Rathlin Island Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island

Most people have not heard of Rathlin Island. Most locals have not visited it. Yet it lies there, tantalisingly close and at the same time remote, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island.

We decided to visit one sunny May day with some friends from Larne at the prompting of an artist, a painter who knows how to appreciate the beauty of a serene landscape.

Alas, it was a public holiday, probably the only time when traffic to the island actually gets busy.

How to get to Rathlin Island

By car to Ballycastle, a busy seaside town and resort with excellent views and some of the best fish and chips in Ireland.

The one little Ferry that covers the route Ballycastle to Rathlin was booked up. A day wasted? Certainly not!

We asked around and in the town marina found a speedboat boat that did the trip in half the time for double the price.

It was worth it! We donned our orange life jackets and raincoats and prepared for the 25 minute sail.

Raincoats? Why raincoats? We were soon to find out. A north-easterly wind was blowing and the boat was flying over the waves spraying water over the passengers.

The children loved it – all of them, the young, the not so young and the old.

Sailing on that boat we all became children. 25 minutes later we landed on Rathlin’s quaint little harbour. No wind here. The landmass of the island was blocking the flow of the wind.

On Rathlin Island

Scattered next to the harbor around two dozen little houses, some inhabited, others holiday cottages. Though the boats were full, the village looks surprisingly serene.

If you are looking for a place to spent a quiet weekend or week, this is as quiet as it gets.

We take the road to the east and south of the island. On the right hand side the Boathouse Visitor Centre with its tourist office and museum. Small, but well worth fifteen minutes of your time.

We continue on a sharp left turn past a canteen that sells hamburgers and… crab sandwiches.

Rathlin Island Seal habitat

Five hundred meters down the road we find what we have been looking for.

Mill Bay is a seal habitat and before us we see about half a dozen enjoying the sunshine on the rocky beach.

The cameras come out. We try to approach. The seals follow our movements and when we come to within thirty meters they slowly go into the water.

The children had hoped to pet them, but even at thirty meters they are a sight worth seeing

Bird watching

Back into the village we wait for the bus that will take us to the western edge of the island. The driver is an extremely friendly local who knows every square meter of the island.

As we drive along he stops the bus to give us a taste of local folklore dosed with a lot of humour. Here is the house of a famous singer. There is the old school.

We reach the end of the island, a high cliff with beautiful vistas of the ocean and the Antrim coast in the distance.

We disembark from the bus and begin to descend down a steep flight of stairs. About 200 steps down but still high above the ocean is an observatory. Observe what?

Observe the over 100,000 birds, Kittiwakes, Puffins,Guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, as well as ravens and peregrines, that come there every May and June to nest. Awesome. Absolutely awesome. They are the reason we timed our visit for the end of May. In some places you can barely see the rock for the number of birds.

Rathlin Island Seabird Centre

We spend about an hour and a half there. Friendly RSPB volunteers are on hand to explain the birds’ nesting habits, lend you a pair of binoculars, or take pictures of you as you bask in the joy of your discovery. The RSPB Seabird Centre is without doubt the highlight of a visit to Rathlin…

Walking back

It is already afternoon and we begin the road back.

Mothers and children take the bus. We hardy men decide to walk. The sun is still shining, there is now a pleasant breeze and the countryside is so utterly peaceful. The walk back takes about an hour, but we enjoy it.

We are now at the village and as we wait for the boat to take us back, we enjoy a packed lunch by the seaside. We sail back, into the car, and back home.

Rathlin island truly is one of the the Must-do if you visit Northern Ireland.

Fast Facts

  • Rathlin Geography. L shaped, three miles long one side, four miles ling the other, one mile wide.
  • Distance from Mainland:Six miles from Ballycastle; sixteen miles from the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland.
  • Population:circa 70 precious and brave souls.
  • How to get there: Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd departs from Ballycastle. Or check for local transport once there.
  • The ferry takes approximately 40 minutes to cross from Ballycastle over to Rathlin island.
  • The bus from the harbor to the RSPB Seabird Centre takes approximately 20 minutes.
  • Are you visiting with children? There is a playground near the harbour of Rathlin Island. Heh, everyone is happy if there is a playground nearby, that’s my conclusion!
  • Claim to Fame I: On July 6, 1898 wireless communication took place between the East Lighthouse on Rathlin island and Ballycastle. The culprit was Guglielmo Marconi, or rather, his assistant George Kemp, since Marconi was not able to go to Rathlin himself. George Kemp worked together with Edward Glanville, a graduate from Trinity College, Dublin. This was actually the third attempt to establish a signal, the first successful in a long process of developing reliable communications for the people at sea.
  • The first unsuccessful attempt happened when Kemp and Glanville erecting an eighty-foot high aerial at the east lighthouse on Rathlin Island and used as a receiving station a point near the pier in Ballycastle.

    Kemp realised they needed a taller receiving station, so he asked for permission from Rev. Father Conway to use the spire of St. Patrick’s church. Success was allusive, however.

    It was only when Kemp and Glanville built an aerial up to 104 feet tall from the “White House” in Ballycastle, that used to be where the ferry terminal carpark is nowdays, that the experiment was successful.

    Kemp and Glanville, together with a local man, Mr John Cecil, (who’s ancestors still live on the island today), continued to work on the island and Ballycastle.

    But not for long… On a Sunday, 21st July 1898 Edward Glanville stumbled and fell to his death over cliff on Rathlin Island.

    Marconi came for the funeral. He stayed in Ballycastle for a few days, visited Rathlin island to check the equipment and eventually left for London, taking the equipment with him.

    Marconi’s ties with the Emerald Island was were not limited to Rathlin Island. His mother was from Wexford, Ireland while his father was Italian.

    It was in Dun Laoghaire that he received extensive coverage for his invention, when he transmitted signals from a boat named “The Flying Huntress” to a land station at Kingstown, during the Dublin regatta on the 20th and 21st July 1898.

    Short Bio of Guglielmo Marconi: Born in Bologna, Italy on April 25th 1874, died in 1937. In 1909 he received the Nobel prize in Physics.

  • Claim to Fame II: Richard Branson, on his record-breaking 1987 transatlantic crossing of the Atlantic on a hot air balloon crash-landed off the Rathlin coast. He later returned to Rathlin and in gratitude gave £25,000 to the Rathlin Island Trust for the renovation of the Manor House.
  • Bruce’s cave.
  • Located under the East lighthouse, it is the place supposedly Robert the Bruce (King of Scots1274 – 1329) found refuge when defeated by the English in 1306. Bruce saw a spider repeatedly trying to climb to the roof of the cave succeeding only after several failed attempts. He rightly concluded that success comes to those who don’t give up trying.

    A Blue Plaque adorns the visitor’s centre, commemorating the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s ‘exile’ on Rathlin Island. The ceremony was performed by Lord Bruce, son of the Earl of Elgin, the 37th Chief of the Bruce family, on June, 23 2007.

  • RSPB Seabird Centre
  • The beginning of the summer of 2008 saw a newly refurbished Seabird Centre in Rathlin island. It has certainly come a long way from the early days of 1978 when there was only a part-time warden receiving just over 500 visitors. Nowdays it boasts two full time and three part-time knowledgeable staff that help over 11,000 visitors a year come closer to nature.

    Perched in Westlight, half way up a 600 ft cliff, it offers unique views of the birds and their nests. A true observatory with spectacular views as the birds are fighting for space as they defend their nesting territory.

    The centre has worked hard to create a habitat for choughs and they are happy to see them coming to Rathlin island to breed after a 20-year absence.

    Children’s binoculars are available for hire and there is a telescope just for children too!

    Opening times:11 am-3 pm daily from April to mid-September.

    Entrance is free, but donations are gratefully accepted.

    Telephone: 028207 60062


    When you are planning your visit note the following:

    • Book your boat trip in advance. Weekends and public holidays from May onwards can be busy. Book in advance to avoid disappointment.
  • Allow plenty of time. Take the first boat out and the last boat in. Time goes quicker than you think. Better still, book a cottage or take your tent and stay overnight. This way you can see the island without having to rush.
  • Wear good walking shoes. While there is a bus that can take you from one side of the island to the other, you will want to walk. The landscape is so peaceful that a visit would be incomplete without a walk down its quiet lanes.
  • To make the most of your visit join Paul Quinn’s famous walking tours. You will not only see the sights but hear live commentary from one who knows the island like the back of his hand.
  • When is the best time to see the Puffins at Rathlin Island?

    The best time is from Easter to the beginning of August. The RSPB holds the Summer Seabird Spectacle during that time.

    Puffins are expected to go back to the sea after the end of July so don’t miss the Highlight weekend to say goodbye to Puffins July 25/26, 2009

    For more information, contact Alison McFaul on 028 207 60062 or 028 904 91547.

    Photo Credits: Photo no.4, courtesy of Ulster History Circle. Photo no.5 Ilan Kelman

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About the author

Originally from Scotland, Colin now resides near the beautiful seaside town of Portstewart on the Causeway Coastal Route. By day he works in IT and by day off he spends much of his time travelling around the Island with his young family, writing about his experiences for many sites both locally and nationally.