Rathlin Island is used as a sanctuary because of its natural defences and rocky shores. In earlier times, when the wind blows from the west it is almost impossible to land a boat. It is also respected as a hiding place, as it is the one-time abode of Saint Columba. Installing themselves in Rathlin Castle (also known as Bruce’s Castle), the MacDonnells of Antrim make Rathlin their base for resistance to the Enterprise of Ulster. Their military leader, Sorley Boy MacDonnell (Scottish Gaelic: Somhairle Buidhe Mac Domhnaill) and other Scots have thought it prudent to send their wives, children, elderly, and sick to Rathlin Island for safety.
Acting on the instructions of Sir Henry Sidney and the Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norreys take the castle by storm. Drake uses two cannons to batter the castle and when the walls give in, Norreys orders direct attack on July 25, and the Garrison surrenders. Norreys sets the terms of surrender, whereupon the constable, his family, and one of the hostages are given safe passage and all other defending soldiers are killed. On July 26, 1575, Norreys’ forces hunt the old, sick, very young and women who are hiding in the caves. Despite the surrender, they kill all the 200 defenders and more than 400 civilian men, women and children. Sir Francis Drake is also charged with the task of preventing any Scottish reinforcement vessels from reaching the island.
The entire family of Sorley Boy MacDonnell perishes in the massacre. Essex, who orders the killings, boasts in a letter to Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s secretary and spymaster, that Sorley Boy MacDonnell watched the massacre from the mainland helplessly and was “like to run mad from sorrow.”
Norreys stays on the island and tries to rebuild the walls of the castle so that the English might use the structure as a fortress. As Drake is not paid to defend the island, he departs with his ships. Norreys realises that it is not possible to defend the island without intercepting Scottish galleys and he returns to Carrickfergus in September 1575.
(Pictured: the ruins of Rathlin Castle)