, or we wanted to attend any function. Women and children were expected to do their share of work in the fields at planting and harvesting crops. Horses were still being used as quite a bit of tillage took place. Now there is only one old retired horse here and beef cattle grazing.
Up until 1947 the government paid £3 per acre for planting potatoes. Most farms were small and incomes equally so. Those with farms were, more or less, self-sufficient. Cows generated milk, butter and buttermilk (used in baking bread) and calves for sale. Hens, ducks and geese produced eggs and chicks. The predominant vegetables grown were turnips, carrots and cabbage.
Anyone who had a boat fished and many fished from the rocks on the shore. Lots of fish were salted for winter use. Men, even those who farmed and fished, took casual employment when they found it. Wages were poor, sometimes as little as one shilling and sixpence to two shillings per day (7.5p to 10p in today’s money) but it was cash-in-hand. Trapping and selling rabbits or collecting seabirds eggs brought in some extra cash too.
Looking back it was a hard life, and you could say, ‘but then you knew no other’. Not strictly true in my case. Over time I came to accept it. I married and reared five children in tough circumstances and there were times when a good moan would have helped – but to whom? Nearly everyone was the same as myself. I found my comfort in reading.
Passing the time
We had a lending library here. People had less but they were contented making their own entertainment. Weekly dances were held in the hall, people visited each other’s homes to chat and play cards in the evenings, sometimes walking three miles to do so. The one pub was seldom empty but drinking was light. The pub closed sharp at 11 pm each night and opened for an hour before dinnertime on Sunday. The school had many pupils but was very primitive and poorly equipped.
Moving with the times
The ‘modernisation’ of Rathlin began slowly. The first ‘Tilly’ lamp came in the late 1940s. Bottled gas arrived in the 50s. Electricity came via home generators in the 60s. Like a star burst everything began to escalate. Everyone soon had cars and tractors. Grants and loans became available for farm and home improvements plus National Assistance (social benefits) to those with low incomes.
Few homes did not gain help from some source, resulting in improved conditions. The first home improvement grant given was in 1961. The Forestry Commission bought a farm in the 50s, giving full time employment to 4-6 men, planting trees. In the 1970s, bigger and better boats arrived, able to carry more passengers and bigger cargoes, thanks to improved harbour conditions. Tourists had always come in the summer time, but their numbers were limited. These boats gave more people access to Rathlin. Building materials for renovating houses began coming and more motors.
Island welcomes electricity!
Now the houses on Rathlin, including all the new ones, are upgraded to mainland standards. In the early 90s we acquired mains electricity powered by wind and generator back up, from Northern Ireland Electricity. That was a unique occasion when all the electricity poles were brought in one by one by helicopter.
There you have it. I’m please to have seen all these changes and know that no one will have to endure the deprivations of the old days. We now have good harbours, better roads, mains water, a good medical service, mobile library and a good school (if only we had a few more pupils) and a roll-on roll-off ferry.
People from the mainland (and further afield) are coming to live here and have brought new blood and new ideas. There is plentiful visitors’ accommodation and a visitors’ centre.
Although the population has fallen from 280 when I arrived to 100 now, we are still a sociable, contented lot, to quote another song ‘riding along on the crest of a wave!’.
By Peggy McFaul