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Its tourism season may have been wiped out by the pandemic but so far Rathlin Island is coronavirus-free ... and the seals are enjoying the lack of daytrippers

Mercifully the 155 residents on the island, just off the north coast, have remained safe and well. Leona O'Neill finds islanders stoical about the impact on their livelihoods and determined to remain positive about the future

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Rathlin

Rathlin

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Grey seals make the most of tourist-free time

Grey seals make the most of tourist-free time

A puffin flies over the island

A puffin flies over the island

Clyde Grobler with his wife Sarah

Clyde Grobler with his wife Sarah

With children Freyja and Jacob

With children Freyja and Jacob

The kids play on the island

The kids play on the island

Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island

Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association chairman

Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association chairman

Rathlin

Residents of Northern Ireland's only inhabited offshore island say they have all but completely shut out the outside world and are continuing to be coronavirus free.

So far the peaceful and idyllic Rathlin Island off the north coast remains untouched by the deadly Covid-19 virus that has ravaged the world, infecting over three million people and killing almost a quarter of a million of them.

Businesses on the island have shut their doors, the ferries which would have transported hundreds of tourists to the island every day during the summer months to enjoy its rugged landscapes and ocean views have been cut back and wildflowers and wildlife have reclaimed paths that would have ordinarily been well worn by visitors.

Michael Cecil, chairman of the Rathlin Development and Community Association, says the 155 residents of the island are trying to get on with life in advanced isolation as best they can.

"We are just really getting on with things here on Rathlin and enjoying the good weather," he says. "There have been no cases of coronavirus on the island, so we are still Covid-19 free as far as we know.

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Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association chairman

Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association chairman

Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association chairman

"Life on the island is normal, apart from all the businesses being shut. The food suppliers in Ballycastle have been very good. We just phone any of them and they take card payments over the phone. There is a little shop on the island that offers a good service so we can get things through that.

"The bars and the cafes are closed so there isn't really anywhere you can go to have a cup of tea or sit down with someone else. But the weather has been very mild thankfully so everyone has been able to get out and walk around. People have been getting their exercise and walking along the shoreline and enjoying the scenery."

As is the case across mainland Northern Ireland, Michael says that the lockdown has been having a positive impact on the natural world all around them.

"What we have noticed is that there is an awful lot more wildlife about," he says. "The normally trafficked areas are covered in wildflowers because they are not being cut by the council and the tourists are not walking on them. And we have a large seal population who would normally, at this time of the year, move to other parts of the island because they are inundated with tourists taking photographs. So they are still in their normal spot around the harbour, they haven't moved away.

"We have noticed that the air is clearer and the sky is clearer and I suppose people have a bit more time to go out and notice it, because normally at this time of year we would all be busy with tourism."

Michael says the small population on Rathlin is adhering to lockdown regulations, although perhaps not quite as strictly as on mainland Northern Ireland where there are cases of the virus.

"People aren't really getting on as normal, because there are not any venues to meet up in," he says. "We are isolating as much as people in the rest of Northern Ireland are, but we can probably relax a little bit. If you meet someone along the road, you can stop for a chat, and the kids can play on the beach. But there is a lot of the population who are still quite wary - because there is still a small risk of virus being carried on the groceries that come from the mainland, for example. So there are still a few of the elderly population who would keep themselves to themselves."

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Grey seals make the most of tourist-free time

Grey seals make the most of tourist-free time

Grey seals make the most of tourist-free time

Evidently, the global pandemic has had a hugely negative impact on the island's crucial tourist season.

"Normally in our tourist season we will have ferries that come in jam-packed with people," Michael says. "There is no social distancing on them at all. It's the same on the minibuses, and the same in the Seabird Centre and in the pubs. None of that is going to happen in the short-term.

"We all imagine that there isn't going to be any tourist season here this year at all. So this year has just been abandoned."

However, Michael is determinedly optimistic and says one potential benefit from the crisis is that in the coming years people might look enviously at how Rathlin has - so far - escaped the virus and consequently consider making a rural island their home.

"If we come through this and out of the other side of things without anyone succumbing to the virus I think that it will be more of an incentive for people to think that Rathlin is not a bad place to be," he says.

"Remote working is pretty easy. And if it works, then why not do it on a beautiful island? Look at Arranmore Island in Donegal and see how much investment they have put into infrastructure and broadband. They put a big call out last year for their diaspora to relocate back to the island. And it was working for them up until this.

"It is probably the future we can have. And that would be good. That is what we are trying to encourage on the island, especially bringing young families. There are silver linings all around."

Fellow islander Clyde Grobler (34), has lived with his wife Sarah (40) and their children Jago (3) and Freyja (6) on Rathlin Island for nearly 10 years. South African-born, he works on the Rathlin Ferry while Sarah runs the Water Shed Cafe on the island.

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Clyde Grobler with his wife Sarah

Clyde Grobler with his wife Sarah

Clyde Grobler with his wife Sarah


"It's funny how you can get used to not seeing the mainland," says Clyde.

"We are sort of insular over here, especially at this time of year, as everyone is usually working and making the most of the tourist season. But most people here wouldn't really go over to the mainland all that often, so haven't really felt that impact. But they have felt more of the financial impact with the tourist income now being non-existent.

"The coronavirus is a terrible thing. The community on Rathlin relies heavily on their tourist season and therefore we never ever have a summer where we can go on holiday or just sit in the sun. That is unheard of here.

"I think the people here are making the most of it with the understanding that they will probably never have an opportunity like this in a long time. And as terrible as the situation is, you just have to make the best of it and try to keep positive."

Inevitably, the pandemic has brought huge changes to his family's life. "I work on the Rathlin ferry as crew and sometimes as skipper, so we would go back and forward, in normal circumstances four times a day," he says.

"In a normal summer you could easily have 600 people arriving in Rathlin before noon. But now we do a skeleton service and it's really strange now that there is only one boat and it's empty, besides crew.

"We never leave the boat and we are wearing protective gear, we have breathing apparatus and are taking a lot of precautions. The only person coming and going really is the island nurse. It's a bit surreal and strange.

"My wife's cafe is also closed. It was just coming into its own. She opened it six years ago and things were going very well. But we are going to have to write this year off as are a lot of businesses here."

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The kids play on the island

The kids play on the island

The kids play on the island

In the meantime, Clyde says they are trying to keep family life as normal as possible. "People are keeping separated here, as per advice," he says. "There is a great big beach right at the main harbour. We have taken the kids down to the beach for a paddle and a walk along the beach as have other families. At our house we don't have a garden, so we are trying to get the kids out. But it is so easy to do that here, because there are only 155 people."

He adds: "However, of those 155 people I would say 80 or 90 are elderly. If it got in amongst them it would be awful.

"The thing about the island is that there is only one bar and one shop and anytime there is a cold, everyone on Rathlin gets it.

"I'd say if we did get a case, it would go round the place very quickly. So we have to be very mindful to keep everyone safe."

Belfast Telegraph