A Rathlin Childhood

Imelda McFaul recalls her early years on the island

The main thing I remember about growing up was the sense of freedom. Whilst not really appreciating it at the time, looking back now I can see how much it has shaped my life.

There aren’t many places in this world where a parent can let a child run free and unsupervised and not have to worry about their safety. I can recall running wild over fields and into ports, learning how to run over rough rocks and delighting in racing leaves down streams.

Together with my brothers and cousins life was great! That sounds idealistic and in the most part it was. At least that’s the way most of us like to remember our childhood.

Reality, however, can prove to be a slightly different thing. Life on Rathlin can be harsh to say the least. I grew up in the 80s and 90s. A comfortable time for most in Northern Ireland. For us life at that time was a little more basic.

The reality of my early childhood was a damp little house with an outside loo and electricity from a generator. Not that we minded any of this, as we were warm, dry and well fed. What more could you want? Even in the winter the little house always seemed cosy to me. We also had the privilege of regular trips to Granny’s house where a warm bath and a ‘piece and jam’ awaited.

Spring always arrived quite quickly after Santa had brought all his presents and we became bored with them. With it came the promise of longer days, handfed lambs and Easter, with its copious amounts of chocolate and the first yacht race of the year.

Summer was spent on the beach covered in grey sand or climbing in and out of ports with bags of dulse and half eaten sandwiches. Even the wet days weren’t so bad because that meant puddles. Time for oversized wellies and stern unheeded warnings of ‘not to fill them’.

Autumn meant collecting ‘whirlers’ from sycamores, mushroom hunting, and that joyous event that as a child I looked forward to every year – the baling of the hay. It also brought round that dreaded phrase that every child hates, ‘back to school!’.

When I started my school career there was a grand total of 14 pupils. By the time I left this number had halved. During my school life I was told stories of other schools that had 30 pupils in each class and loads of different classrooms and teachers.

I didn’t really believe or care about this until it came closer to my time to join them. As the school was small it meant that competition could be fierce. None more so than when it came to the school plays. Everyone had their role to play and being shy was not an option. We rehearsed, we sang, we played musical instruments, we donned our costumes and we performed to a packed audience of about 70 people.

Given that the population of the island at the time was about 100, that’s not a bad turnout. We were taught many extra things which we took for granted, including the Irish language, how to play tin whistles and accordions. We learned ceili dancing and the importance of carrying on tradition.

But the biggest lesson by far in the life of any Rathlin child is the momentous transfer from primary to secondary school. Having to leave your island home to live on the mainland was trying to say the least.
I spent most of my time counting the days of the week waiting to get back. I did not understand or want to know why the other kids seemed obsessed with religion and fashion. I spent hours longing for Friday evening, praying for good weather. The importance of family is dearly learned through separation.

Stepping off the boat was one of the best feelings that I could experience and in many ways still is. Different families handled secondary education in different ways. Boarding schools, staying in B&Bs, with family or with friends were all viable options. One family chose to leave the island altogether. A huge change for the family and for the island as a whole.

Even as a child, I can remember the tremendous sense of community that existed and still exists on the island. No matter where you went, everything and everyone was familiar. The sense of safety and inclusion felt by being in these surroundings was one that was clearly shared by all.

This also meant that loss was greatly felt, funerals brought out the whole community, from youngest to oldest. All would gather to remember the life of their friend. Feuds were forgotten, for that day at least.

By Imelda McFaul

Supported by EU Programme for Peace & Reconciliation & Rural Development Council