Nine miles off the coast of County Donegal, you’ll find one of the most remote – and certainly the most intriguing – of the Irish islands; Tory.
Lying at the most northwesterly part of the Wild Atlantic Way, picturesque Tory Island is steeped in history, mythology and folklore, and today is home to a community of artists inspired by its wild and rugged beauty. What’s more, in a nod back to ancient times, this Irish-speaking (Gaelic) community of just over 130 people is led by a king; a fellow islander elected by the people.
Image: Coláiste Phobail Cholmcille
But first; Tory Island’s rich history. Early Irish mythology makes reference to Tory as the stronghold of the Fomorian people; a semi-divine race believed to have inhabited the country in ancient times. In (relatively!) more recent times, an early Christian monastery was founded on the island in the sixth century by Colmcille. Its iconic bell tower survives to this day and islanders recently erected a statue of Colmcille in honour of their beloved saint.
King of Tory – Patsy Dan Rodgers: Celtic Life International
AN ARTIST & KING
Given this fascinating heritage, it’s no surprise that creative types are drawn to the island. Today, a talented community of painters and artists reside there and showcase an impressive body of work in their own gallery; Gailearaí Dixon. The artists, and indeed all the islanders, are led by a locally-elected king; fellow artist Patsy Dan Rodgers. An original member of the island’s School of Art in the 1960s, Patsy’s patron was the late, great artist Derek Hill.
A charismatic character, Patsy personally welcomes visitors to Tory, heading down to the island’s pier as ferries arrive. Last year saw a huge amount of visitors make the trip across the Atlantic. “As King of Tory I personally welcomed roughly 17,000 people on the pier from the beginning of April to the end of September ”, he says. “I would like to invite many more to come and visit, to come out and see the high cliffs, our culture, our dancing, our music and our singing.”
When pressed for his favourite part of his beloved island, Patsy finds it tough to choose! “Oh Lord”, he laughs. “Well, all the island is my favourite of course, but the lighthouse and our little chapel, and really the history itself – the history of Tory and Colmcille.
The Tau Cross: Historic sites of Ireland
COLMCILLE, CROSSES & THE CORNCRAKE
Take up this invitation and you certainly won’t be disappointed. Make your way to the top of Dún Bhaloir – the legendary fort of Fomorian chief, Balor – and you’ll be surrounded by 90-metre-high cliffs as you gaze out across the wild, roaring Atlantic. Be sure to visit An Chros Tau (The Tau Cross); an iconic cross that dates back to Colmcille’s monastic period. Carved from a single slab of slate, the island’s fishermen pray here before heading out to sea. Afterwards, stroll out towards the west end of the island and visit its iconic lighthouse, built in the early 19th century. The island is also a nature-lover’s paradise and a breeding site for what’s now sadly a threatened species, the corncrake. Hear its unique call between April and September.
Tory Island’s lighthouse: www.geograph.ie
AN EERIE ISLAND TALE
You’ll also find a graveyard with a very mysterious back-story on the island. In September 1884, the HMS Wasp set sail for Tory, with the unenviable task of collecting rent and overseeing evictions. Disaster struck in the wee hours; the ship hit rocks and sank. Though the reasons behind the sinking have never been fully established, many islanders attribute the Wasp’s demise to An Cloch Mallacht; (their Cursing Stone). Dating back to Druidic times, the stone could supposedly be used to release negative forces on enemies. Six Wasp crewmen survived the tragedy, while eight of the dead are buried in the island’s Reilig Ghallda (Foreigners’ Graveyard).
Tormór Ferry: The Far Side of the Sky
If you’re planning a trip to this magical island, be aware that ferries travel daily from the mainland between April and October, and five times a week during the rest of the year. It doesn’t take cars, but the island is small enough to get around by foot (it measures just 5km by 1km). There’s a range of hotels and B&Bs too, offering the perfect base as you set out to explore this unique and stunning slice of the Wild Atlantic Way. Continue your adventure back on the mainland and take in some of these other amazing views, as chosen by Dave and Deb of travel blog The Planet D.