Eye on the Island (Winter)

Desima Connolly reflects on a difficult period for the Rathlin island community

January onwards is a peculiar time of year. Rathlin is overrun with visitors from late spring to early autumn, and in the winter the islanders breathe a great sigh of relief and retreat to themselves, family life, jobs and lots of summer preparation.

It can be a difficult period for the community, with bracing winter seas, winds and a static daily population. People are meditative and nurturing.

There are also decisions to be made regarding chosen events for the forthcoming year, and I harass my weary committee into attending yet more meetings (emotional blackmail works a treat or if all else fails, cream buns).

The thrill of the hunt

Once the events have been chosen, the prospect of fundraising looms, an addictive pursuit that tends to dominate your life. As if the associated logistics and administrative hoops you must jump through aren’t enough, you must also pursue cultural organisations for ‘partnership support’. I like to think of this as a pursuit similar to stalking, only legal.

Though it has a definite and quite separate identity, Rathlin Island is within Moyle District Council, and my stalking capabilities have been tried and tested since commencing my position. Cultural groups within the area tend to be ‘estranged’ and I have swallowed my pride on many an occasion. Fortunately I’m quite a determined individual!

‘Pottering’ about

The relatively quiet winter season enables the activities of the Rathlin Crafts Programme. More than 20 crafts weekends are organised annually in community ceramics, silversmithing and jewellery design. This year we are also introducing drawing classes, mainland study visits and crafts exhibitions, one of which will be based in Ballycastle.

The crafts sessions are taught by wonderfully skilled professionals from throughout Northern Ireland and further afield. The team are unfailingly loyal to the programme and dedicated in their teaching. And it is challenging for them.

The islander personality is often one of independence and a reluctance to commit, making pre-enrolment difficult. Hence, activities assume a ‘drop in’ tendency and as a result, sessions can combine complete beginners and those more experienced.

Any coercion to encourage community activities participation must be subtle and understated. I call it ‘luring’ and it’s a lot different from my previous experience of straightforward class promotion and registration procedures. As I was recently told by a local, islanders ‘don’t like to be poked and prodded’.

Not just workshop based, the Crafts Programme is innovative and dynamic, comprising Raku (Japanese pottery ‘firing’ method) sessions and, during the summer, outdoor ‘pit firings’, which explore ancient ceramics techniques. There is massive potential for further island based crafts development.

It was a dark and stormy night…

Aside from the arts programme, the community host their own winter events. There are weekly Spanish language classes (also known as ‘the Sangria club’) hosted by a generous spirited community member, card nights, regular ceilis, keep fit sessions and choir practice among other things.

In days gone by, long winter evenings would have heralded riveting storytelling sessions by a warming fire. Though this tradition has sadly diminished, the stories are still maintained and remain as vivid depictions of a rural community full of faith, belief, governed by nature and subject to isolated customs, wary of external influence.

Proud of their heritage, the community still retains a vibrant oral history tradition, which deserves encouragement and sustenance. I have been the recipient of many supernatural tales, even being told when settling into my office ‘to ignore the figures that may walk past the door’.

I naively thought they were referring to locals visiting the health centre down the corridor. It was in fact other more supernatural ‘locals’ they were speaking of.…

Not a Theme Park

This superstitious reference is commonplace and testimony to the unique qualities of the island. These qualities attract thousands of annual visitors, and though development is overdue these same qualities must be preserved and sensitively enhanced to embrace growing tourism.

Winter dictates the restriction of visitor provision and accommodation. The island Boathouse Visitor Centre is closed during the season, as is the bird sanctuary and most island accommodation.

These are just a few of the issues that are currently being tackled by a group of consultants, hired to produce a definitive Sustainable Tourism Strategy by the Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust, which will in turn complement the Causeway Coast and Glens Tourism Masterplan.

Any development must be sensitively researched and realistically planned, but the needs and capacity of the community must come first. In the tourism hungry imaginings of the casual observer it is often forgotten that Rathlin is a working island and not a package theme park. The ferry trip can sometimes be rough, sometimes tranquil, but the traveller shouldn’t be surprised if cattle are transported alongside on open deck, as well as the odd food supply and bathroom appliance!

For further information on the Arts on Rathlin initiative, contact Desima on arts@rathlinislandcoop.fsnet.co.uk, write to Arts Coordinator, The Manor House, Rathlin Island BT54 6RT, or telephone +44 (0) 28 2076 3908.