I was reminded this morning, by a piece in The Irish Times, that I ought to be ashamed of myself. Ashamed because, although I grew up on the Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland, I’ve never been out to Rathlin Island. It was here, they say, that Robert the Bruce, hiding in a cave, learnt perseverance from the efforts of a web-making spider. It was here, too, that Guglielmo Marconi’s right-hand man, George Kemp, conducted an early experiment with wireless telegraphy, between Rathlin and Ballycastle, on the mainland. In The Irish Times, Bernie McGill tells how her new novel, The Watch House (Tinder Press), was inspired by that pioneering work:
Both Kemp and Marconi appear fleetingly in The Watch House. All the other characters are completely fictional. What I have tried to stay true to is the island itself. For a number of years, the Ordnance Survey map of Rathlin and Ballycastle has hung above my writing desk. I have recited the litany of the island’s place names like a poem or a prayer: Sloaknacalliagh, the chasm of the old women; Kilvoruan, the church of Saint Ruan; Crocknascreidlin, the hill of the screaming; Lagavistevoir, the hollow of the great defeat. Every name tells a story of its own. Each time a character has moved to make a journey, on foot, by boat, by cart, I have plotted their progress across the map as they navigated those dark histories.
Rathlin features, too, in Islander: A Journey Around Our Island Archipelago by Patrick Barkham, which Granta is due to publish in October. Among those Barkham spends time with is Liam McFaul, a native of the island, who is an organic farmer, a fisherman, a member of the Fire Service and station officer in charge of the coastguard rescue team. He is also the RSPB warden on Rathlin. A warden from the mainland, says Barkham, would struggle with a survey of Rathlin’s six peregrine nests, which are hidden on its vast and inaccessible cliffs. “Liam has known exactly where to find them since he was a boy; a peregrine nest is island intelligence as easily held as who makes the best cup of tea.”