Tory Island and its King
Island is a remote, treeless place lying nine miles off the countys
Our little boat was being thrown about on the ocean like a piece of flotsam.
We stood at the front getting the soaking of our lives. Despite its size,
the ferry negotiated these monstrous waves with considerable ease, and
an hour after leaving we were pulling into the half-built pier on the
remote and wind-beaten Tory Island. We had both read in a book about a
man who lives here who is known to all as the King of Tory, and figured
it would be fun to travel to a remote island off the coast of Northern
Donegal and meet a King. Although, as we stood on the pier soaking wet,
the sky darkening with thick clouds and the rain slowly getting heavier,
we began to have serious doubts about all this; especially as guesthouse
after guesthouse was full with the workmen building the pier.
Three years later I found myself sailing into that same pier on that same
boat. The only difference was the weather. The sun was blazing in the
sky and illuminating Tory and its nice new pier. The crossing had been
perfect, and this time I wasnt wet.
My travelling companion this time around was Nika, a very lovely girl
from Slovenia who I met while travelling Spain the year before. At the
ferry terminal in Magheroarty the lady behind the counter had told us
that the King greets us at the pier, and kisses the girls. Nika had never
been kissed by a King before, so she was quite excited at the prospect.
Tory Island is a remote, treeless place lying nine miles off the countys
northern coast. It is three miles long and half a mile wide. Its situation
in the Tory Sound, a treacherous section of ocean, makes it extremely
vulnerable to bad weather. Overall, it is described as a bleak and inhospitable
place. Nevertheless, it has a population of 170 living in four towns,
imaginatively titled East Town, West Town, Middletown and Newtown. The
island is famous for its school of painters whose work has been displayed
throughout Europe and even in New York. The most famous painter is Patsy
Dan Rodgers, alias the King of Tory.
Getting to Tory Island is a lot easier nowadays due to modern boats; although
the crossing may still be rough enough to upset the stomach of even the
hardiest traveller. The service operates from Bunbeg and Magheroarty on
a daily basis. Magheroarty is the shortest crossing and also runs more
often. The first time around, we hitched, bussed and walked our way there.
Bus Eireann doesnt operate a service this far north, but there are
a few local bus services such as Lough Swilly. This time around I had
a camper van, which made life easier.
Much to our disappointment the King wasnt there to greet us on arrival.
We made our way to the Radharc Na Mara hostel, which is a simple little
house with no signs or anything to indicate that its a hostel. Katherine
runs the place and gave us a room with two beds, sofa, chair and fire
for 12 Euro each. This hostel had been full last time I came and, after
being sent from house to house, we ended up staying with a nice old lady
called Mary Meehan who, for £16 per night, provided us with bed
and breakfast, and even dried our clothes by the fire.
Intending to take advantage of the nice sunny evening, we hiked our way
to the eastern side of the island, which is characterised by high cliffs
that drop off at frighteningly steep angles. The rough sea pounds the
islands jagged edges far below and a vast array of birdlife inhabits
the cliffs, including puffins. An abandoned caravan that had sat alone
in the middle of this expanse of wilderness three years ago was now lying
in the same spot, flipped over and broken into pieces; an example of the
stormy weather this island experiences during the winter.
Back in West Town we ate a cheap meal at the café, accompanied
with homemade bread, and then went to the islands only pub (other
than the hotel bar) Club Soisialta (Social Club) for a drink. It was my
hope that the King would pop in (after all, he is a very down to earth
King and not above drinking with the peasants). And sure enough, he did
and came over to welcome us to his island. He shook my hand, and took
a while to recognise me. Nika had been looking forward to her royal kiss
so much that when the moment came she reciprocated so enthusiastically
that I feared she would give the poor old man a heart attack.
Tory has a long history of having its own King, whose job it is to govern
the island. The title is not totally hereditary, and some Kings have been
elected purely on their skills and personal qualities. When Tory first
opened up to tourism the islanders wanted to appoint a representative
who could help attract visitors. The King was given the task. Patsy Dan
has worked extremely hard ever since, using worldwide exhibitions of his
famous paintings to promote the island.
Tory is steeped in history (its been inhabited for 4000 years) and
the islanders have fought hard to retain their way of life. Even today
the islanders can be cut off for months in the winter. The government
had managed to coerce inhabitants off other nearby islands, but Torys
inhabitants refused to leave. Fishing and farming had long been a way
of life, although both have waned over the years. The locals now rely
a lot on summer tourism.
In the morning the rain was back. In a sense I was quite glad. This is
how I remember the island: cold, bleak and ravaged by the elements. Its
also a reminder that good warm, waterproof clothing is needed. Three years
ago Id set out for a walk along the cliffs without my raincoat.
By the time I got back I was too wet to do anything except sit by the
One road runs the length of the island, at the end of which, I was amused
to see, was a small dirt roundabout. We set out for the western side,
which is flat but contains dangerous offshore rocks. It also contains
the islands lighthouse, which was built in 1828 and fully automated
in 1990. The sea around this little isle is littered with ships that have
fallen foul of its deadly storms; the most famous of which is the British
gunboat, the Wasp, which sank in 1884 while on a mission to collect taxes
from the islanders.
Not having seen him all day, we wandered up to join the King at his palace.
He came out front and greeted us with his usual warm welcome.
I was just off to the gallery to put in a couple of new paintings,
he said, putting them down and suddenly realising that he was also carrying
the remote control for the television. Oh, Ill be back in
a minute, he said, and rushed off inside.
It seems even Kings suffer from absent-mindedness.
He returned shortly after and gave us a couple of posters of the island.
We then chatted as we strolled off towards the gallery. Halfway, he got
into a conversation in Gaelic with some locals, and said he would meet
Tory Island, like a lot of Northern Donegal, is predominantly an Irish-speaking
area. All signs are in Gaelic.
We continued on to the gallery, but not before popping in to see Mary,
whose comfortable home and open fire had saved us from having to huddle
in that abandoned caravan and possibly die of hypothermia three years
The small gallery houses an impressive display of the islanders
paintings. James Dixon is Torys most celebrated painter and died
in 1970. Work is underway to build a gallery for his work alone. We chatted
to the owner who expressed his concern at the downfall in visitors to
the island in recent years.
Not so long ago the island would be dotted with tents in the summer.
Now you dont see any, he said.
It was a shame. Tourism in Ireland was down, and Tory was suffering the
As we set sail back to the mainland and watched as the King waved enthusiastically
until he was just a dot on the pier, we headed out into what was possibly
the roughest crossing yet. The way the skipper swept the boat in and out
of these gigantic waves was testament to his skill and to the safety of
this boat. I stood at the back as the waves crashed over the edge and
the boat rolled from side to side. As I stood there enjoying the ride,
I remembered something Mary had said to me: Dont leave it
three years before you come back to see us again.
I hoped I wouldnt.
© Ian Middleton 2006 update
Ian Middleton Travel Writer & Photographer http://www.ian-middleton.co.uk
http://www.ianmiddletonphotography.co.uk Check my new travel guide
to ancient Ireland: http://ireland.mysteriousworld.com
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