'Coming to Rathlin' is a series from three different authors, spanning different generations and with strikingly different perspectives.
My first ever visit to Rathlin Island was in the month of July in 1971. My husband Augustine (Gusty) was returning to the place where he was born, after many years working away. With us were our then six children, all looking forward to this big adventure.
We stayed in Ballycastle for one week, then came down to the pier with a mountain of luggage and supplies for the cottage on the island. The open boat arrived with ‘Big Jimmy’ McCurdy and ‘Wee Paddy’ McQuilkin. It seemed to take ages to stow everything on board, including supplies for islanders, but soon we were on our way. We were all very excited.
The sea was fairly calm that day, just a bit bumpy in the middle, but we really enjoyed the journey, my first ever trip across the sea in an open boat! It didn’t seem to take long before we were coming alongside the pier at Rathlin. There were a lot of people waiting to collect their supplies from the boat, and transport waiting to take us the 2½ miles to the cottage at Garvagh, which is the name of the house and farm.
I had already seen a photo of the house, but immediately felt the romance. We went in the door to the large living room/kitchen where there was a lovely fire burning and the table laid with cups and plates. The house was so cosy and inviting. All this had been done by our neighbour Tessie from across the fields. We were very grateful, as it all made the place so homely.
There was a gas ring and small cooker which worked off a Calor gas bottle. We had brought a lot of groceries from Ballycastle, as we were not sure whether the island shop could cope with the extra demand. Soon the sausages we had brought were cooking in the pan and with lots of bread and butter and a large pot of tea, and with the Rathlin fresh air making everybody so hungry, it was a feast fit for a king.
After this Gusty and the children went out to have a look at the spring well. It was a bit overgrown with wild watercress and needed cleaning out but this was soon done and the water was flowing clear. It made the best tea I had ever tasted!.
While they were doing this, I was busy tidying up and making the beds. After this, we all went out for a walk as we were only staying for a week and wanted to get around as much as possible.
During the rest of the week we did a lot of walking everywhere, to the north side and south side cliffs with spectacular views across the sea to the Scottish islands, also to the old boat ports of Killeany, Cooraghy and Oweyberne, where we gathered some dulse and dried it in the sun. This is a seaweed which is eaten a lot in . It is very salty but full of minerals.
We walked to the west lighthouse where many thousands of seabirds, including puffins, raise their young every summer. That was very exciting, for as well as the climb down the ninety or so steps, the lighthouse perched on the cliff one hundred feet below. This is the only lighthouse on the Irish coast with a red light – it distinguishes it from the other lights visible when approaching from the Atlantic Ocean.
We walked down to the chapel on Sunday. There were some of the island men standing gossiping at the chapel gate, and when they saw us with all the children, one of them, Frank McCurdy, said to Gusty, “you didn’t come back empty handed’.
Some evenings we went visiting. One evening we went to visit Tessie and her husband Dan, who was related to Gusty. After a few hours spent yarning and reminiscing, and drinking tea with homemade bread and jam, it was time to go, as it was dark by this time, and so we set out across the fields.
We had not gone far when we heard a snorting and the sound of pawing hooves. Gusty knew that it was a bull. ‘Run as fast as you can,’ he shouted, not easy in the pitch dark with the children, but fear gave us wings and we soon reached a stream or burn and a stone wall. We flew over it and were safe. We could not see the bull in the darkness but we could certainly hear him.
Another evening we went to visit our closest neighbours, brother and sister, Michael and Mary Black. Both of them had worked away from the island for many years and then returned. They kept some hens, and Mary gave us some new laid eggs, which we really appreciated, Mary also kept the small island shop near the school. This Mary and Michael were the uncle and aunt of the famous singers, Mary and Frances Black.
We also visited other relations of Gusty’s – Mary and Clare Anderson who kept the post office at ‘the station’. This had once been the coastguard station, a hundred years earlier.
All too soon our holiday came to an end, our escape from the world of telephones and television sadly over.
After that first year, we came back to the island most years, until we finally returned to live in 1986.
By Judy McCurdy