Rathlin Island - Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland

From Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland by Rev. Hugh Forde

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On the coast of Antrim, just off Ballycastle, lies the island of Rathlin. It is mainly a huge basaltic rock with a precipitous coastline. It contains an area of 4,000 acres, of which 1,000 are sheltered and capable of cultivation, the rest being heather and rock. The approach is at all times dangerous; the tide sets fiercely through the straits which divide the island from the mainland, and when the wind is from the west the Atlantic swell renders it impossible to land.

The situation and the difficulty of access had thus long marked Rathlin as a place of refuge for Scotch or Irish fugitives, and, besides its natural strength, it was respected as a sanctuary, having been the abode at one time of St. Columba. A mass of broken masonry on a cliff overhanging the sea is a remnant of the castle in which Robert Bruce watched the climbing of the spider. When Lord Essex, the English Deputy, entered Antrim to attack Sorley Boy MacDonnell, it was to this island that Sorley Boy and the other Scots sent their wives and children, their aged and sick, for safety. Lord Essex, knowing that the refugees were still on the island, sent orders to Colonel John Norris, who was in command at Carrickfergus, to take a company of soldiers with him, cross over to Rathlin, and kill what he could find. The sea, says Froude, to whom I am indebted for this account, was smooth; there was a light and favourable breeze from the east, so that the run up the Antrim coast was rapid and quickly accomplished. Before the alarm could be given, the English had landed close to the ruins of the church which bears St. Columba’s name. Bruce’s castle was then standing, and was occupied by a score or two of Scots, who were in charge of the women.

Norris had brought cannon with him, so that the weak defences were speedily destroyed, and after a fierce assault, in which several of the garrison were killed, the Scots were obliged to yield at discretion, and every living thing in the place, except the chief and his family, who were probably reserved for ransom, was immediately put to the sword. Two hundred were killed in the castle. It was then discovered that several hundred more, chiefly mothers and their little ones, were hidden in the caves about the shore. There was no pity for them. They were hunted out as if they had been seals or otters, and all destroyed. Sorley Boy and the other chiefs, wrote Essex to Queen Elizabeth, had sent their wives and children into the island, “which be all taken and executed to the number of 600.” Sorley Boy himself, he continued, stood upon the mainland of “the Glynnes and saw the taking of the island, and was likely to have run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself and saying that he there lost all that he ever had.” Such was the tragedy of the 22nd July, 1575. Lord Essex described it as one of the exploits with which he was most satisfied, and Queen Elizabeth, in answer to his letter, bade him tell John Norris, “the executioner of his well designed enterprise, that she would not be unmindful of his services.” Such was the verdict on the massacre in those fierce times, but in more modern days this massacre has left a stain on the memory of Lord Essex that will not soon be obliterated.

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