The Ancient History of Rathlin (6000BC-AD400)

Rathlin has been inhabited since 6000BC

Evidence has recently been found to suggest that the first settlers reached Rathlin Island in the Mesolithic period, as early as 6000 BC. These people were probably seafaring folk, who used the island as a stopping off point during longer voyages. By 5000 BC, the island is known to have been inhabited. Archeologists have found various tools, axes and arrowheads dating from 5000 to 2000 BC.

By 2500 BC, Rathlin had become an important commercial centre founded on the production and export of axes made from the rare blueish stone porcellanite. This stone is found in only two places in the world, both in Ireland. Further evidence indicates that there was frequent trade between Egypt, Crete and Rathlin, with movement of people in all directions. By 1800 BC, enterprising Spaniards had flooded the market with copper implements and the stone axe trade dried up, plunging the island into obscurity for a few hundred years.

According to legend, Rathlin Island was taken over around 1500BC by a Spanish tribe called the Firbolgs, literally translated as ‘Bag Men’, perhaps because they wore trousers. Their hold on the island was fairly short lived and in 1200 BC they were driven off the island by the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Their reign lasted nearly 800 years until the arrival of the Celts with their superior ferrous weapons in 400 BC.

In the first century BC, Rathlin was ruled by King Donn from the fortress of Doonmore. This fortress was built about 3000 years ago, to defend the island against invasion. For nearly 1200 years the Celtic influence shaped the island.

In the fourth century AD, Ireland was inhabited by the Scotti people, under the leadership of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Said to have been based on Rathlin, the Scotti carried out extensive sea raids on the fading Roman Empire in Britain. © Andy Keogh

In AD150, the Greek geographer and scientist Ptolemy identified the island as Rikina. A chronicler of Saint Columba's life, Adomnan, used the Irish version Rechru in the seventh century and some believe that Rechru is Lambay Island off the coast of Dublin. Reachlinn and Rathlin are both found as early as 1213. The name Raghery, which is still used by some islanders, appears in 1278.