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Over to Inishkeeragh, Ireland

I love looking at maps and finding out the names of places. This is particularly true of the islands that litter the coast of West Donegal near the Rosses. I am always asking my husband, what island is that? He’s usually pretty good at knowing the names (I check on a paper map later). In the summer I spotted a house on a tiny slip of an island to the south of Arranmore.  Can you see it in this photograph below?

View from Arranmore

View from Arranmore

Closer. See it now?

Inishkeeragh

Inishkeeragh

I thought it was just one lone house (was that another house at the other end of the island, maybe?). What glorious solitude! What must it be like to stay on that island all with the spray of the sea so close looking at big Arranmore? This is my painting of the island.  I was curious about the feint outlines of ruined houses I could see either side of the restored summer house. I wondered about them and their families.

Inishkeeragh-001
Over to Inishkeeragh (SOLD)
Map of Inishkeeragh (Google)
Map of Inishkeeragh (Google)

This is Iniskeeragh. Ireland (like Wales) is rich in descriptive place names. They usually describe are named after features of the landscape, such as hills, rocks, valleys, lakes, islands, and harbours. In Irish, its name is “Inis Caorach” which means “Sheep or Ewe Island”. So either sheep were kept on the island (it seems pretty small for that) or its a shape reminded people of a ewe, which might be more likely?

Inishkeeragh (Google)
Inishkeeragh (Google)

After some research (online and in books) back home I discovered that the island had at least 12 families living there permanently, it also had a schoolhouse. I find this incredible for such a small, lowing lying island. It’s 650m x 300m (2132ft x 984ft) in size. I tried to work that out in football pitches. It’s the equivalent to 40 football pitches, so maybe its not as tiny as I think. It is very low. It’s no higher than 11 feet above sea level. Yet you can read their names in the 1901 census here. The family names of the farming families are familiar Donegal ones: Gallagher, Boyle, Sweeney, Rodgers, O’Donnell and a sole Bonner, Grace (35) who was listed in the census as a knitter, she was one of only 2 knitters on the island. 

Ruins on Inishkeeragh:- Photo credit Roger Curry
Ruins on Inishkeeragh:- Photo credit Roger Curry

These Donegal islands may seem remote to modern eyes, but they played their part in the culture and history of modern Ireland.  Gola Island, Gweedore, may well have served as the model for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Two men from Gola, Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan, were aboard the Asgard, the yacht that brought arms into Howth in north county Dublin in 1914, in preparation for the Easter Rising of 1916.  Tiny Inishkeeargh also had its connection with the wider world. Writer and political activist Peadar O’Donnell (1893-1986) was a for a time teacher’s assistant at the school on the island and he set his second novel, The Islanders, here.  Peadar went on to become one of Ireland’s foremost radicals of the 20th-century.

School House:- Photo credit Roger Curry
School House:- Photo credit Roger Curry

Life was tough on the island. Roise Rua described her work on the island kelp-making as “tedious and exhausting”. The tenants had to pay rent of £50: £26 for the use of the land and £24 for the use of the seashore – making kelp, picking winkles or shellfish, dulse and the like.” Sadly, like many other Donegal island communities, such as Owey and Gola, the people of Inishkeeragh was forced to relocate to the mainland in the 1950s.

Inishkeeragh Village:- Photo credit Roger Curry
Inishkeeragh Village:- Photo credit Roger Curry

Sea levels played a big part as at least twice in the twentieth century an exceptionally high tide coinciding with a bad gale forced the islands to take refuge in the two houses that had lofts. They apparently spent hours “in terror, fearing the overloaded floors would collapse.” A storm in 1953 washed away the pier and the government of the day would not pay for it to be repaired. This meant that subsequent storms swept through the houses and within 5 years all the families were forced to leave the island.

Photo Credit: Roger Curry
Inishkeeragh – Photo Credit: Roger Curry

There was a reunion of Inishkeeragh families and their descendants in 2015 on the island. Internationally renowned Country singer, Daniel O’Donnell, was part of the celebrations (his mother was born on nearby, Owey Island).

Daniel O'Donnell and Inishkeeragh
Daniel O’Donnell and the Inishkeeragh Reunion

You can see the photos of the day on their facebook page here. You can visit the island with Arranmore Charters, be sure to book beforehand.

Addition sources for Inishkeeragh (Inis Caorachin) came from:

Atlas of County Donegal, Jim Mac Laughlin and Sean Beattie (2013)

Donegal Islands, Ros Harvey and Wallace Clark (2003)

Roger Curry’s Donegal photos can be found at https://pbase.com/rogercurry/image/51657229

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A Donegal Year: Footnote

This is a footnote to Sunday’s post about A Donegal year.

I had been trying to finish it but the weather and the light were so bad here in Wales over the weekend, I had to leave it until Monday. I struggle to see greens in poor light and as the grass at the bottom of the painting was so important to the success of the image, I decided to wait until I could see it.

Donegal painting of house on Arranmore
Rusty Roofed House (Arranmore)

It’s is such a joy to look at the bright blue skies of Donegal and the wonderful clear light.

See it here 

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A Donegal Year

It was a year ago that I painted my first painting of Donegal. Here it is. It is a small one.
Old School, Owey Island
Old School, Owey Island
It’s quite a modest painting. You could say that I started off tentatively. I was feeling my way. The light in Donegal is very clear and the scenery is beautiful. That’s an overused word in this age of social media, but it is beautiful. My husband, Seamas (he likes counting things) tells me that I have painted over 50 Donegal paintings (including 3 commissions). That pretty much averages out at one a week. I am pleased to say that I have already sold over half of them. I discovered that I had to use a different palette from the one that I use in Wales. The greens and yellows were more yellow ochre than lemon yellow and the sea was more turquoise (but not quite as turquoise as I first painted) thanks to the clear water.  I loved the rocky landscape of the Rosses. It was a landscape like no other I’d seen before. Someone has said to me that it’s quite alien, like a moonscape in places. I love the granite rocks. We have a massive one behind our cottage in Donegal. I feel very affectionate towards it. It’s a protective presence, especially when it’s windy. Of course, when you are in a different country to the one you were brought up in, everything seems fascinating. I have loved painting both the modern Donegal houses as well as the old cottages. I will freely admit I am quite obsessed by landscape spotted with old cottages on the Donegal islands, on Arranmore and Gola in particular.
donegal painting of Gola, West Donegal.
Spring Light on Gola
I haven’t really got to grips with the mountains of Donegal. What I mean is that I need to visit them a lot more, walk up them and get to know them better. So far I have just admired the “Seven Sisters”, including Mount Errigal and Muckish from a distance.
Painting of Irish mountain
Swirling Clouds Round Errigal
Of course, the real joy of Donegal is the clouds. The changes skies. I am used to it raining, (I have lived in Wales for over 25 years) but the light is different by the North Atlantic Ocean. It is often more slivery, and more changeable.   I think about Donegal every day when I am in Wales. My husband will place his current favourite Donegal paintings in the bedroom and in the lounge so he can look at them whilst we still have them. Here’s my most recent painting Donegal painting. I am currently working on a painting of Arranmore Island, unfortunately, it rained so much here yesterday, the light went and I have yet to finish it.
Donegal painting
Back Road to Burtonport
 
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Brightening Up Over Three Cliffs Bay

Here’s a footnote to Sunday’s post about waiting for gaps in the clouds. The sun was peeping over the top of the three peaks, illuminating the edges beautifully. I particularly liked the way the sea and the river, Pennard Pill, merge here. It’s not clear where saltwater and freshwater meet.

Painting of Three Cliffs Bay Gower
Brightening up Over Three Cliffs
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A Gap in the Clouds

Great Tor, Gower painting by Emma Cownie

I used to like painting landscapes and cityscapes with clear blue skies. I waited for the bright sunny days of early summer to walk around, taking photos and looking for inspiration. Thus, my series of urban minimal paintings of Swansea, made the town look a bit like a Mediterranean location!

What a joke. It rains a lot in Wales. It has rained incessantly for the past two days. Since my extended visits to Donegal, however, I have become increasing inspired by cloudscapes and the silvery light along the Atlantic coast. With my “new eyes” I have started waiting cloudy days in Wales to go out looking for inspiration. Not overcast days, but days with patches of blue sky and sunshine.

I drove down to Pennard, with the idea that I wanted to paint Pennard Pill, the river that follows into the sea at Three Cliffs Bay. The BBC forecast claimed that it would be sunshine and clouds all morning. When I looked at the Mumbles and Caswell Bay webcam, one showed sun and the other was overcast. I set off, anyway. I would go for a walk, regardless. On my way there the sun came and went. As I drove past Mumbles head, I could see it swathed in a light misty cloud. I wondered whether there would be anything to see when I got to Pennard.

Thankfully, the sun was shinning at Pennard as I made down the path that runs alongside the golf club. The tide was coming in and I could just see Great Tor in the distance, through the peaks of dunes. When got close enough for a clear view the sun promptly went in! I looked up at the sky and looked for blue patches. There were quite a few. So I carried on towards Pennard Castle, which is situated on the top the of the high dunes, further inland. I hoped the sun would reappear by the time I got to Pennard Castle. I tried to work out which way the clouds were traveling. Usually, they move from Oxwich Bay towards Three Cliffs. Today they were going the other way. The sun came out a few times on my walk. Just as I was climbing up the sandy path the castle I came out and lit everything up like a technicolor Hollywood film!

Pennard Castle
Pennard Castle

The sun promptly went in again. I stood in the ruins of the castle and waited. I thought about the fairies who had supposedly destroyed the castle with a sandstorm when the lord of the castle had refused to invite them to his wedding party. Eventually, the sun broke through and lit part of the valley below.

Pennard Pill
Pennard Pill

I watched the light move across the valley and the colours burst into life.

Pennard Pill in sunshine
Pennard Pill in sunshine

I then decided to walk back towards the sea and see if I could photograph the three peaks that give the bay its name. The clouds rolled in.

Clouds over Pennard Golf Course
Clouds over Pennard Golf Course

I would have gone home at this point, as there was a cold wind and it was almost lunchtime but I could see bright light off in the distance. It was on the far side of the Bristol channel. I could see a ship on the horizon lit by this light.

Ship on the Bristol Channel
Ship on the Bristol Channel

How wide was this stretch of water? Miles. How long would it take for that shaft of sunlight to make its way over to the Gower coast? A while. So I waited. I am not very good at standing still so I walked around a bit, watching the dog walkers and small family groups vanish from the landscape.

The clumps of large mushrooms spotted about the grassy parts of the dunes, made me think of the fairies again. 

I climbed dunes, trying to decide good locations for photos for when that shaft of sunshine arrived. It was definitely coming my way. A new set of walkers was arriving on the beach. They were all optimists too!

Cloudy Three Cliffs Bay
Cloudy Three Cliffs Bay

Hunger was starting to make itself known. I slouched down against a dune. Patience. Patience. What was the point of giving up now when I had waited so long? Impatience comes from wanting to be somewhere else. I needed to be here now. I thought of a line I heard Van Morrison sing at his 2015 Live 70th Birthday Concert at Cypress Avenue, Belfast “It has always been now” (52 mins into the clip). He’s a genius. He captures the joy of being truly present in the moment. Just as I was saying that to myself when the sun arrived and the technicolor lights were on!

The three peaks
The three peaks

That doesn’t quite capture it. Here let me show you. My view of the world.

A Gap in the Clouds
A Gap in the Clouds (SOLD)

That’s more like it.

Now I could go home and eat lunch. Paint and listen to Van Morrison.

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Over to Worms Head

Painting of Worms Head
I managed to make it down to Rhossili Bay this week. It has been raining on and off for weeks. I have been painting in my attic studio listening to the rain thundering down and I have got quite tired of that sound.  So when I was greeted by clear skies I decided, on a whim, to drive down to Rhossili to see the autumn colours. Rhossili has a wonderful windy wildness to it. It’s unlike the rest of the Gower Peninsula. The trees all lean heavily away from sea and the prevailing westerly wind. As I drove into the village I was caught up in a sheep-jam. A herd of sheep was being moved from one field to another. They were packed into the little road and had stopped the traffic (it was three cars actually). I watched the mob of sheep as they swirled in front of my car and past me. They were Welsh Mountain sheep; only a few had horns. Their creamy fleeces were spotted with brightly coloured red and purple “smit” marks. These are marks painted by their farmers that denote ownership. One moment they were packed around me and the next they had moved on. There was space in the church car park so I parked and put my donation in a slot in the wall. This car park is closer to Rhossili Beach. If I had wanted to walk to Worms Head itself the National Trust Car park with its facilities (loo block and shop) would have been better. From here I walked down a stepped concreted path down towards the beach. It seems strange but I have never walked on this particular path before. I don’t know why. I have always walked parallel to the beach along the cliffs paths (one on the top of the downs and one in front of the rectory). I wrote about the coastal path in several blog posts and in my book, Footnotes: An Artist’s Journey Around the Gower Coast.
Rhossili Bay
Rhossili Bay (View From the Path)
So I followed the path downhill and got a different view of the Worm. The bracken had died back to a wonderful russet colour (one that I associate with wales) and the sea was a beautiful turquoise blue. The tide was out and the tidal island, the Worm (Wurm) rose up above the waves on the horizon. I looked at how the light caught the back of the Dragon and remembered how arduous walking across it was.
Painting of worms Head Rhossili Bay
Over to Worms Head
The walk down to the sea was quite steep but easy. The final descent was down a ramp of gravel.  The vast beach was surprisingly populated for a term-time day in the week.
IMG_7185
Worms Head Rhossili
Of course, I could not pass up the opportunity to visit the remains of the Helvetia on Rhossili Beach. The Helvetia was a Norwegian ship bound for Canada that was wrecked in south-easterly gale on Rhossili Bay over 130 years ago on 1st November 1887.  In the Instagram age, given its picturesque location, its not surprising that it has been photographed and shared countless times. Here’s my contribution to the vast collection of Helvetia photos.
Helvetia
Helvetia with Worms Head
I walk across the beach to bottom of the vast 200-foot cliffs, looking at the colours and light. There are seagulls scattered across the beach and when I turn back I can see the Rhossili Downs and the Od Rectory reflected in the outgoing tide.
Rhossili Reflection
Rhossili Reflection
On the far edge of the beach, I was surprised to discover the remains of another shipwreck in the sand. A bit of online research and I discover that this is Vennerne, apparently, it is known locally as the Vernani, and it was dashed to pieces under the Rhossili cliffs in 1894. Another Wreck on Rhossili Bay Another Wreck on Rhossili Bay There is quite a strong breeze. When the clouds roll in it starts to feel cold. The clouds create a softer light. The grays and purples dominate. I am glad I have my woolly scarf on and start to make my way back to my car. The path hill is pretty steep and the climb warms me up.
Cloudy Worms Head
Cloudy Worms Head
The next day, I am tired from walking across the sand but it doesn’t matter as its raining again.    
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Going large! (Scaling up a commission piece)

Commissions are usually pretty interesting because they will challenge me in some way or another. This particular commission’s challenge was about scale. Now, I don’t usually paint large paintings because I just don’t have the space to store many of them. I have a few but I am not keen to paint many more as and I find it difficult to paint in a crowded attic studio, both on a practical level (if you look at my photos carefully you can see its crowded in my studio) and also psychologically (it starts to bug me).  So if a commission requires me to go large I am quite excited by that prospect. Excited and a bit scared.

This commission was based on a relatively modest-sized painting I had recently painted of Gola Island, Donegal. This is 41x33cm, that’s 16 x 13 inches for non-metric people.

Painting of Gola, Donegal

Up from the Pier (Gola)

As you can see from the studio photo, the original fits on the seat of a chair. It is a favourite of mine. I have many favourite paintings, this is my current one.

The commission canvas size was to be 120 x 80cm (47×32 inches). Which is pretty big for my little studio. The canvas I could cope with, but the cardboard box it was arrived in is annoying me as it’s ended up by the railings by the steps to the attic. It’s in my way.

So I pondered the issues with scaling up this painting. The joy of small paintings is that you can hint at all sorts of things with a brushstroke or two and the brain will do the rest of the work. There’s no hiding place when the canvas is over a metre in size.

Painting of Gola, Donegal
Up from the Pier (in-studio)

So the first change in my approach was scale. I printed out my reference photo on a much larger piece of paper. My original photo wasn’t much bigger than 10cm (4 inches) square. Don’t ask me why. I like to print off a lot of images at one time and then ponder which one I want to actually paint. For the commission, the photo was closer to A4 size (7×11 inches) and amazingly, I could see much more detail! So I focused a lot of attention on the buildings and caravan on the horizon. I paint with a small brush get the details of the light on the houses and ruins.

Painting of Gola, Donegal
Sketching out the commission

I generally work from left to right when I am painting so as not to smudge work with my hand and the next part I worked on were the rocks and the grassy verge to the left of the track. The real joy of painting vegetation in Donegal is the many varied greens and yellows. I love picking out the different hues. I have to make sure that my colours match the colours in the reference photo as closely as possible. It sounds daft, but I hold up the paintbrush next to the photo to check I have the right tones.

The grass and bracken in the main part of the painting were carefully reconstructed. Saying that I use much larger brushes than I do for my smaller paintings. I make sure that blocks of yellow ochres and green grass or darker bracken are in the right place. There are both warm and cool greens here. There are splashes and smudges of oranges, pinks, jade and turquoise in there too. I am trying to convey not only colour but the shape of undulating land; where the grass has grown up and in some places, covered completely the old stone walls. The island is covered in lots of wooden fence posts, but I don’t want to paint in all the wires as the eye wouldn’t see them all in that much detail so I pick out just a few of them. I wanted to recreate the spirit of the smaller painting rather than create a new painting so I have to adjust a few patches of grass, on the left-hand side of the painting, so their bluish tones echo the first painting and balance the colours in the whole. The tiny golden yellow flowers that are gathered at the bend in the pinkish track are added.

The sky is painted last. Sometimes I paint skies first, especially if it is a cloudy or stormy sky, but in this case, it’s a blue powdery summer blue and it comes last. It has the effect of bringing the whole painting together.

Painting of Gola, Donegal

The commission next to the study painting of Gola

So the final stage is to sit with the painting and check that it has the same “vibe” as the smaller study painting. I think it has. I regard it as a big beast, but one I like.

I wonder what it would be like to have a massive studio where you could store bigger paintings? Would I paint larger paintings? Well, in the winter when light is short I would still paint smaller works that could be completed relatively quickly, but in the summer months when I have acres of daylight? You bet.

Painting of Gola, Donegal
The artist (*ahem*) with the two paintings
Painting of Gola, Donegal
The Commission piece finished 120x80cm

 

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Looking the Other Way

People in Stroud by Emma Cownie
Painting of people on a bech in Stroud
Looking the Other Way

I needed to paint this picture. I have painted a lot of landscapes lately and I was missing the challenge of the human form. Or rather painting light on their clothes and faces.  I was spending the week with my parents who live near Stroud. My favourite day for street photography is on Saturdays when there is a farmers’ market and there are lots of people and dogs. I like painting dogs in particular. These three friends were enjoying the autumn sunshine on a bench in Stroud. I liked how they sat close together. Are they related or just friends? The two on the left have a similar style. Perhaps they are married? The street is very steep and although the bench is level, its always as if gravity has pulled the three of them to one end of the bench.

I loved the colours of the woman’s green mac and purple hats and how they worked so well with the men’s pink and blue tee shirts. They seemed to sit in a comfortable silence a lot of the time. The pigeons were not important. They were just hanging around. People often eat here as a baker’s shop is near by. The pigeon in the foreground was in the process of stepping forward, and she is forever preserved as if she only has one leg. When  I lived in London, a couple of decades ago, I often saw pigeons with toes and feet missing. They were presumably eaten away by a sort of pigeon leprosy, so I always delight in seeing a pigeon with healthy feet. The man in the pink top looks down, is he looking at a pigeon or just lost in thought. Later on, I spotted this trio walking around the town, the lady in the green mac still in the centre of the trio. On another visit later in the week, the man in the flat cap was sitting on the same bench on his own.

 

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Art of the Protest

The Art of the Protest

My career as a student activist was a decidely inglorious one. I was a lazy student when it came to protests and demonstrations. I think I may have gone on maybe three or four demos in all my time as a student. Some of them were protests about against introduction of student fees and a later one was against the building of the Cardiff Barrage.  I caught a bad chill after getting soaked at one demo in London and was ill in bed for a week.  Sadly, I never had the courage/organisational ability to make my own poster or banner. That takes thought and effort. So I’d end up holding a boring printed poster made by some radical left-wing organisation that didn’t quite sum up my sentiments. So I am always very interested in what people put on their home made posters. I wrote a some blog posts about Art and Protest in Art of the Protest (also in Germany & China) quite a while ago, but this is about a homemade protest.

On Friday there was the global Climate Strike to protest about the climate crisis. I had no thought of going along until I heard the day before that adults were asked to attend too.  There were hundreds of people of all ages in the centre of Swansea. The fact that it was a hot sunny day in late September, just seemed to illustrate what is going wrong with the climate.  Extinction Rebellion had a big presence, many of its supporters were carrying homemade drums (made from plastic washing up bowls and dustbins). They have a clever logo which is a clever play on the “X” in Exctintion and an hour glass, implying that we are running out of time.

There is an Extinction Rebellion sticker is at the bottom of the poster
There is an Extinction Rebellion sticker is at the bottom of the poster

I know a Swansea artist,  who has given up painting to direct all her energies into working for this environmental group that believes in non-violent protest. They divide opinion, even amongst  environmentalists, who say that their activities may be cause the government to increase anti-protest legislation rather than focusing on tackling climate crisis. Yet, they were only one of many organisations that came to their protest. There were people from political parties, trade unions, the Quakers, the Wildlife Trust, as well just ordinary people. One of the student organisers, who was one of the stewarts,  worked with Swansea Trades Council. He said they’d been planning this protest for months and he was delighted at the numbers who had turned up.

Here are a selection of the wonderful homemade posters. I particularly liked the ones made by children. They had clearly spent a lot of time designing and making them.

#8

Made on a pillowcase

#2
Beautifully made banners

Teenagers’s posters tended to be simpler with clear and heart-felt statements

#10
Small but beautiful!
#16
Just in case you wanted to criticse her for missing school…

The rally then morphed into a march that wound its way through the busy shopping streets of Swansea.

#19
3-D!

Stopped some traffic…and ended up outside the guildhall where anyone in the crowd was invited to step to say a few words. So they did. Young and old.

Although it wasn’t planned the march ended up inside the Guildhall inside the Council chambers. I think the protesters just asked to be let in and the security guards let them. This was later reported in the local newspapers as the protest “occupying” the council chambers and the police removing them.  It was hardly, that. It was a bunch of well-behaved kids, and a few adults. Some of the adults and kids said a few words including part of a speech by climate activitst Greta Thunberg. Although we probably had all had heard her say those words before, they were still moving. We all then filed out, chanting and druming all the way. There were some police near by, chatting to each other, in their van. It was very benign. You can watch a clip of it on the BBC website here. It was much more fun than my student day protests!

So it seems that protests and posters are like a good party. They need a fair bit of preparation. You hope people will turn up. Finally, you probably enjoy other people’s far more than your own!

#27
In Swansea council chambers.
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Tory Island, Donegal

Tory Island Donegal, paintimng by Emma Cownie

The ferry to Tory Island runs all year round. In the summer months (June onwards) there are extra sailings. We had decided to get an early boat as Seamas, my husband said the weather forecast was for sunshine in the morning, cloudy around midday and then sunshine in the afternoon. I think we are learning to take weather forecasts for Donegal with a pinch of salt. Some forecasts for “cloudy” days translate into blue skies with a few clouds, others into a damp drizzle. We were optimistic but when we arrived at Magheroarty Pier it was overcast. Once we had parked in the generously sized car park, we had to hurry to get the boat.  Magheroarty Pier is tidal, so sailings have to leave on time, time and tide wait for no man, etc.

Car at Magheroarty
Car at Magheroarty (Muckish Mountain in distance)

We were not quite the last people on the boat but all the downstairs seat were full so we stood on the top deck, me leaning against the body of the ship and Seamas found a large metal box to sit on, the dogs sat close to him. We could feel the movement of the boat as soon as the ferry left the shelter of the harbor at Magherorarty and at times we had to hang onto a metal grill that housed a lifeboat ring.

Queen of Aran - Ferry to Tory
Queen of Aran – Ferry to Tory

Two men who were standing nearby to us were talking to each other in Irish. Tory Island is probably the strongest Irish-speaking area in the country.  It sounded a bit like a Scandinavian language at times – a third Irish speaker stood to one side, listening. They each looked very different from each other in appearance, one was very blonde, one was dark-haired and the third had white hair.  The dark-haired man had freckles and light eyes. It is a “look” I have seen a lot in Donegal, Seamas says it’s common in County Derry too.

Map of Tory Island
Map of Tory Island

The trip took just under an hour. The motion of the boat made me feel quite ill by the time we reached firm land. I think being on the top deck made me feel the motion of the baot more than if I have been on the lower deck. It took me at least 30 minutes to shake the feeling of a dodgy stomach. Someone, later asked if we had felt ill on the crossing, and laughed when I said I had. It’s not unknown.

One of the tors of Tory Island
One of the tors of Tory Island

Tory Island lies 8 miles off the coast of Donegal. The origin of the name of Tory Island (Oileán Thoraí in Irish), isn’t universally agreed on. Yes, the word Tory may come from from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe; modern Irish tóraí; meaning a robber or bandit. Ever wondered why one of the oldest British political parties, the Conservatives, are also known as the “Tories”?  The term was originally a term of abuse and meant “an Irish rebel”. The insult goes back to the era of Oliver Cromwell’s brutal campaign in Ireland when a band of Irish guerilla fighters was known as Tories.

Another explanation for the name, however, is that it may mean the “island of Tors”.  The shape of the island from a distance is a tower, and its northern coastline is peppered with massive tors. This seems just as likely. I suspect that people, however, prefer the story of the name meaning Pirate Island instead of the Island of Tors as it’s more exciting. The remote location of the island has meant that the islanders have had (and continue) to rely on their ingenuity and resourcefulness.

An Baile Thiar
An Baile Thiar

They have lived on the margins of the so-called “civilized world” and kept to their own rules and customs, which were not necessarily those of the mainland. Famously they refused had fallen behind with their rents and rates and a British gunboat, HMS Wasp, was sent in 1884 to forcibly collect the arrears and evict the tenants. Luckily for Tory, it hit a reef near the island and sank rapidly (not so good for the 52 who died). The locals put this stroke of fortune to the power of their cursing stone! This event is one of many Donegal stories about the spooky powers of Tory Island. You can read more in the National Folklore Collection UCD Digitization Project.

One custom that marks Tory as different from Ireland is that they have a king. It’s not a hereditary position, rather one chosen by consensus as a leftover from the days of Gaelic chieftains. Patsy Dan was asked to become king by the children of the previous king Padraig Og Rodgers in the 1990s.

King of Tory (from Wikipedia)
King of Tory (from Wikipedia)

He was a talented musician and painter and acted as a very successful ambassador for the island. At a young age, he had befriended English artist Derek Hill, who regularly painted on Tory and he helped set up a gallery on Tory, where island artists sell their work. He was clearly an energetic man, as was known for personally greeting all the visitors to the island as the ferry arrived from the mainland. He apparently made a point of shaking hands with visitors and saying “Welcome to my island.”

Sadly, Patsy Dan Rodger, died last year and now rests in the churchyard. I saw his grave decorated a wooden cross and with stones around it. I did not take a photo because it felt like it would be an intrusion on the island’s grief. The island is without a king for the time being.

Painting by Patsy Dan Rodgers
Tall Cross with History on Tory

The island itself is a strange mix of very old and modern. People have lived here for over 4500 years. There are a few old cars and vans driving back from the harbour after picking up stuff at the pier.

Tory feels a long way from the mainland, although you can see the coast of mainland Donegal when the weather is clear. It is less than 2 miles long and only half a mile wide. My overwhelming first impression (once the cars and vans had driven off) and we had walked out of the tiny West Town (An Baile Thiar) was of birdsong.

Sparrows, larks and other moorland birds just singing their hearts out. The landscape is full of bold little brown birds, pipits and larks. Some of them even come near to you and sing, possibly as a challenge. We walked along a single tracked road eastward towards the other settlement or “clachan” on the island.  We passed a Second World War torpedo that had been painted bright red and erected by the side of the road.

Tory Island
Tory Island (mainland Donegal in the distance)

I marveled at the ground on Tory. To the south of the road, it seemed to be a dried bog and the north it was very stony ground, reminding me of a hardcore carpark. How had anyone, let alone over 200 (at one point it rose to 400) islanders managed to eek a living from such a tough terrain? I have looked at the small stony fields in Galway and thought how tough life must have been for the farmers, but this was much worse. The potato was a versatile crop and remarkably the blight that brought the Great Hunger to mainland Donegal, did not reach the island. Of course, the Tory islanders did not live from farming alone, they were also fishermen and brewers of poitin whiskey.

There was a group of German tourists ahead of us (they all seemed to be wearing blue jackets for some reason). They veered off the road to the left towards what looks like a dip in the earth. We followed them, so see what they have gone to look at and discover that is a massive hole with a cave down to the sea. I would not have guessed this was here from the road.

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Cave to the sea

We carried on up to the northern edge of the island. What a view! I am not good with heights as the best of times and I felt quite ill looking over the edge. I lay down on the grass to take photos.  The reddish cliffs and cream coloured sea stacks were stunning.

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Tory Island Sea Stack

 

Painting of Tory Island
Tory Island

 

We spent a lot of time walking along the cliffs and back again, taking in the views.

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North Coast of Tory Island

 There were sea birds flying and squawking. Lots of gulls and razorbills and one lone puffin to be seen. The birds of Tory are the highlight of the visit for me.

We then find the weather has closed in on us. We could see the mist and cloud descending on the lighthouse to the west of us, at the other end of the island. I’d foolishly hoped it would stay on that side of the island!

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On the island, weather changes from moment to moment. I am reminded of the sign outside Derek Hill‘s house warning that “Winter weather can happen at any time in Donegal”. Yes, it can.

Mainland Donegal has vanished in a cloud of rain. We get increasingly damp, but not quite soaked through.  There’s no shelter anywhere. No trees. No bus shelters (what an utterly daft idea, here). We have a lively discussion about the conditions (I keep thinking of that weather forecast of sunshine in the afternoon) and I optimistically suggest that it will pass soon enough. I am encouraged by the fact that the group of German visitors (off in the distance) haven’t given up and are scaling the heights of Ardil Iril, and are looking over the cliff. So we carry on and by the time we reach Port an Duin, which has a small concrete pier, the rain has halted.

Old winding gear at Port an Duin
Old winding gear at Port an Duin

We sit down on some rocks and eat our sandwiches and crisps. The dogs get some too and a drink of water from their bowl that I am carrying. The weather brightens up considerably as we climb up to the highest part of Tory. This is Dun Bhaloir (Balor’s Fort), which is an early Iron Age Fort, which is covered in piles of massive rocks, which were part of the defenses. Balor apparently was a fearsome cyclops warlord who could kill a man dead with a single glance of his evil eye! 

On Dun Bhaloir, Tory Island
On Dun Bhaloir, Tory

From here we can get a view of the rest of the island snaking off to the west. It has brightened up now and we take off our coats. The dogs are getting hot and panting. 

Tory Island From Dun Bhaloir
Tory Island From Dun Bhaloir

There’s a discussion about the return time of the ferry as Seamas’s smartphone has died (and I don’t have one). We’d asked about the times when we got off the ferry but after the long walk we aren’t sure of what we were told, was it 2.30 or 3.30?  We could see the ferry heading back to the mainland at 1.30 so I reason that it will be at least 2 hours before it returns. However, we would easily be able to see it returning so we would just need to keep an eye out for it.  So we started plodding back to An Baile Thiar and the pier.  We were all very tired now. So we start the walk back to the harbour in An Baile Thiar.

Bench on Tory
Bench on Tory
Home maintenance on Tory
Home maintenance on Tory

We made it back to An Che (the pier) and could see the approaching ferry in plenty of time. I got some extra water for the dogs from a tap in the parish hall. This time we got seats on the ferry so I don’t feel queasy on the journey back. The German tourists are also on the ferry.

As we were coming towards Magharoarty harbor, three dolphins surprise us all appearing in the sea alongside the ferry. I saw a flash of strong blue-grey bodies and then the three of them arching in and out the water behind the ferry. All the passengers on the boat were very excited (as was I). These are my first wild Donegal dolphins. I spend a long time looking at my photos afterward, reliving the experience. I wish the photos were better.

Three dolphins from a distance
Three dolphins from a distance
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Closer Up: Donegal Dolphin

I left with an impression that Tory wasn’t like the other Donegal islands. It felt a lot further away from the mainland for a start. Life was (and probably still is) tough here. When the rain covered the island we might as well have been a thousand miles from the mainland. I know that is true of all islands to some extent, but you really felt it here. We visited in summer, I can hardly imagine what it is like in the winter, surrounded by the raging Atlantic Ocean.  I didn’t get to speak to anyone, beyond a “hello” but the islanders are very clearly very independent and resilent.  Looking over my little guide book to Tory I realise that there was lots more to see on the island, that we didn’t have the time or energy to see, namely the lighthouse on the west end of the island, Derek Hill’s painting hut, the Art Gallery, or the round tower or the curious T-shaped “Tau” Cross.Next time, I visit, I will bring more sandwiches and a hat in case it rains again.

Find out more about visiting Tory Island here