By Marcel Krueger
Turning to face north, face the north, we enter our own unconscious. Always, in retrospect, the journey north has the quality of dream.
— Margaret Atwood, from True North
In the year 795, the men of the North came to Rathlin for the first time. The small, L-shaped island off the Antrim coast became the first place in Ireland to be raided by the Vikings. According to the Annals of Ulster, the church and the small settlement in what is the Church Quarter near the harbour today were plundered and burned, the inhabitants slain.
It was not the last time the Norsemen would come. They liked it so much that they decided to stay, some forever: overlooking the harbour and Church Bay, in a field just behind McCuaig's pub (the only one on the island) and the small, so-called Rocket Shed, the former coast guard station, is a standing stone. The stone is not very impressive — a small rough slab of granite, recently whitewashed and much smaller than the football goals standing a few metres behind it in the same field — but it marks a Viking graveyard, which was excavated in 1784. A number of graves formed from rough slabs and covered with large flat stones were found which contained, among other things, a sword, a bronze ladle and a beautiful 9th century silver brooch, made by a Norse craftsman but in a distinct Irish style with the tell-tale organic-looking knot design. It is now in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
1223 years after the men and their dragon boats first came to Rathlin, I made my way there from the opposite point of the compass, in Irish terms at least. From the old Norman frontier town of Dundalk, fortified to protect the Pale from the wild Ulster Irish, via the red brick houses of Belfast and Coleraine, I travelled north, finally crossing Rathlin Sound in the sunshine aboard the new Spirit of Rathlin ferry - which chugs across each day all year round (weather permitting). After half an hour, I dropped my rucksack on my bed in the 18th century Manor House, a guesthouse today. I was north again, and close to its tragedies.
The south never appealed to me. I always preferred the opposite side of the compass, but I could not really say why. For sure not because I have any family ties to it - quite the opposite. I come from a small town in the west of Germany, the nearest coast 200 kilometers and the nearest mountain range over 300 kilometers away. I have the dark features, stocky build, and stubby fingers of peasant ancestors from Eastern Europe, and no one would ever compare me to, say, tall blonde Icelanders or burly red-bearded Scottish clansmen.
And yet, since I was a small child listening to stories, no direction on a map inspired me as much as the North — Norden, Nord. I thrived (and still do) on stories about rain lashing down over moors, ships in distress running aground under cliffs in boiling seas, men with swords stumping through dark woods searching for gold and demons, howling blizzards heaping snow upon large wooden halls while inside, fires are blazing and men and women gulp down copious amounts of dark ales. I admired and devoured all the stories and images I could lay my hands on; I grew up on a steady diet of Tolkien, LeGuin, and Lovecraft, later switching allegiance to Heaney, Icelandic sagas, Rankin. Where in the north these stories took place did not matter - I loved tales inspired by Irish mythology as much as I loved stories about Thor and Loki, or romping through the Highlands with Alan Breck Stewart and David Balfour. Half of that fascination surely is boys' play, the remnant of a fascination for swords, Thor's hammers and the blood eagle; the other half a continuous interest in a societies, landscapes and folklore acutely aware of the fragility of human existence, of it's often sudden and violent end in dark and windswept places. The sun of the south still seems like a false promise, like someone stroking your hair saying there there, it's all going to end well in sunlight and with cicadas and sunsets on the beach. Yet it is not, winter is coming for us and everyone is going to die. And the people up north always new about this, and are reminded of that fact every year when the first storms of the seasons make ferry crossings impossible.
In the cities I’ve lived in so far, I have always ended up in the northern parts: in Cologne in the working class district of Ehrenfeld, in Dublin in a series of shared places and apartments always north of the river, in Berlin in Wedding, north of Mitte, the centre. The same applies, ever since I began traveling, to the choice of my destinations; slowly creeping further north year after year: Belgium, Holland, the German North Sea coast, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland, Iceland. Maybe it is also this preference for North made me choose Ireland as a place to live not just once, but twice so far in my life. Currently I live as far up north as I ever have: the 54th parallel North runs through my hometown of Dundalk, which means that it and I are on the same latitude as the state of Schleswig-Holstein and the island of Usedom in Germany, Minsk, the Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia, and Graham Island in British Columbia.
My search for an ideal north has not ended. Every time I have a free weekend and my wife and I look over maps of Ireland to decide where we want to go, we mostly settle on places north of us: Donegal, Derry/Londonderry, the Antrim Coast. Rathlin became an obvious choice. I've travelled here a few times now, every time discovering a new aspect of the island and myself. First, I treated it as a place to get away from it all, a place where the seven miles of Rathlin Sound help to detach oneself from the worries of the week. And while Rathlin surely has this aspect for many visitors, for the majority of the people here this is not the case. It is, after all, a place of the world. In the end I think I come here because it is one of the more extreme places of my larger island, the northernmost point of Northern Ireland, hammered by storm and rain for six months of the year or more. A place that fits well with my dreams of north.
“North's at the top. It's saying to the world that this is where things stop. Go no further. The world ends here. But, you see, that's not how it was. This wasn't the north of Scotland. This was the southernmost tip of the Viking world.”
— Neil Gaiman, from The Monarch of the Glen
I am not a rugged outdoorsman: while I love hiking in autumn and winter, I love an open fireplace and foaming beer in the pub more. For me, it has always been about the journey north itself, and subsequently being in a place that keeps feeding my fascination. As Anthony Lloyd puts it in My War Gone By, I Miss It So: “It was more my mind-set than geographical position that accounted for my feeling of isolation. It was not necessarily a bad sensation, indeed at times I relished the liberty of my solitude.”
On my last day on Rathlin, this time, I went to see the edge of the world. From the harbour I walked uphill, past the Church of the Immaculate Conception from 1864 and the new Parochial House, until I reached a signposted track across the fields and cliffs that make up the north of the island. I trampled across wet fields and past intrigued cows and then further uphill across grass and bracken, until I finally reached the old coastguard hut that looks out over the North Channel. It's a whitewashed concrete hut built in 1941 with two small rooms, the main one with a view of the sea. The bed, coal oven, desk and telephone lines it contained once are long gone, and the last visitor had forgotten to put the small wooden gate back before the entrance, so a sheep had wandered in and left a big dump in the middle of the room. But there was no stink, so I could sit down, pour myself a tea from my thermos and enjoy the place, and the view. A kind soul had left pencil and sharpener in the hut, and so the whitewashed walls were slowly becoming covered in names (Felipe, 2016) and slogans (We need more love!), with no obscenities among them. But that is understandable: on a good day, when the wind isn’t howling too much, the view will smother any negativity. To the east, picturesquely arranged as a backdrop to the fields and the heather on this side of the island was the black and white East Lighthouse, sending out flashes across the water towards the brown lump of the Mull of Kintyre, clearly visible across the channel. Looking north, I spotted a red oil tanker making its way to the North Channel, to Liverpool perhaps or Dublin, and further north of me was the blurry outline of the Isle of Islay, the two distinct dark shapes of the Paps of Jura rising behind it.
Here was proof there was more north ahead of me. And Rathlin is not really an extreme place on the map, but instead a community in the middle, the places its people travelled to for work and trade or war clearly visible on a good day. When the Vikings came here, they came via the Scottish Isles, and maybe they were searching for nice places in the south and Rathlin promised them better sunsets on the beach.
There is a certain duality to Rathlin which makes it appealing to me. On the one hand, it has all the attributes of a place that enables me to get away from the sorrows on the mainland; the other, i just have to climb any nearby cliff to see its interconnectedness — with the Antrim coast, the isles of Islay and Jura and the Mull of Kintyre. This is not the end of the known world but instead a place that could catapult one right into it. For the moment, for my dreams of the north, Rathlin is as far as I need to go. But it reminds me that I can always go further.
Marcel Krueger is a German writer and translator living in Dundalk in Ireland. He writes mainly about places, their history and the journeys in between. For Berlin – A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B. Tauris, 2016), he has provided new translations of such diverse German writers as Wolfgang Borchert and Joerg Fauser, and his articles and essays have been published in The Guardian, the Irish Times, Slow Travel Berlin, and CNN Travel, amongst others. Marcel also works as the Books Editor of Berlin-based Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, and was a participant of the XBorders Accord project of the Irish Writer's Centre and the Arts Council Northern Ireland. His latest book, Babushka's Journey” The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps (I.B. Tauris, 2017) explores the wartime experiences of his grandmother Cilly in East Prussia and the Soviet Union through a travel memoir.