Obituary: Tommy Cecil

Thomas John Cecil, ferryman: born Rathlin Island, Co Antrim 25 May 1946; married (three sons, four daughters); died off Islay 21 September 1997.

Rathlin is forever associated with the name of Robert I of Scotland, whose meditations on a spider's web during his bleak exile on a north Antrim island in 1306 endowed folk memory with a metaphor of stubborn endeavour. Tommy Cecil, the Rathlin boatman, shared more than some of the Bruce's indomitable spirit.

Cecil was argumentative and contemplative at the same time. His weather- beaten face, reddened by the stiff breeze on regular ferry crossings of the treacherous strait between Rathlin Harbour and the (theoretically) nearby Antrim port of Ballycastle, was probably the best-known emblem of his beloved little island, for which he was a tireless advocate in the media. He had an intimate knowledge of the waters around Rathlin, which made the swelling sea a bridge, rather than a barrier, between the Rathlin mainland and the offshore islands - Ireland, Great Britain or the Western Isles.

He became famous, or notorious, as the rescuer of Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand, when the Virgin Atlantic balloon slid into the Atlantic off Rathlin's north coast in 1987, but he was known to hundreds of holidaymakers, fishermen and divers as the authority on one of Ireland's most interesting islands. He did not always share the views of his neighbours on Rathlin, but they respected his knowledge and skills and will probably acknowledge, now that he is no longer there to argue with, how much he contributed to his community.

Working in the mid- Eighties for the venerable Northern Constitution and reporting on North Antrim Magistrates' Court, I owe to Tommy Cecil one of my favourite court stories. He was the chief witness for the RSPB, who successfully prosecuted a visitor to Rathlin who had shot a rare bird on Ireland's most hallowed bird sanctuary. The chough in question, frankly a nondescript blackbird with red legs, was produced in evidence, in a plastic bag, with a whiff of formaldehyde. Cecil had been rowing across the bay when he heard a shotgun blast, followed by a splash as the mortally wounded bird fell beside his boat. A keen naturalist, he recognised it as a protected species and brought it back to the jetty, where the shotgun-toting defendant was waiting.

Defence counsel put it to Cecil that, although he heard a bang, found the dead bird and saw the defendant with a shotgun, he could not prove a causal connection. Cecil paused, for just long enough, before dryly observing that in his experience the chough was a species which very rarely committed suicide by shotgun. The RSPB won the case.

Religious belief and secularism were central to Tommy Cecil's public life. Even Rathlin, he argued, should be able to provide integrated, non- sectarian education for its children, and his own seven offspring would be the test case. Labels like Catholic and Protestant were repugnant to him and Mary, his Glaswegian wife, and the education of their children became a cause celebre. They wanted, and eventually won, the right to educate their family outside the sectarianism which permeates schooling in Ulster.

Rescuing Branson from the sea in 1987 was a mere detail in Cecil's life. He would have done the same for anyone who had just crossed the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon before crashing into the ocean. But he made the most of it, with typical unselfishness, persuading Branson to fund a speedy inshore rescue craft for Rathlin. Its maiden trip from Bally- castle, with Branson bouncing over the waves at God- knows-how-many knots and my photographer companion singing "Abide With Me", was a shattering experience for all but the front-seat passenger, Tommy Cecil, who subtly nudged the wheel this way and that through the difficult crossing.

Cecil opened a diving school on Rathlin in the early Nineties and many novice divers owe their lives to him. One reason why the waters around Rathlin are so treacherous is the profusion of wrecks, rich in fish and lobsters for those who know their way around them. Cecil, who supplied the Paris markets with tray after tray of succulent Rathlin lobsters, was a keen and experienced diver. His death, following an emer- gency ascent from an extraordinarily deep dive off Islay - 95 metres, by all accounts - seems inexplicable.

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