While more than 124,000 people in Northern Ireland have tested positive for Covid, not a single case has been confirmed on Rathlin Island — due to the pure grit, determination and self-sacrifice of the islanders
It was during his years on the run from English forces that Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s most famous king, took refuge in a sea cave hidden in the cliffs of Rathlin Island.
Legend has it that during his time there, he watched a spider make six attempts to spin a web across a gap in the cave before finally succeeding on his seventh attempt, prompting Bruce to exclaim: “If this small creature has the tenacity to keep trying till it succeeds, then so can I”.
That same determined spirit which is said to have inspired Bruce to regain his crown remains within those living on the island today — and has no doubt played a vital role in keeping residents safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
While more than 124,000 people in Northern Ireland have tested positive for the virus, with 2,979 Covid-19 related deaths recorded so far, there have been no cases confirmed on Rathlin Island.
It is an enviable achievement, but one that has taken grit, resolve and a certain amount of sacrifice and ingenuity from the islanders.
As Boris Johnson dithered and delayed over the decision to lockdown last March, the residents of Rathlin Island took matters into their own hands.
Michael Cecil, chair of the island’s Development and Community Association, explained: “We made the decision before St Patrick’s Day to close the island.
“We could see what was happening, we could see what was coming out from the media and from Robin Swann and we didn’t really see much action from the Executive.
“The number of visitors to the island was starting to increase and a decision was made to close the pub before St Patrick’s because we knew the potential that would have to spread the virus.
“We phoned as many people as possible and asked them their opinion on allowing people on the ferries.
“The consensus was that we should restrict the ferries to essential travel, but unfortunately after five or six days of that, it didn’t really work because people were still travelling.
“There was quite a lot of concern in the elderly population, we don’t have a doctor or hospital on the island and if someone gets ill, it’s quite complicated to get them off, especially if you’re transporting them while they have Covid.
“So, at that stage, we consulted with the islanders again and spoke to the ferry company and government departments and decided there would be no travel at all.”
The passenger ferry service, which normally runs throughout the day and carries hundreds of people between the island and Ballycastle, ceased.
Instead, the cargo ferry sailed once a day between Rathlin Island and the mainland, transporting food, medication and other vital supplies to the residents.
The rules put in place were strict — with virtually no exceptions — meaning none of the residents were coming into physical contact with anyone from the mainland.
Photographer Tom McDonnell moved from Belfast to the island 15 years ago after spending some time there volunteering for the RSPB and said: “My partner, Leann, lives in Ballycastle and I live here.
“We spoke beforehand and decided she would stay there and I would stay on the island and that separation was definitely the hardest part, we didn’t expect the lockdown to last as long as it did.
“Other than that, I enjoyed the lockdown because I photograph the wildlife on the island and from my perspective, it was great. There were so few people about, even some of the hedgerows grew almost right across the roads because no-one was coming over to cut them.
“I’ve never seen as many hares about as I did last year and it meant I got some amazing photographs, it was just so peaceful.”
Of course, the quiet and remote nature of the island is what attracted so many of the residents to Rathlin in the first place.
Located six miles away from Ballycastle, it is accessible only by boat and air, and while the lockdown stopped any Covid-19 outbreaks on the island, it also made it challenging for islanders to shop for even the most basic necessities.
For Ksenia Zywczuk, who runs the island shop, it meant many hours scouring websites and contacting retailers and shops on the mainland trying to track down the likes of flour, sugar and toilet roll.
She explained: “When I first moved here 16 years ago, the house still had the gas fittings for the lighting from before there was electricity and while the house was plumbed, you couldn’t drink the water and we had to go down to the well with a bucket.
“I’m from Houston, Texas, so it was hard at first, but you do get used to it and now I love the pace of life.
“That was one of the biggest differences at first, I couldn’t understand why everything was done so slowly, where I was from if you wanted something done, you did it.
“But now I understand the pace of life, on the first day you think about what you want to do, the second day you get what you need to complete the task and you get started on the third day, that’s life here.
“It used to be difficult to get shopping deliveries but that has changed over the years and now most people get their groceries delivered from the supermarkets and the shop really became a convenience store.
“But that all changed during lockdown, it was impossible to book a delivery from the supermarket, so the islanders really turned to the shop to get what they needed.
“Financially, it was good for us but it was hard work because the supermarkets were running out of the basics and we had to source them ourselves.
“I spent hours on the internet trying to track things down and ringing around shops and suppliers.
“You would ring people up looking for flour and they would only have a 20kg bag so we would take it.
“We had a WhatsApp group and there would be messages going out saying there was flour going and people would message if they needed any.
“I also had a friend on the mainland who would pick up stuff from the supermarket and drop it down to the ferry for us, and we paid them with beer.
“We had to be really creative and there was such a sense of achievement when you managed to find toilet roll.”
After a number of weeks of strict isolation, the islanders were able to relax and enjoy the good weather and rugged beauty of their surroundings, safe in the knowledge the virus wasn’t in circulation, and it wasn’t unusual to see people enjoying a barbecue on the shoreline.
Although social distancing, hand-washing and face coverings remained in place.
Even with all of the precautions, however, it appears that Rathlin Island was lucky to escape from the clutches of Covid-19.
Clyde Grobler, originally from South Africa, has been a resident on the island for 12 years and he runs the Manor House guesthouse on the island, with his partner, Sarah Coyle.
Just a few weeks into the lockdown, Clyde received a telephone call from the contact tracing service in the Republic of Ireland which reinforced to him the difficult decision to close the island to visitors was correct.
“It turned out that one of the last guests to stay in the house was subsequently diagnosed with Covid-19, so it was a pretty close call,” he said.
More than one year on and as the vaccination programme is being rolled out across the world, Rathlin Island is beginning to emerge from its self-imposed isolation.
After so long shielding from the virus, there is some concern that residents are now at risk but opening up has been viewed as a necessary step to take — not least to allow couples and families to reunite.
The passenger ferries have resumed, albeit at a much-reduced capacity, and there are strict rules for everyone on the island.
Among them, only three people are allowed in the shop run by Ksenia at any one time, the Manor House is open to residents only and ferry crossings must be booked 24 hours in advance.
As many businesses on the island rely upon tourism for a large proportion of their income, the return of visitors has been welcome.
But that too is not without its challenges. Ksenia continued: “Now the island is starting to open back up again, the islanders are doing their own shopping and we don’t have the same number of visitors, so we’re financially worse off.
“We’re trying to be creative about what we do, with the restrictions that are in place the coffee shop hasn’t opened so I get up every morning at 6.30am and do wraps for the shop so visitors can get something to eat while they’re here.
“We have been asking ourselves whether we can keep running the shop, we’ve had to take a pay cut to keep it going, but we decided it was more important to keep the service going.”
Clyde said: “Financially a lot of the businesses struggled during lockdown.
“The year before lockdown, in 2019, was our best year to date for business, so to go from that to nothing the following year was really tough.
“A lot of the businesses were on the edge and it was really tough for those who couldn’t get government support, so they’re glad to be getting a turn again, although things are still difficult.
“There are still a lot of unknowns about the future, especially because we rely so heavily on tourism and at the moment we only have about a third of the usual numbers.
“Sarah runs the coffee shop and it isn’t reopening this year because of all the uncertainty, while we’ve only opened the Manor House to residents.
“We’re glad to be opening up and we’re hoping that we will be able to extend the normal tourist season into later in the year, it’s so important to let people know we’re open for business.
“We know how important it is to keep Rathlin open for tourism, we know that it’s our income, but there is still that fear, especially among the older residents, about the virus.
“We’re like one big family on the island, we all look out for each other and just like any family, no-one wants anyone else to get sick.”