Even by Irish standards Tory (Oileán Thoraí) is an enchanted place. The tiny island about 11 km off the northern coast of county Donegal and considered the most remote of all the Irish islands (at least the inhabited ones). Tory is something special, one of the most remarkable places in Ireland, and just to start with, it is ruled by the last king of Ireland.
Well, he is not a proper king one could say. He doesn’t collect taxes or punishes his subjects but officially holds the title and you may address him as Your Excellency; or simply Patsy. That will do.
Tours and Day Trips Ireland: There are many great tours in Ireland: This link gives a good overview of different tours and excursions
Tory is connected to the mainland by regular ferries. They leave from Magheroarty and Bunbeg. During season the boat leaves 9 and 11.30 from Magheroarty, a return ticket costs 26 Euro. The trip takes more or less one hour but it will depend on how rough the sea is.
Ireland: Important Tours and Tickets
Talking about it; when the sea gets too rough the boat won’t go. That means you could get stuck on the island. Even on a reasonably good day the trip can be challenging for a landlubber. The boat is not particularly big and when it cuts its way through the massive waves of the Atlantic you get an impression how the hamster felt that you put in the dryer when you were a child. It’s fun.
Sometimes – especially during winter when heavy storms approach from the Atlantic – the island is cut off from the rest of the world for weeks. It was particularly bad in 1974. 7 weeks and 3 days lasted the storm. Many people got fed up and left. At some stage in the early 1980’s only 119 people remained on the island. The Irish government tried to convince the locals to abandon the place. They even offered to assist with job offers and free houses. Rumour has that they wanted to use the island as an artillery range. How could they?
Economy wasn’t doing well and maintaining the ferry service and a helicopter for emergencies was expensive. So the bureaucrats in Dublin and Donegal came up with this idea to save a few bugs. Of course they underestimated how stubborn the locals can be and bless them. They stayed and indeed things got better from there. A secondary school was built, a little power plant, running water and even a little sewage-works. Today a paved road connects the two villages on the island and a little hotel welcomes visitors.
All hail to the king
Tourism now plays an important role in the local economy but although over 10.000 people visit the island every year it kept its charm. Arrive as a visitor and leave as a friend, that is their attitude and especially king Patsy does everything he can to make you feel welcome.
When you arrive in the little port the king awaits you and he welcomes every visitor personally. Well, actually that’s not true. He seems to be late all the time. You arrive by boat and a few minutes later you see a man in his sixties running up the peer to do his duty. The monarch is everything you expect. He doesn’t exactly wear a crown but somehow he stands out from the crowd.
King of Tory doesn’t pay very well as in not at all so you do need a second job. Patsy is an artist. He apparently is a well known painter and on top an excellent musician. The local art school – or so I was told – is rather famous. In the 1950ies the English painter Derek Hill visited the island and he founded a art school. When the locals tell the story it sounds like this.
Famous painter Derek visited the island on several occasions to paint. One day a fishermen looked over his shoulder and saw the picture in the making. Confident he said: I can do better. The name of this fisherman was James Dixon and guess what? He did become an artist and his paintings are now in galleries and collections all over the world.
Initially the local style was rather primitive or as it was called naive. After all they lacked even the most basic equipment. The second generation of painters was much starker and defined. Still their subject remained the same: Their beautiful island.
I can’t blame them. Tory is a stunning beauty. The island is about 4 km long and up to 1 km wide. While the western part and most of the south coast is rather flat the north eastern part has some spectacular cliffs. On a sunny day walking along the cliffs is quite an experience.
Looking down you see the mighty Atlantic waves crashing in to little bays, hitting the massive rocks is quite something. I can only imagine how it is like when weather gets rough. When you turn around you see the neighbouring islands Inishbofin, Inisdooney and Inisbeg. At the horizon you see the majestic hills of Donegal. It is beautiful.
I admit when I went there I wasn’t exactly prepared. I kinda missed one of the major attractions – Dún Bhaloir (Balor’s Fort)and the Wishing stone – or I saw it and just didn’t know what it is.
The story goes like this: The evil pirate (or god of darkness) Balor of the evil eye had his stronghold on this natural fortress. Here he kept his daughter Ethlinn prisoner; some associate her with the Celtic goddess of the moon.
From Tory the notorious pirate frequently plundered the mainland. Despite her imprisonment Ethlinn managed to get pregnant and give birth to triplets. One of them – Lugh and some say identical to the god of light and it makes sense if Ethlinn was indeed the goddess of the moon – later killed Balor. A happy end for many and certainly well deserved if Balor was as evil as they say.
I’m not so sure. They also say that Blackbeard was a nasty piece of work but apparently he never actually killed someone. He just looked like Satan on LSD and plundered a little bit which – admit it – comes with the job. Of course he was also a notorious drug addict and drank as if there is no tomorrow but especially the latter does not make him evil.
Back to the subject; the area around Dún Bhaloir is spectacular. It is a little hard to describe but I reckon the pictures speak for themselves. Around there – right at the edge of the cliff – is the infamous Wishing Stone (Leac na Leannán). It is said that a wish is granted to everyone moronic enough to climb it. Apparently you can achieve the same by throwing three stones – one after another – on to it. Since the rock is almost 100 meters above the Atlantic and anything but safe it is normally recommend to try throwing rocks rather than climbing it.
Other places of interest are the Tau Cross right at the harbour, the Round Tower just around the corner and the Old Graveyard. This graveyard is believed to be on the very spot where back in the old days St. Colm Cilles monastery was situated. The saint by the way plays an important role in Tories history. We’ll get back to that.
The Round Tower dates back to the sixth century. It is the only remaining structure from the old monastery and it is said that St.Colm Cille’s bell hung in there. According to that the tower was badly damaged by a bolt of lightening which kind of makes you think. May be all the stories of the old gods – you know Thor and Freya and so one – may be they are true and they didn’t like that the church took over their blessed by the fairies Ireland. It’s just a theory of course.
Another place to visit is Derek Hills hut. The famous English painter spent quite some time on the island and as mentioned id directly or indirectly responsible for the founding of the Tory art school.
Hard to miss are the school, the St. Colm Cilles’s Chapel and the pier. There you can sometimes see Dolphins.
My favourite spot for sunset is the Lighthouse. It was built in the early 19th century by George Halpin. It is 30 meters high only in 1990 became automatic. The walls that support the tower are 2.3 meters thick. It looks as if they wouldn’t take any chances with the heavy storms here.
One rather peculiar attraction is a torpedo. It was washed ashore during the World War and later defused. Only years later a few boys erected the torpedo half way between the two villages and there it remained as a tourist attraction. You can tell how little there is to do on the island when people come up with this kind of idea. When you ask them they’ll probably say: All you can do here is fishing and drinking and it is far too cold for fishing today.
The main reason people come here is not the torpedo or any of the other sights. Tory is a famous spot for ornithologists. They come to the island to watch the various species of sea birds. Apart from about 1 billion seagulls you’ll sea Cormorants, oyster catchers, gannets, terns and with a bit of luck even puffins. I’m no expert on birds but even I can tell there are loads. Because of its location Tory is also popular with migrating birds that rest here on their way south. Also – and this indeed is interesting; rare birds like the corncrake that even in remoter areas of the mainland you’ll have difficulties to find, are common on Tory. If you like bird watching Tory is the place to be in Ireland.
Party with the king
Personally I am more interested in traditional music and culture. Tory is not only part of the Gaeltacht it actually lives it. The king still claims that his English isn’t particularly good because they speak Irish all the time.
During summer there is live music every night in the hotel bar. King Patsy is a pretty good accordion player and needless to say a show man. He even released a record with traditional Irish folk.
In the local Social Club the locals celebrate the Ceilidh, an Irish dance. Besides the regular set dances they also do a few dances that are more or less unknown outside of county Donegal. You’ll enjoy it. And since beer prices are far lower than for example Dublin you might as well save money by enjoying a few more Guinness here rather than in the capital. We sure did.
It is difficult to explain what’s so special about the place but there is something. It is not just another beautiful spot somewhere in the middle of nowhere. May be it is the people or may be it is the magic. Who knows?
The magic soil
There goes the story about the soil. Apparently rats don’t like it. Tory must be one of the few places on earth with absolutely no rats. It is considered sacred. According to the legend St. Colm Cille in the sixth century appointed a guardian of the clay. This honour was given to the respectively oldest son of the Duggan-Clan. Until this very day the tradition is kept alive. In exchange for a couple of whiskeys you can get a few crumbs of the sacred clay from the current guardian. Some see it as a souvenir, some actually believe in it. Fishermen for example always have some in their boat for protection.
And from what I was told the stuff doesn’t just work on the island. Back in the old days people kept taking soil from Tory and put it around their houses to keep the rats out. It seems to have worked but the officials had to put a stop to it. The visitors took too much. At that rate Tory would have vanished by now.
There are also no insects on the island which is quite nice for a change. In some areas of Donegal you get eaten alive by the so called Midges. If it is the sacred clay or just the heavy winds I don’t know. There are also no trees on the island but that’s a different story.
In a way I shouldn’t recommend going to Tory. Tourism is a blessing but also a curse. The thing is I am sure Tory will withstand the temptations to change in order to accommodate more tourists.
The island was under threat a few times in it’s history but somehow it always survived. Just to give you an example: There is the story of the HMS Wasp. It was send by her majesty in London to punish the unruly subjects. After all they kept disobeying her majesties orders and harboured fugitives from the mainland that had escaped the English bailiffs. On top these ungrateful bumpkins hadn’t paid any taxes in years and at least the latter was unacceptable. An investigation was ordered but unfortunately for the queen it didn’t quite work out.
The gunboat sank within sight of the island. There are two versions of this story. Officially it sank because of the treacherous seas around Tory in combination with bad weather and may be a lapse in the – for a sailor so vitally important – art of looking ahead where you are going.
The locals tell a different story. They believe that the fairies sank the boat and as far as I am concerned this is a sound explanation. Tory is a magical place and so it cannot come as a surprise that it is guarded by supernatural forces.
With this kind of protection nothing can go wrong. Tourism will never kill the spirit of this place. And only because of that I tell people about this place and recommend going there.
If you don’t believe in magic I suggest you spend some time here. You might change your mind.
By the way: The eight crewmen that survived the shipwreck are buried on the Foreigner’s Graveyard; another place to visit on Tory.
Places to stay
Teach Bhillie is a hostel and B&B. The owner is friendly; the rooms are basic but very charming. From the port turn left and pass the little power plant and the Round Tower. It is only a few meters. The place is situated directly at the waterfront. Since there are only few beds available book in advance:
+353 (0)74 9165145
+353 (0)87 2987407
Tory Hotel was closed when I was there. It is the number one location on the island and was highly recommended. It also has a pub and live music.
To book: +353 (0) 74 9135920
There are a few more places to stay on the island. For booking info check the Tory website: http://www.oileanthorai.com/index.htm
Ferry info: http://www.toryislandferry.com/
FACTS ABOUT TORY ISLAND:
- Tory belongs to county Donegal.
- It is about 5 km long and 1 km wide.
- App. 150 people live there all year around.
- Tory has a king.
- The officiall language is Irish (Gaelic) but English understood.
- The only way to get there is a boat.
- The dialling code is: 074.