Standing on a lovely elevated site with panoramic views of the harbour and Church Bay is St Thomas' Parish Church which was erected sometime in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, probably in 1812. It occupies the site and retains the name of an earlier church, built in 1722, dedicated to Primate Thomas Lindsay of Armagh, and put up under the patronage of Bishop Hutchinson. From an early date in the eighteenth century the island parish was a vicarage attached to Ballintoy. However, in 1720 the holder of the small tithes, Revd Dr Archibald Stewart gave up his interest, and the great tithes were acquired from Colonel Curry by the Board of Irish Trusts. Following on from this change, resources for the support of a clergyman were available and Rathlin Island was constituted a separate parish. Over the years, it was served by a series of rectors and curates, and has had close association with a few mainland parishes, being finally united with Ballintoy in 1963.
Of single bay in design with adjoining castellated tower, the modern church presents a pleasing exterior finish of basalt and limestone, complimented by timber-framed Georgian style windows. A model of Anglican simplicity, few furnishings decorate the interior of St Thomas' except for a pulpit, lectern, and Holy Table, with some fine carved memorials on walls and a heavy stone font shaped in classical fashion. Other parish treasures include a Communion Plate of considerable antiquity which was made a gift to the parish in 1719. Having acquired funding through grants, subscriptions and heritage support, the church of St Thomas was extensively renovated and re-hallowed in July 2004.
It is believed that St Columba (d.597) visited the isle of Rathlin perhaps on his way to Iona in 563. But it is the labour of St Comgall of Bangor who founded his church here in c.580 - Temple Cooil - that is best preserved in local memory. Indeed, it is on this very site that the modern church of St Thomas rests. Building on this early Christian foundation, a monastic settlement flourished here between the 8th and 11th centuries under the auspices of nearby Bangor. It is recorded that Viking invaders plundered the community here in 790 and 973, and returning again in 1038, they totally annihilated the monastery. Sources indicate that as early as 1306-07 Rathlin Island was recognised as part of the parish of Billy, and no doubt parishioners having been subjected to aggression during the Essex Massacre (1573) and the Campbell Massacre (1642), found some solace in local religious devotion. Thus by 1722 when St Thomas' was recognised as an independent parish, a well established pattern of communal piety was already in place that had its origins many centuries earlier.
Memorials & Tombstones
No precise record exists of the date of the formation of the parish cemetery, but data taken from the gravestones themselves indicates that this place has been used as a burial ground since the seventeenth century, and probably much earlier, given the antiquity of the religious settlement here. The oldest stone appears to be one marking the graves of 'James Boyd, the son of Andrew, Bishop of Lismore and his wife Christina Campbell'. It is dated December 1665. There are both Protestants and Roman Catholics interred in the St Thomas' churchyard, people of foreign extraction, and members of the naval forces and others who have perished at sea. A large number of memorials to the Gage family adorn the walls of the church and more than a dozen people of that surname are buried within the cemetery. Indeed, the Gage name is almost synonymous with Rathlin, the island itself having been in their possession since it was acquired by Prebendary John Gage in 1746. This link between parish and proprietor was strengthened when Robert Gage became curate of St Thomas' in the early 1820s, and rector in 1824. A very distinct and much celebrated wall memorial is dedicated to the memory of Reverend John Martin, 'First Pastor Of This Church' who passed away in 1740; its legend fittingly cautions: 'Remember You Must Die'. It was erected by his son George.
Copyright 2006 - Nigel G. R. Johnston M.A.
Typescript 'Cemetery Inscriptions for St Thomas's Church of Ireland - Rathlin', (Irish World, 1991).
Dr J. E. Greer, Living on an Island: an Integrated Study of Rathlin, (UUC, 1994)
Rathlin - An Island Parish, Church of Ireland Gazette, 1 March 1996.
Louise Elliott, 'St Thomas's, Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland', Country Living,
Information sheet on St Thomas' Church of Ireland - Rathlin Island (n.d.)
John Iliff, History of the Parish and Church of Ballintoy, (Typescript, 1988).