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  • Rathlin Islanders Downeast

    Marie E. Daly

    When industrialists Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand soared across the Atlantic Ocean in their twenty-one-storey balloon, they launched a chain of events which eventually led back to their starting point --Maine.  In the largest hot-air balloon ever made, the British adventurers embarked from Carrabassett Valley and the Bigelow Mountain range in Maine.  They intended to land the Virgin Atlantic Flyer in Europe, thereby exceeding the world record for both distance and speed.  As the mammoth balloon reached Northern Ireland on July 4, 1987, a low cloud cover and a wind shift forced the men to attempt a landing on a north coast beach.  Having failed to separate the pressurized capsule from the balloon, Branson and Lindstrand leaped into the sea near Rathlin Island, County Antrim.  A swarm of air and sea-going vessels, including the British Navy and the Coast Guard, tracked the balloon’s demise.  Navy helicopters plucked the stranded men from the sea, but the balloon careened off toward the Mull of Kintyre.  When the Virgin Atlantic Flyer finally touched down in the Northern Channel, Rathlin Islanders in a fishing boat retrieved the million-dollar balloon, and claimed it for salvage.1  Despite the Navys attempt to confiscate the balloon, the island fishermen clung to their booty, thereby qualifying for a reward of £60,000.2

    To fishermen struggling to make ends meet, the prize was the largest sum of money they had ever seen.  With the reward, the islanders established a trust fund, and purchased and transformed their old landlord’s manor into a heritage center.  Subsequently, the island’s 110 residents began to investigate the history of their locale.  Once the island supported about 1,200 inhabitants, but the Great Famine and its concurrent emigration depopulated Rathlin in the nineteenth century. According to traditional lore many Rathlin emigres settled in Maine and Quebec.3  Attempting to locate their long-lost cousins, Kathlyn McFaul of the Rathlin Island Trust wrote to NEHGS in 1988.  Thus the fortuitous crash-landing of this balloon from Maine instigated a quest to discover Rathlin’s past connection to Maine.

    Ringed by mountains and high cliffs on three sides, Rathlin Island is about six miles long and one mile wide, and lies seven miles opposite the town of Ballycastle, County Antrim.  Noted by Pliny and Ptolemy, the island bears archaeological evidence, in the form of ring forts and flints, dating back to the Neolithic Period.  Rathlin’s Christian era began with the landing of Saint Comgall of Bangor in 580 A.D.  However, marauding Norsemen destroyed the ancient monastery in 790 and 973.  In medieval times, many Scots (who were descendants of Dalriada or North-east Antrim people) fleeing interclan wars took refuge on Rathlin, including (according to legend) Robert Bruce, who fortified a castle there.  In 1558, the Rathlin Scots were attacked by the Earl of Sussex, and in 1642 by the Earl of Argyll, who massacred every person, hurling even infants over the cliffs.  Since 1476, the Macdonnells (MacDonald) of Islay and Kintyre, afterwards Earls of Antrim, had possessed the island.  But in 1746 Alexander, fifth Earl of Antrim, sold Rathlin to Rev. John Gage, Prebendary of Aghadowey (County Derry), whose descendants retained ownership until the twentieth century.The devastating potato blight of 1846-1853 which produced the Great Famine in Ireland also affected the island. “…although none on Rathlin died of starvation, the people’s faith in the inevitability of an abundant harvest had been shattered."5 107 persons fled in 1847, and heavy emigration continued until 1881.  In 1841 the island maintained a population of 1,010, but by 1851 the number had diminished to 753, and by 1861 to 453.6  Thus over 550 persons or more than half the population had emigrated during the famine period. Research indicates that at least 230, but probably many more, of these emigrants settled in Washington County, Maine.

    Rathlin’s culture was more Hebndean than Irish.  The inhabitants spoke Scots Gaelic and often regarded the mainland as a foreign country.  The main industries were cattle and sheep raising, oats, barley and potato agriculture, fishing, kelp harvesting, and linen and wool production. Rathlin featured distinct cornmunities at either end of the island, with the western, fowling community speaking Gaelic primarily, and [197] the eastern, fishing community speaking English.7  In 1834. the majority of the people lived in clachans, i.e. closely congregated families who held joint tenure.  Lodged under the scarps of terraced basalts, their low, whitewashed stone and thatch houses were built to withstand the wind.  Lewis describes the islanders as “simple, laborious and honest people entertaining an ardent affection for their island.. .The Catholics and Protestants generally lived together in the greatest harmony, undisturbed by differences in religion.”8  In 1945, Thomas McCuiag wrote, “On Rathlin Island, the wheel of life revolves with uneventful regularity...In years gone past the island was entirely self supporting, growing its own food and spinning its own cloth . A familiar feature of the island landscape is the thatched cottages.  These are usually whitewashed and, with painted windows and doors, make a very pleasing sight...Like the ocean which swells about its shores and the smoke which curls in tranquil solitude above its cottages, Rathlin lives its life in peace and plenty.”9

    The WPA index to New England naturalizations, located at the National Archives New England Branch in Waltham, Massachusetts, was searched for the most common Rathlin surname, McCurdy.  Washington County Superior Court records indicate that many County Antrim McCurdys had settled in the townships of Lubec, Pembroke and Perry.  Located at the mouth of the St. Croix River and at Passamaquoddy Bay, these adjacent communities partly form the northeastern corner of Maine.  Further investigation of the area’s 1860 Federal Census revealed at least 230 Irish natives bearing names common to Rathlin (see list below).  The census also lists a number of Irish natives with names common to County Antrim: Mulholland, Mooney, Higgins, Ross, Andrews and Laughlm.  (Laughlin family oral history claims that five brothers emigrated from Belfast in the nineteenth century.)  A trip to the Roman Catholic graveyard in West Lubec confirmed that many of the deceased had been natives of Rathlin Island: John McQuiag, Alexander Black, Archibald Black, Elizabeth Black, Daniel McKinley, John Craig, Neal Black, Ann McQuaig, Daniel McCurdy, Alexander Horan, John Horan, Archibald Horan, James McCurdy, Neil McCurdy and Jane McCurdy.

    The Rathlin settlers in Maine were generally farmers, but in Washington County tradition they scraped by with a number of jobs: farming, fishing, shipbuilding and cutting timber. In addition many Pembroke residents worked at the Pembroke Iron Works. Established in 1832 along the Pennamaquan River, the water-powered iron works reputedly produced 15,000 tons of iron annually, including nails, spikes, hinges, and rivets.  The plant closed in 1884; Route 1 passes directly over the site, still marked by a mill dam and a water wheel.10  What attracted these emigrants to this remote part of Maine is unclear.  However, in the History of Whiting, Maine, the genealogy of Robert Black (1798-1878) claims that Black was a native of Ireland and had lived along the County Road as early as 1839.11  A number of Rathlin Island families in the Lubec 1860 census had some children born in Massachusetts or New Brunswick, and subsequent children born in Maine.  These emigrants seemingly formed a home away from home, a “Little Rathlin” in Maine.

    This report of my research is only preliminary, and my purpose in publishing this article is to stimulate interest and a response from descendants.  Further research will include the 1880 and 1900 census, vital records, naturalizations and church records.  It is possible to trace these Maine families back to specific families and locales in Rathlin.  For instance, several individuals are listed in the 1834 Tithe Applotment Book for Rathlin (available at NEHGS).  In addition, the Roman Catholic parish registers begin in 1838, so some individuals can be identified through baptism and marriage records.  Other records, such as the Spinning Wheel Survey of 1796, the List of Protestant Householders in 1740 (available at NEHGS), and the Hearth Money Rolls may extend some families further.  A future article will include the results of some of this research.

    The remaining residents of Rathlin Island would like to contact their American cousins.  If any readers think that they descend from this Washington County, Maine population, please contact Marie Daly at NEHGS.


    1.    The Boston Globe, July 3, 1987, vol. 232, no. 3, p. 1, col. 1, and July 4, 1987, vol. 232, no.4, p.1, col. 1.
    2.      Telephone interview with Kathlyn McFaul of Rathlin Island Trust, July, 1988.
    3.    Kathlyn McFaul, ibid.
    4.    Hugh Alexander Boyd, Rathlin Island, North of Antrim (Ballycastle, 1947). (Available at NEHGS)
    5.    J. H. Elwood, “A Demographic Study of Tory Island and Rathlin Island, 1841-1964”, Ulster Folklife 17(1971): 72. (Available at BPL).
    6.    J. H. Elwood, ibid.
    7.    Hugh Alexander Boyd, ibid., and F. Estyn Evans, “Traditional Houses of Rathlin Island”, Ulster Folklife 19(1973): 14.
    8.    Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, vol 2 (1837, reprint 1984), p. 502. (Available at NEHGS)
    9.    Hugh Alexander Boyd, ibid., p. 54.
    10.  Carl K. Hersey, “A History of Pembroke, Maine,” in Historical Souvenir Book: Pembroke Sesquicentennial, 1832-1982. Pembroke Sesquicentennial Committee, 1982.
    11.  Gladys Hall Forslund, History of Whiting, Maine. Calais, Maine, 1975.


    Names and Ages of Irish Natives in the 1860 Federal Census of Washington Co., Maine, Bearing Rathlin Names


    Black, Archibald        35
    Elizabeth          33
    Black, Archibald        45
    Mary  40
    McCurdy, Daniel        27
    Norah          25
    McCurdy, Margaret        48
    Laughlin          50


    Anderson, Alexander          26
    Sarah 25
    Anderson, James          30
    Catherine          27
    Anderson, John 44
    Anderson, Robert          34
    Mary  36
    Anderson, Rose  65
    Alexander          24
    Anderson, William          30
    Black, Archibald          32
    Mary W.          30
    Black, Daniel          27
    Black, James          25
    John 27
    John 23
    Black, James          31
    Mary  30
    Black, John          30
    Sophia          36
    Black, Laughlin          42
    Elizabeth          40
    Black, Margaret          60
    Archer          65
    Black, Neale          69
    Nancy          30
    Rose  23
    Laughlin          28
    Neale 25
    Black, Neile A.          25
    Mary  60
    Black, Patrick          40
    Archer          32
    Betty 25
    Crage, Alexander          24
    Craw, John          66
    Ann  62
    Crage, Neale          27
    Catherine          25
    Larman, Alexander          32
    Chrisanna          32
    Larman, Ann M.     65
    John 18
    Mary  14
    Ann  16
    Ester 12
    Rose  10
    McCurdy, Daniel          30
    Margaret          33
    McCurdy, Frank          50
    Mary  45
    Mary  23
    Frank          20
    James          12
    McCurdy 2nd, John 35
    McCurdy, John G.      68
    Margaret          50
    Mick  28
    Laughlin          26
    James          20
    McCurdy, Neale 25
    McCurdy, Neile          25
    Mary  23
    Mary  50
    McCurdy, Patrick          60
    Catherine          56
    James          32
    Ann  23
    Mary  20
    Francis          19
    Elizabeth          16
    Catherine W.          13
    Patrick          15
    McFall, Alexander          37
    Jane   36
    McFall, John          70
    Elizabeth          68
    Ellen 28
    Neale 24
    James          16
    McFall, John 2nd   60
    Rose  60
    John, Jr.          30
    Daniel          25
    James          22
    McKay, John          34
    Mary  33
    McKay, John          35
    Margaret          40
    John 19
    Daniel          17
    Ann  15
    Neale 12
    James          7
    McKay, Neale          30
    Sarah 30
    McKinley, Archa          30
    Mary A.          28
    McQuaig, Daniel          80
    Morrison, Alexander          45
    Ann  35
    Morrison, Christian          40
    Morrison, Joseph          24
    Wilkinson, Daniel          55
    Mary  55
    Daniel          23
    James          17
    Michael          14
    Wilkinson, Patrick          32
    Catherine          28


    Anderson, Patrick          58
    Margaret          56
    Michael          24
    John 15
    Anderson, Nancy          17
    Black, Alex          50
    Black, Alexander          80
    Mary  68
    Black, Alexander          40
    Mary  35
    Black, Archie          64
    Ellen 63
    Black, Betsy          60
    Black, Ellen          44
    Black, Gilbert          54
    Nancy          43
    Black, James          52
    Black, James          25
    Black, James          4
    Black, James          33
    Nancy          26
    Patrick          78
    Jane   70
    Black, John          28
    Elizabeth          65
    Ann  20
    Black, Neil          47
    Isabella          42
    Bradley, Duncan          75
    Catherine          65
    Bradley, John          40
    Bradley, John          101
    Bradley, Sophia          49
    John 23
    Horan, John          84
    Jane   70
    Alexander          37
    John Jr.          31
    Ann  26
    McCurdy, Alex          53
    Catherine          44
    Mary  16
    John 14
    Charles          84
    McCurdy, Alexander          62
    Cecelia          60
    John 26
    Elisabeth          26
    Michael          13
    McCurdy, Archibald          50
    Jane   52
    Catherine          18
    Mary  16
    McCurdy, Daniel          40
    John 28
    Sarah 26
    McCurdy, Daniel          50
    Margaret          44
    Mary  14
    John 16
    Mary  60
    McCurdy, Duncan          68
    Betsy 66
    Daniel          40
    Laughlin          33
    Cecelia          29
    McCurdy, James          47
    Nancy          43
    McCurdy, James          62
    Nancy          57
    Mary  13
    John 25
    Laughlin          23
    Catherine          19
    Margaret          17
    McCurdy, James          37
    Margaret          34
    Daniel          80
    McCurdy, John          28
    Mary  25
    McCurdy, Mary          67
    McCurdy, Neil          33
    Jane   36
    McCurdy, Peter          60
    Margaret          58
    Rose  27
    McFall, Margaret          57
    McFall, Neil          45
    Margaret          44
    Daniel          18
    Mary  15
    Mary  68
    McGowan, Daniel          49
    Mary  42
    John 19
    Margaret          82
    McKinley, Alexander          45
    Jane   40
    John 27
    McKinley, Finley          50
    McQuaig, Alexander          47
    Elisabeth          18
    McQuiag, John          50
    Nancy          48
    McQuaig, Mary          23
    Morrison, Neil          35
    Mary  32
    James          28
    Ellen 68
    Morrison, Patrick          57
    Wilkinson, Archibald          25
    Ann  25
    Wilkinson, Catherine          34
    Wilkinson, Daniel          30
    John 29
    James          23
    Ana   26
    Wilkinson, John 2nd          48
    Margaret          44
    Margaret          20
    Wilkinson, John 73
    Margaret          70

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