Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Rathlin Island - Part 2

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There are several fine caves along the north and western shores of the island, where the heavy surf beats almost constantly. The largest of these is Bruce’s Cave, situated a short distance north of the castle. It can be entered only by water, and rises about sixty or seventy feet at the entrance, which forms an irregular arch of dark basalt. A tradition exists that Bruce, on one occasion, when hotly pursued, took refuge in this cave, where he remained concealed for a considerable time, supplied with food by a few faithful followers who knew his place of retreat, and visited him as often as they could with safety. But this story is highly improbable, from the extreme difficulty of obtaining access to the cave, which can only be entered in the calmest weather, the most trifling breeze from the east or north raising a tremendous surf, which breaks into the narrow passage with great fury.

The cormorant and rock-dove inhabit the dark recesses of the cave, and the rocks at the entrance are tenanted by sea-gulls and other birds which frequent the coast. The sides of the cave are encrusted with a dark red substance, which gives it the appearance of polished mahogany, and on reaching the further end, which is about 400 feet from the entrance, the interior, although dark, is dry and spacious, and gives indication of having been at some remote period used as a hiding-place (probably by smugglers), as the remains of a wall across the cave are visible, but no tradition regarding it is known beyond that relating to Bruce, upwards of 500 years ago.

On the southern side of Church Bay, not far from Ushet Point, there are three caves, situated at a short distance from the water’s edge, but considerably above that elevation. In the largest of these, the mouth of which is about thirty or forty feet above the level of the sea, the floor gradually descends towards its extremity, which on being lighted up, presents an extensive and spacious appearance. Dr. Berger notices an interesting geological fact about these caves. “Although excavated in the basaltic rock, and at a point remote from any calcareous formation, they are nevertheless invested with calcareous stalactites depending from the roofs, and by their dropping on the floor, depositing a crust of about an inch in thickness.” Dr. Berger thinks this circumstance worthy of attention, since calcareous matter seems evidently, from the situation of the caverns, to have been derived from that which enters as a chemical ingredient into the composition of the basaltic rock, separated from the mass, and deposited in its present situation by the percolation of water which the rains or springs must have furnished. In these caves, the bones of different animals were found a few years ago by Dr. Andrews beneath the stones and rubbish with which the floor is strewed, a notice of which was laid before the meeting of the British Association in Edinburgh, and from the deposition of marine exuviæ, it was conjectured that the respective levels of the sea and land had then undergone some material change.

Bruce's Cave, Rathlin Island - H G Hine (transparent).png
Bruce’s Cave, Rathlin Island.

Tradition records that on one occasion the islanders fled for refuge to the larger of these caves when there was a threatened invasion of Danish pirates, who formerly infested these coasts. Their hiding-place was however discovered, and an inhuman practice, often resorted to in those times, was adopted, of burning a quantity of straw or fern at the entrance of the cave, till the smoke with which it was soon filled suffocated the wretched inmates, whose bones are said still to remain beneath a heap or mound at the furthest end of the cave, where they had congregated together in the agonies of death. This story bears a strong resemblance to that told of the celebrated cave of Eigg, in Skye; and as both are founded on tradition, each may have an equal claim to truth. But it appears from a passage in Coxe’s history of Ireland (vol. i. p. 73), that this was a practice frequently adopted, for in the reign of Edward I. A.D. 1274, “the islanders and Scots made an incursion into Ireland, burning several towns and villages, killing every one they could get, and carrying off vast booty. Soon after, Richard de Burgo and Sir Eustace le Poer entered the islands, and burnt the cottages, slew all they met, and smoked out those that hid themselves in caves, after the manner of smoking a fox out of his earth.”

On the east coast of the island, about a quarter of a mile south of Bruce’s Castle, is a large cave, capable of containing about a hundred men, and easily accessible by land. It is called Bracken’s Cave, from the quantity of bracken or fern which grows plentifully in the crevices of the rock, covering the roof and sides with its graceful foliage. On the outbreak of the rebellion in 1798, this cave was fixed upon by several emissaries of the rebels, as a convenient spot for holding secret meetings, with the view of inducing the people of Rathlin to take part with them. One of the most successful of these agents sent from the main land was Thomas Russell, who was afterwards hanged for treason, and who, under the pretence of examining the geological structure of the island, held frequent conversation with the people, endeavouring to persuade them to join the ranks of the rebels, and during one of these meetings he succeeded in persuading some hundreds of them to take the oath of the United Irishmen, pledging themselves to aid in the destruction of heretics, and as far as possible, to advance the cause of freedom. Before taking the oath, however, they insisted on an additional clause being added to it, freeing them from any obligation to injure their landlord or his family, and declaring that nothing would induce them to do so. This, after some demur, was granted, and the oath was administered to the multitude assembled in the cave. It was agreed upon, that when the proper time should arrive for joining the rebels on the main land, an old vessel which was lying in Ballycastle dock should be set on fire as a signal, and boats were held in readiness to convey them across the channel. The people watched for the signal, which they earnestly hoped might never be made, and their wishes on this point were gratified, as the rebellion was put down before their assistance was required, and their valour, which would probably have shown itself by running away on the first opportunity, was happily not put to the test.

Many of the caves along the coast have been well-known resorts of smugglers, who abounded at the close of the last, and commencement of the present century. One of these is situated on the range of limestone cliffs, a short distance south of the Bull point, and opposite the Ballycastle coast. It is difficult of access, but can be entered either from the sea or the land, the passage to it being along the ledge of a fine limestone rock, called Tholavie, a pillar of which stands boldly out beyond the small aperture, so that an unpractised eye could not discover it amidst the masses of rock with which it is surrounded. The entrance is not sufficiently wide to admit more than one person at a time, but the apartment beyond is spacious and lofty, large enough to contain fifty or sixty people. A few years ago this cave was explored, and in a remote corner was found a quantity of turf partly burned, which must have remained in that state for a very great length of time. A number of bones were also strewed about, probably the relics of food. From its situation, it would form an admirable landing-place, as it might easily be defended by one man against a hundred invaders.

Vessels engaged in the smuggling trade were, of course, often hovering about Rathlin. On one occasion a craft of this description was quietly lying at anchor in Archill Bay on the east side, when a revenue cutter appeared in sight, rounding the point of Tor on the Irish coast. The smugglers were all asleep except the watch, who quickly gave the alarm, when they all rushed on deck and got the vessel under weigh. By this time the cutter was fast closing upon them, and in her eagerness to secure the prize, she chased the smuggler three times round the island, both vessels exerting their utmost skill, the islanders looking on from the summit of the cliffs, and of course sympathising with the fugitive.

At length the cutter began to gain upon the smuggler, whose capture seemed inevitable, when the crew suddenly ran their vessel behind a rock on the north side of the island, which stands so near the cliff that there was only sufficient room to admit the vessel, while the depth of the water prevented any risk of grounding. The anchor was thrown on the rock, and the top-mast instantly lowered, by which means the smuggler was effectually concealed, while the cutter continued tacking backwards and forwards, unable to account for the sudden disappearance of the vessel.

Night came on, and the pursuit was abandoned, when the smugglers crept out of their hiding-place and escaped.

The only quadrupeds, with the exception of the domesticated animals, in Rathlin, are the common hare, which is abundant, and those universal pests of society—rats and mice. Wild cats are said to have formerly inhabited the limestone rocks in Church Bay, living on mice, birds, and eggs; but no traces of such animals can now be discovered.

There are neither frogs, toads, lizards, nor serpents of any kind found here, for which exemption it is popularly supposed we are indebted to St. Patrick, who

Made the frogs jump through the bogs,
And scattered all the varmint.

In former years the seal frequented Church Bay and other parts of the island in considerable numbers; now, however, for some unknown cause, it is rarely seen, and only at those periods when the quantity of fish is unusually abundant. It is difficult to capture, and has often made its escape when severely wounded. There are many varieties of cuttlefish, sea-urchins, actiniæ, and other marine animals. Some are caught on the long line in deep water, and others are found among the seaweed in the rocky pools left by the ebbing tide. The variety of marine shells is not great, owing, it is supposed, to the rocky nature of the coasts, and the heavy surf which breaks upon it, so that any shells which might be drifted in are soon destroyed.

The Mound, Rathlin Island (transparent).png
The Mound, Rathlin Island (see page 558).

From the external appearance of Rathlin, exposed on every side to the wild sea-breeze, and devoid of trees, with the exception of those which have been planted in sheltered situations, the list of plants might be expected to be very few, and those of the hardiest species. There are, however, about two hundred varieties, amongst which are a few of the most interesting of the British plants not found in more sheltered and inland situations. Notwithstanding the absence of natural wood at present there is no doubt that trees once abounded in Rathlin. Roots of the fir and oak have frequently been dug out of the bogs, and quantities of hazel nuts, bearing marks of having been long buried in the peat, are also found. In the following list of plants the systematic arrangement of Withering is chosen in preference to that adopted by later botanists.

There are a few relics of ancient times still remaining in Rathlin which leave no doubt of its having been inhabited at a very early period by a race which, in all probability, had its existence during the times of Pagan superstition before Christianity became known in these countries. The remains of raths or forts, stone circles, sepulchral monuments, ornaments of various kinds, together with stone and iron weapons which have been discovered from time to time, prove that even this secluded spot was not uninhabited at a period when it might have been overlooked from its remote situation and few natural advantages.

Dr. Wilde, the author of the “Boyne and Blackwater,” gives an interesting account of the different tribes who formerly inhabited Ireland, and of these the “Tuatha de Danaans” were the most remarkable, being often alluded to in ancient Irish historical tales as famous for their knowledge of arts and especially magic, with which the other tribes were unacquainted. To these people Dr. Wilde thinks we may attribute the workmanship of the bronze or antique metal ornaments and weapons so generally found over the country, and now swelling the National Collection at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

Amongst the remains of this ancient race still to be found on the island is a mound or fort, situated at a short distance from the cliffs on the northern side, and about a mile and a half from the western extremity. It commands an extensive view on all sides, and is of an oval form, the diameter on the top measuring 156 feet by 105. It was fortified by a wall built of dry stone, from nine to ten feet in thickness, of which the foundation remains. There was also within this wall another building, measuring thirty-nine feet by ten, and the whole seems to have been erected with a view to security and strength. A similar mound, though of a smaller size, occurs nearly opposite to the one just described, facing the Irish coast. The positions of both may be seen by referring to the map.

Near Doon Point, on the east side of the island, are the remains of a circle which may be distinctly traced on an elevated piece of ground commanding a good view of the surrounding scenery.
Circle of Stones, Rathlin Island.
It formed a wall three feet in thickness and 100 feet in diameter, and the entrance appears to have been at the north, as two granite stones, about three feet in height, are placed there, with a space of four feet between them, and two smaller circles towards the southern extremity may be distinctly traced within the larger one. The accompanying plan will give some idea of the form of this structure, of which two or three others occur in different parts of the island, but are less distinct in their appearance.

An opinion has long existed that these raths or mounds are of Danish origin, but all antiquaries now agree in believing them to have been pagan structures, erected by the Tuath de Danaan and Milesian tribes, and constructed long prior to the first Danish invasion of Ireland. What the object of their erection was, whether as dwellings or sepulchral mounds, is not accurately known; but it is conjectured that they were the fortified residences of the chiefs or kings (for in those rude ages the terms were synonymous), and not unfrequently these ancient forts were found to contain a central subterranean chamber and passages, in all probability for the purposes of security, and to serve as granaries.

A little more than half a century ago, a number of tumuli were opened in a field which had been newly enclosed, a short distance from the shore of Church Bay. Several skeletons were found in rude coffins, composed of slabs of rough stone placed edgewise, with a covering of the same material. In one of these graves was found, together with the remains, a silver fibula of good workmanship, and a number of beads, which were presented to the museum of Trinity College, Dublin. Urns, containing ashes and calcined bones, were in several instances placed close to the graves, and a number of brazen spear-heads were dug up in different parts of the field. The urns were of baked clay, with various patterns wrought on them; they were circular in form, and very similar in appearance to one which was found in a tumulus near Dublin, a few years ago. It was extremely difficult to preserve them entire, as they were generally broken, or fell to pieces in the attempt to remove them from the earth. Over the grave in which the fibula and beads were found, stood a large slab of limestone, somewhat resembling a modern tombstone in shape and size, but without any inscription or ornament whatever. It was probably placed there when the body was interred, to mark the grave of some chieftain or remarkable person, and it is regarded with some degree of veneration by the islanders, who would not on any account remove or displace it. In a field at a little distance, another of these ancient tombs was discovered a few years ago, by some labourers who were employed in digging the foundation of a wall, and on removing the stone which covered it, there was found with the skeleton an urn containing ashes, and an iron sword, which crumbled away soon after being exposed to the air. The skull bore evident marks of having been fractured by some blunt weapon; and the state of preservation in which the bones were found may perhaps be attributable to the nature of the soil, which was a dry limestone shingle, in which very little moisture is retained, but which, when manured with sea-weed, produces excellent crops of corn and potatoes.

Flint arrow-heads, and stone weapons, besides bronze and silver ornaments, of various shapes and sizes, have been found scattered over different parts of the island. A crescent-shaped ornament, of pure gold, having a small cup at each end, of about an inch in diameter, was turned up by the plough in a field near Ushet Point, a few years ago. The gold was valued by a jeweller at ten pounds.

There is a curious romantic tale in the Irish language, preserved among the manuscripts in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, entitled, “The Adventures of Comgall Long-nails, Prince of Ulster,” in which mention is made of a King of Rachran, or Rachlin, who belonged to the Tuatha de Danaan race, so famous for magical arts. The story has been translated, and is as follows:


“Comgall Long-nails, Prince of Ulster, was affianced to Taise Taebgel (the gentle white-haired), daughter of Ridoun, King of Rachraun, now Rachlin Island. The marriage ceremony was not, however, completed at that time, owing to a dispute which sprung up between Comgall and another Ultonian prince, touching their respective rights to rule the principality. In the mean time, Nabgodon, King of Norway, heard of the fair daughter of Ridoun, and proposed marriage to her, but she rejected him, because of her previous engagement with Comgall. Nabgodon was not, however, to be put off with this denial: he equipped a strong fleet, and sailed directly for Rachraun, with the intention of carrying the princess off to Norway and making her his wife; but Comgall having got information of his purpose, and having been defeated by his more powerful rival at home, determined first to sail to Rachraun and rescue the princess from the snare which was laid for her, and having made her his wife, he would leave Erin, and seek other adventures.”

Then follows a long description of the claims of the rival chieftains and their respective merits, which, as it bears no relation to the principal events of the story, may be omitted. The description of Comgall’s visit to Rachraun, and the meeting of the lovers, is taken from the 17th page of the tract.

“Comgall now summoned before him the chiefs of his people and his faithful followers, and took counsel with them what he should do. They all advised him to leave Erin, and wait for a more favourable time to recover his kingdom.

‘Let us leave it, then,’ said Comgall, ‘and let us repair to the court of Ridoun, that I may assist in protecting his daughter, and take her for my wife.’

“Ridoun had by this time received true information of the approach of Nabgodon, and his people said to him, that he should not remain alone in his own island to await the coming of the Norwegians, for that no power of Druidism or secret magic (Ridoun was of the Tuath de Danaan race) could possibly save him without other aid.

‘Then,’ said Ridoun, ‘I will go to Comgall, and urge him to come with his chiefs and defend his wife against the Norwegians, since I am not powerful enough of myself to protect her, and a dark Druidical mist cannot save us.’

“He then left the island, and sailed away to meet Comgall. The Irish prince had just finished the repairs of his ships and marshalled their crews, when he perceived a lone canoe coming towards them over the billows of the sea, and one brave, beautiful man in it. They continued to observe the vessel for some time, and at last Comgall said:

‘I know the champion in the boat: he is Ridoun, the son of Iomchad, and he is coming to invite me to my marriage feast.’

“Ridoun directed his boat towards Comgall’s ship, and saluted him in these words:

‘Whither do you steer with this fleet, Comgall?’

‘To your court,' answered Comgall.

‘I am well pleased that you go there,' said Ridoun, ‘because we are threatened with the visit of a more powerful fleet than yours.’

‘What fleet is that?’ asked Comgall.

‘It is,’ replied Ridoun, ‘that of Nabgodon, King of Norway, who demanded my daughter in marriage, but I gave her not, as she was your wife, and he is now coming with a great force to carry her off from me; you had therefore better come yourself, and protect her.’

‘Then,’ said Comgall, ‘go thou before us, King, and prepare for the reception of these nobles, who are to accompany me, and tell the Princess that I will defend her against Nabgodon; for if he should attempt to take her, he shall fall by my hand.


Ridoun then took his leave, and went before them to his own court. He was soon followed by Comgall and his men, who, on their arrival, were received with regal pomp and entertained with magnificent hospitality in a great palace which had been built for the reception of Comgall outside the ramparts of the king’s own fortified palace.

Then said Ridoun to Comgall, “You may now order your banqueting-hall, and set your people in their respective places.”

Comgall did so, and he then said, “Speak thou, Druid, and tell us how the court shall fare this night.”

“This,” said the Druid, “is what I have often foretold. Your foes are powerful, and will use every effort for your destruction: you are therefore bound to guard your court well and vigilantly.”

“it shall be done,” they all replied with one voice; “for let Nabgodon come with ever so strong a force, we shall defeat him.”

This announcement was received with a loud shout by Ridoun’s men: then did Comgall assume his kingly place in the court, and he said to one of his chiefs—

“Good, Fergus! Where will you take your seat this night?”

“I will sit in the northern seat,” answered Fergus, “because, should Nabgodon arrive, it is at the northern port he will enter.”

So Fergus sat in the northern champion’s seat. And Muirehead Mergach (Murray the rusty), son to the King of Scotland, sat in the other champion’s seat opposite Fergus. And Anadal, the heroic, Prince of Kerry, with 300 warriors of his own tribe (who were all in political exile from their own country), took up their position at the door nearest to Comgall in the court. Then came Crimthan, the victorious son of Fergus, and Carbery Conganenes, son of Carbery Crone, to the other door. Ridoun sat on Comgall’s right, with the chiefs of Rachraun behind him, and Taise Taebgel, with her train of maidens behind her, was placed at the other side of Comgall. Frachna the poet, and Fraoch, the Druid, also sat in Comgall’s presence; and although they had some dread of the expected invasion, they did not the less make merry at their cups, their music, and their conversation.

While these events were taking place in Rachraun, Nabgodon was sailing southwards with a well-appointed fleet and an army of chosen men who were resolved to accomplish their purpose, or die.

The details of the voyage, the landing of the Norwegians on the island, and their attack on Ridoun and Comgall, are given at such full length in the original, that if translated here they would fill seven dozen pages. Suffice it to say, that after many heroic acts on the part of the defenders, they were, after a long and bloody struggle, victorious; the Norwegians were repulsed with great slaughter, and Comgall and his fair bride, having had the good fortune to recover their territory, were the progenitors of a long line of princes, who for many years afterwards reigned in Ulster.

With reference to the foregoing story, it is interesting to find that there is some confirmation in history of at least one of the principal characters mentioned in it. At the celebrated burying-ground at Clonmacnoise there is a carved tomb-stone, of which an engraving is given in Dr. Petrie’s essay on the round towers of Ireland, and which bears the following inscription in the Irish character:

A prayer for Conaing, son of Comgall, Prince of Ulster.

If this Conaing is the son of the hero of the story, he must have abjured the Druidism of his ancestors and embraced Christianity, which had probably begun to spread in different parts of Ireland; for, on referring to the Irish annals, the death of Conaing, son of Comgall, King of Teffia (or Ulster), is recorded as having taken place in the year 822, before which time St. Columba had established a church here, which was, however, destroyed by the Danes, as recorded by the four masters in the year 790.

Clonmacnoise was a celebrated burying-place of the Ulster princes, and on the same tomb is the name of another prince of Ulster, who died A.D. 979. The upper inscription—that of the son of Comgall—is obviously older and contemporaneous with the carving on the stone, which agrees with the early date of his death as recorded in the Irish annals.

At a very early period it appears that Rathlin was one of those islands which was selected as the residence of the first Christian teachers who came to Ireland: and in the Irish annals there is a list of the bishops and abbots of Rathlin, commencing with the name of Segenius, Abbot of Iona, as the first who built and established a church in the island, A.D. 630, although St. Comgall, Abbot of Bangor (county of Down), had attempted to place a colony of monks here about the latter end of the preceding century, but apparently without success, for, as his biographer says, “When St. Comgall would have built a cell in the isle named Rachrain, there came thirty soldiers, who, holding his hands, drove him out.” St. Columba, who appears to have had a partiality for remote islands, did not overlook Rathlin in his peregrinations through Ireland, previous to his settling down in Iona. His biographer, Adamnan, relates of him that—“When he was sojourning in the island Rachlin (Rachrea), a certain peasant named Luigne (Looney), very much deformed, came to him to complain that his wife hated him, and made his life miserable. The saint called the wife before him, and, admonishing her of her duty, asked her why she made herself so disagreeable to her husband. She answered that she would obey the saint in everything else, but she could not live with Looney; she was ready to go into a nunnery rather than continue his wife, for her soul abhorred him. The saint answered:

“This cannot be so long as thy husband liveth—they whom God hath joined together cannot by man be put asunder: but come, let us three—thou, thy husband, and I—fast and pray the Lord for this one day.”

To this they consented. The wife and husband fasted and prayed with the saint for that day, and then he said to the woman on the following morning:

“O woman, wilt thou now say as thou didst yesterday, that thou desirest to separate from thy husband, and enter a nunnery?”

She answered: “Now I know that thy prayer has been heard of the Lord, for him whom I detested yesterday I now love. This night—I know not how—my heart has been changed from hatred to love.”

And so it was, that from that day to her death, she continued a most loving and faithful wife to her husband.