No Reader is an Island 2
An overview of books about Rathlin (Part 2 - Folklore and Legend)
Rathlin: Island of Blood and Enchantment, the Folklore of Rathlin (1987), by Michael J Murphy, Dundalk, Dundalgan Press (W. Tempest) Ltd, 196 pages.
Availability: Library only.
A compelling collection of Rathlin oral folklore that provides a unique record of a powerful psychological world. Michael J Murphy recorded the vernacular speech of his island narrators without modification or interruption and the immediacy of the spoken word has been retained.
The book contains 66 short sections, each of which relates to a different aspect of island experience. Practical matters are recalled, such as the location of the best fishing banks and the geographic markers that accompany them. There are some references to historic incidents, such as the Campbell and Essex massacres (hence the blood referred to in the title), but much of the text concerns the beliefs and personal experiences of the islanders themselves.
There are numerous stories concerning the actions of the landowning Gage family. One of the narrators claims that ‘old Gage was a bad plant of a landlord’ and ‘evicted people here surely’, while another believes that ‘Gage had a good turn in him’.
There are several resentful episodes relating to duty work (work done for the landlord without payment) and the giving of duty wethers (sheep given without payment). An assassination of Gage is planned, but the would be assassin himself perishes on the day before the crime. The landlord survives and the final outcome of the plot is a reduction in rents.
The majority of, and indeed the best, stories relate to the world of the mysterious and the supernatural. Children and women are abducted by fairies (the Thane-a-korr – the Good People), a grandmother is transformed into a hare, and the indigenous Grogock (pronounced gru-og-uh – a smallhairy creature, always a male) is driven away when his good deeds are rewarded with a pair of knitted socks.
Another section tells the story of the Enchanted Isle, an island that reputedly rises out of the sea between Rathlin and the mainland every seven years. The narrator claims that if you were to pick a pebble from under your left foot and throw it onto the Enchanted Isle then it would stay for ever above the water.
The final item is an extract from the author’s journal of 1954, entitled ‘A Rough Crossing’. This is a finely written account of a journey in open boat from Rathlin to Ballycastle and provides an interesting comparison to the similar descriptions to be found in Waugh’s The North Coast 1869 (see below).
Michael J Murphy (1913-1996) was employed by the former Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971). He spent about a month on Rathlin in the summers of 1953 and 1954. Local rumour has it that many of his narrators agreed to speak to the author on condition that he would not publish what they told him until either they, or the subjects of their stories, were dead.
This would perhaps explain the more than 30 year gap between the collection of the book’s material and its publication.
Rathlin Island As I Knew It (2003), by Alex Morrison, 111 pages.
Availability: Library, http://www.asiknewit.com.
Alex Morrison’s autobiography of life on Rathlin begins with his arrival on the island following the deaths in Greenock of his mother, sister and aunt in the influenza epidemic of 1919. The young boy is cared for by his great aunt Catriona, and it is from her that he learns the distinctive Rathlin Gàidhlig.
School days are recalled, though not with great affection; when the inspector calls, he writes ‘there was that much thumping I was glad to get out’.
Some of the best parts of the text, however, concern Alex’s working life on the island. Corn has to be cut and stacked, then dried and ground at the mill. Kelp has to be collected from the shore and roasted in a kiln. Fields have to be prepared, then ploughed with a horse team, the twelve year old author at the reins. The technicalities of draught net fishing are carefully detailed, as are the exertions of rowing the catch to Ballycastle for sale.
The author was also employed for a time by the Irish Lights and gives a firsthand account of life in the lighthouses, and the method of operation of the lights. Equal attention is paid to the domestic aspects of life, in particular to the problem of how to gather sufficient winter fuel, and in all a memorable portrait of pre-war island life is composed.
With the coming of the tractor the old relationship with the land is ended. The author spends several years at sea, returning to the island to plant much of the forest at Kinramer and to work on road construction.
The appendices contain several Rathlin family trees, a comprehensive list of gravestone inscriptions from St Thomas’ church, a list of Rathlin placenames with English translations and some 40 photographs.
The author now lives in Ballycastle.
The North Coast 1869(1990), by Edwin Waugh, Dalriada Publishing, Ballycastle, 84 pages.
Availability: None, private copy.
A reprint of that section of Waugh’s Rambles and Revelries relating to North Antrim.
Three short chapters chronicle Waugh’s journey to Rathlin in autumn 1869 to witness the consecration of the Catholic chapel by the Bishop of Down and Connor. Waugh is a writer of considerable ability who takes affectionate pleasure in recording the vernacular speech of those whom he encounters.
The journey from Portrush through Bushmills is oppressive, but once at Ballycastle his spirits begin to rise, and the adventure begins once ‘The Old Erin’ shoves off for Rathlin.
The exhausting physical effort of rowing through the powerful tides is clearly conveyed, as is the sense of a shared fate for all those on board. When the skipper, ‘Old Archy’, can haul no more, one of the passengers takes his place at the oar, while another, a clergyman, exhorts the rowers with a hail of boisterous encouragement.
On Rathlin, Waugh is impressed by the earnest simplicity of the consecration and the enraptured composure of the congregation. Bruce’s Castle is explored in the company of a young boy and a rather sleepless night is passed in Michael McOuig’s rowdy hostelry.
The return crossing to Ballycastle is no less dramatic than the outward trip. Leaving Church Bay shortly after nine in the morning the boatmen find that four miles out the current cannot be overcome, and the boats have to put in to Ushet port until the tide slackens. Two hours later they set out again, and this time several of the clergy have to labour at the oars before Ballycastle draws near:
‘The other boat landed two hours before; and, having seen our difficulty, they came out to tow us in. But the boatmen of “The Old Erin” had fought so near home, that they were determined to finish the trip without assistance; and we landed, all safe, at Ballycastle pier, at five in the afternoon.’
Edwin Waugh (1817-1890) is best known for his sketches of Lancashire life and has been called the ‘Lancashire Burns’. ‘The North Coast 1869’ contains a number of verses without attribution, and these may well have been composed by Waugh.
By Jonathan Mitchell