Protecting Rathlin Island’s historic environment

Date published: 15 June 2017

The Department for Communities has recently designated a number of historic sites around Rathlin Island.

Three lighthouse complexes on Rathlin Island, the earliest dating to 1856, have been designated as listed buildings, protecting the key navigational aids of the island, which have been in existence for over 150 years. The earliest, the East Light was designed by George Halpin, who also designed the lighthouses at St Johns Point and the Haulbowline.

The listings include the lighthouses and associated structures such as rocket house and engine rooms. The context of the East Lighthouse - the complete set of light-keepers’ houses - demonstrates the social aspect of lightkeepers and their families and how they lived on the island.   Until the recent inception of GPS navigation, the three lighthouses were of further social and also economic importance in safeguarding passenger and cargo ships passing between Rathlin and Fair Head en route to and from Britain. They were, and continue to be, of strategic economic value to maritime shipping.

In addition the Department has designated the shipwreck of HMS Drake, which lies in Church Bay at Rathlin, a scheduled historic monument. A heavy armoured cruiser built between 1899 and 1902 she was designed for scouting and commerce warfare. The Drake was sunk by a torpedo strike from a German U-boat in October 1917. Despite being later damaged by a fishing trawler that now lies wrecked across her and subsequent clearance operations, the vessel remains are considerable, with elements such as anchors, guns and steering gear clearly visible to divers.

Liam McQuillan, Senior Archaeologist, Department for Communities said: “We work closely with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in the development of appropriate protection measures for marine historic sites of established significance. The designation of HMS Drake affords it recognition as a site of national importance and is key towards preserving an important marine heritage asset for present and future generations. The move to protect this shipwreck also accords with the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which deems WWI military remains to be of cultural, historical or archaeological interest; and shows that Northern Ireland is committed to ensuring that significant marine cultural heritage assets are given the protection deserved.”

It is recognised that the Drake is a popular dive site and this move to protect the wreck will not mean the imposition of an exclusion zone and/or licensed diving which might otherwise hinder responsible public access.

Rory McNeary, Senior Marine Archaeologist, DAERA said: “We fully recognise that the wreck is a popular dive site and draws divers from all over the UK, Ireland and beyond and makes a valuable contribution to the local marine economy. We would actively encourage divers to visit the site, but to take photos rather than souvenirs, so that what remains of the wreck will be there for future divers to enjoy. By affording the wreck protection we hope it will become a focus for understanding, exploring and appreciating the world of 1914-18 and the often overlooked war at sea as well as broaden public participation with underwater heritage.”

Notes to editors: 

  1. The East Light was built in 1856.  It was designed by George Halpin Senior  and it is one of eight such towers still in use around the coast of Northern Ireland, it is unique in originally having had two lanterns to improve its visibility in foggy conditions, and is listed at grade ‘B+’.
  2. The West Lighthouse comprises the lighthouse tower, lantern, engine house, oil store, fog signal house, ancillary buildings, water tanks, platforms, steps, glacis, entrance and perimeter railings fishing ladder and gate posts.  This dramatic lighthouse complex, built in 1912, is unusually complete and retains all its original fabric. The tower is of architectural interest in terms of its utilitarian design enlivened with modest embellishment. It is listed at Grade ‘A’.
  3. The last of the three lighthouses to be built was the South Light at Rue Point dating from 1921.  Also designed by Charles William Scott is unusual in its small size and octagonal shape.  The painted horizontal banding accentuates its distinctive appearance.  Its fabrication in concrete reflects its post World War 1 date (dressed masonry was the norm before this).  Its setting, at sea level on exposed wave-swept rocks, underscores its purpose in warning passing ships of the presence of Rue Point.  The fabric of this structure is completely authentic; it is listed at grade ‘B2’.
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  5. Media enquiries to DfC Press Office on 028 9082 3509 or email:  Out of office hours please contact the Duty Press Officer via pager number 07623 974383

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