Rathlin since the Fifteenth Century

The island became an important base for the MacDonnell clan

In the fifteenth century, Rathlin Island changed ownership through the marriage of Margery Bysset to John Mor MacDonnell. It remained in the MacDonnell family until Angus MacDonnell was assassinated in 1490. Three years later, King James IV of Scotland abolished the title ’Lord of the Isles’ and ruled the island directly.

It was not until 1551 that Rathlin witnessed feuding once again. Captain Cuffe and Ralph Bagenal tried to land near Bruce’s Cave to defeat Colla and James MacDonnell, but the ship was thrown ashore by the unpredictable swell. Both were captured and later freed in exchange for the release of Sorley Boy MacDonnell. John Norris and Francis Drake then slaughtered all the MacDonnell women and children who had been taking refuge on the island.

Revenge was swift as Sorley Boy captured the castle at Carrickfergus, killing over 100 people. However, the English did not think the island was worth holding, so Sorley Boy reclaimed it and used it as a base for raids against the English mainland.

The End of Conflict
In 1585, Henry Bagenal and Captain Thorton captured Rathlin from Sorley Boy. After a hasty retreat to Kintyre, Sorley Boy captured Dunluce castle and swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth I of England in return for land rights. This put an end the long conflict that had existed in this area between the Scots and the English.

After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the Stuart monarchy granted a knighthood to Sorley Boy’s son Randal, alongside the grants of Rathlin and the Glens of Antrim, and the island remained peaceful for a while.

Immigration and Emigration
By the mid seventeenth century, an influx of Scottish people arrived on Rathlin escaping religious persecution. However, the persecution quickly spread to Ireland and many journeyed on to the United States of America.

In the 1840s, the potato famine threatened the existence of rural communities throughout Ireland and many were once more forced to emigrate. A commemorative stone has been erected to their memory above Church Bay on Rathlin Island.

© Andy Keogh

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