Rathlin Island losing its young population

News Letter – 23 & 24 September, 1970 ARRIVING on Rathlin Island the News Letter's reporter Ken Nixon was met by a resident named Tony McCuaig.

Nixon describes him as a "big ruddy-faced man" who wore a "thinning thatch of greying hair and a shrewd expression of a good poker player".

He warned Nixon: "I hope you are not over to do another of those stories about the poor Rathlin islanders starving through the winter, cut off from civilisation and all that old nonsense."

Adding to her husband's remarks, Mrs McCuaig said: "The winters are not so bad once you get used to them. We are quite snug really. We have light, heat, a phone and TV. The shops are stocked with enough stuff to keep us all supplied for weeks. So you couldn't really say that we are cut off."

The series of articles that the paper published by Nixon on his trip gave an absorbing insight into life on the island at the start of the 1970s. But what Nixon found during his stay were clear signs that Rathlin was slowly dying because of depopulation, with the young of the island choosing to make the short sea crossing to the mainland of the Province in search of work and a better life.

Father McCollum, a native of Cushendall who was then living on the island, explained why he felt the island was losing its young people: "The reason for the depopulation seems to be the changes in farming over the last 20 years," he said.

"The people here used to have balanced mixed farming, growing and harvesting crops as well as tending cattle and sheep. But now the only agriculture is grazing beef and sheep. This of course requires the minimum of labour and provides almost no employment for the men who don't own farms."

He remarked: "The only crops are potatoes and some corn. And they grow just enough for their own needs."

Two islanders named Ruth and Heather illustrated how depopulation had affected the island to Nixon through a series of charts that showed a dramatic decline of the island's population since the start of the 20th century.

At the turn of the century, notes Nixon, there had been more than 1,200 people on the island, by the start of the 1970s the breakdown of the age groups had been completely altered.

Heather said: "The census of 1968 the (population] pyramid is inverted: the young are a minority and the over 60s the biggest section."

The islanders had high hopes that the redevelopment of the harbour at Church Bay would answer a lot of the problems.

Improved harbour facilities, they felt, would not help bring more tourists from Ballycastle but give a much stronger link to the mainland.

In Nixon's opinion it would be of great benefit to Northern Ireland as a whole as "it would be a crime to allow (Rathlin Island] to die".