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