Thursday, April 23, 2015

Rambling On Rathlin


A view from Rathlin

Rathlin Island, off the coast of County Antrim, is our most northern off shore island. I was there at the weekend. The journey over in the ferry from Ballycastle was sublime. It teed up our expectation and anticipation of a wonderful day to come on one of Ireland’s last inhabited islands. The sky was clear, the sea was relatively calm, though still a bit bumpy in parts for those with shaky sea-legs, and the view was breath-taking. 

We were greeted as we stepped ashore by the friendly faces and good natured banter of islanders and visitors alike. We were all there to take part in the Rise Foundations Rathlin Ramble to help raise money for a wonderful charity. The Foundation was established in 2009 by the singer and activist, Frances Black. The Black family have deep roots on Rathlin. Their father was an islander. 

Santana, Frances agus Mise
Rise stands for ‘Recovery In a Safe Environment’ and its mission is to support families who are impacted by a loved one's addictive behaviour through awareness, education and therapy.  They are dedicated to working towards helping family members to free themselves from the stress, anxiety and worry of having a loved one with addictive behaviour.

Rise helps family members understand the nature of addiction and how it impacts on relationships. In this way it hopes to aid families as they work to recover from the effects of the addiction and to support and strengthen families through a very difficult period in their lives. 

Two years before the charity was established Frances contacted me and outlined her hopes of establishing an organisation that would help families faced with addiction. Part of her vision for what became ‘Rise’ was the opening of an addiction, education and awareness centre for families on Rathlin Island. 

I thought it was a great idea and asked Conor Murphy, who was then the Minister for Regional Development to see what help and advice he could provide for the project. Conor quickly moved to ensure that part of this engagement with Rathlin would explore opportunities to reverse the years of underinvestment and neglect endured by the islanders.

Eventually out of this emerged a new government policy toward Rathlin. But equally importantly for the Rise Foundation the Commissioner of Irish Lights agreed to let the Foundation lease two houses at Rathlin’s remote East Lighthouse. Both are in need of work and Saturday’s ramble around Rathlin is one of the fundraising efforts created by Frances Black and her dedicated team at Rise.

The ramble covered 7 miles (11.2 km). Rathlin has spectacular scenery and a long history that takes it back to the Neolithic period. It currently has a population of 120 hardy souls. Locals claim that Rathlin was probably the first of our islands to become inhabited. Standing on the north cliffs you get an amazing view of the islands of Scotland and the Mull of Kintyre. 

Rathlin has a long association with mythical and historical figures from the Tuatha de Danaan to St. Columba. It is also said in the Annals of Ulster that Rathlin experienced the first Viking raid on the island of Ireland. However, one of the best stories told is of the Scottish King Robert the Bruce who hid in a cave – imaginatively named Bruce’s cave - on Rathlin after his defeat by English forces in 1306. Bruce was deeply depressed at his defeat but in his despondency he watched a spider valiantly try seven times before succeeding to bridge a gap between rocks.

English soldiers searching for Robert did not search the cave. When they saw the spider's web they concluded that he could not be in the cave without breaking the web. For his part Robert concluded that If the spider did not give up then he should persevere also and off he went and retook his throne.

The Saturday of the Rise Ramble was a beautiful day but in bad weather the treacherous tides and the high cliffs of the island have seen their share of boating tragedies. There have been many Ship wrecks. As a consequence Rathlin had three lighthouses, one of which is the East Lighthouse where the Rise Foundation is hoping to establish their centre.

Our task on Saturday was less formidable than that of Robert the Bruce but nonetheless very challenging. Our walk along Rathlin’s narrow roads and the stunning views gave us plenty of time to look at the local fauna and admire the many varieties of wildlife that inhabit Rathlin. There is an amazing diversity of birds, from peregrines, and skylarks to lapwings. Along the cliff faces battered by the wild Atlantic there is a huge seabird colony of puffins and others, like guillemots and razorbills birds. They gather in their thousands in the summer months to breed. The uniqueness of this small island is reflected in its recognition as a Special Area of Conservation and the existence of a RSPB nature reserve.

 Rathlin also has a great song and music tradition, influenced by the Scots Gaelic heritage. It is a special place. When we arrived back to Bruce's Kitchen for soup and sandwiches a music session was in full swing. Four fiddlers and a box player jigged and reeled us all into The Drawing Of The Raffle organised by the formidable Cathy Farrelly, I didn't win anything. But RISE raised over 7000 euros. Well done to everyone involved. 

Later that night there was a ceili. And a sing song. Unfortunately I had to leave before this.  But the voyage back to the mainland was shortened by more lively ceol as some of the musicians travelled back with us. 

 So, well done Frances Black and the Rise Foundation. Thanks for all your work and thanks for a great day out. For more information on Rise check out


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