A Rugged Beauty With a Pirate Past
Tory Island lies nine miles off Bloody Foreland on the Donegal coast – a rugged, treeless, windswept Atlantic outcropping with striking, near-preternatural beauty and a long, fabulous history
Of Art, Artisans and Artists
The island has had its share of talented artists – accomplished musicians, sean-nos singers, dancers, and storytellers – though, in more recent years, the traditional arts have been eclipsed by “mainland arts.”
It’s said that when the English artist Derek Hill came to Tory in1956 and set up his easel to sketch the landscape, he was confronted by Jimmy Dixon, an unimpressed local who informed Hill that he (Jimmy) could do better. And, on Hill’s successive returns to the island, he found others who said they could do
With the most rudimentary art supplies, Jimmy Dixon and others worked and reworked canvases, using ordinary house paints to produce startling visual representations of Island life. Hill was astounded at the raw talent shared among the islanders, he must have thought Tory a place that bred artists. His own portraits of the Islanders have been judged among his finest works.
A second generation of painters – Patsy Dan Rodgers, Ruiari Rodgers, Michael Finbar Rodgers, Anton Meenan – followed in the 1970s and 80s, establishing the now well-regarded Tory School. Their paintings capture a sometimes romantic, mystical Tory, as well as a Tory that’s bleak and threatening. Works by these and other Tory artists have been exhibited in European galleries and are found in major private collections. The Dixon Gallery on the Island also houses many of the Islanders’ best pieces.
The Traditional Arts
Song, dance, and storytelling are, it seems, ingrained in Tory life. Singers and dancers, renowned for renditions of “An Maidrin Rua” and other Island favorites, are fondly remembered. At the fireside in the Ostan Torai, the island’s only hotel, the Doohans, inn-keepers whose families go back centuries on Tory, make mental notes as a local historian recounts a litany of shipwrecks that brought the Islanders occasional “gifts” of wood, coal, cloth, and foodstuffs . . . and of the landlords – good, bad, and indifferent – who attempted reforms of a rundale farming system that cut deep into the fabric of Tory life.
A folklorist from Dublin collects folk remedies and cures and learns of the power of blessed Tory clay and poitin in banishing spirits and of the curse of red-haired women on fishermen. She shows special interest in Colmcille’s holy well.
Though they represent strong Tory traditions, there’s little fishing and lobstering, and even less farming on Tory today: currachs have been retired, West Town and Port Doon piers rebuilt, and shallow harbors dredged. The once self-sufficient economy of the place has changed. Islanders no longer look for seasonal work in Derry or Scotland or far-off England. With improved transport and the technology revolution, they can, at last, have a life on Tory.
Apart from shipwrecks and stray fishing boats, no one “accidentally happens” on Tory Island. Yet, Tory is a place well worth happening on. More than the Arans and other Gaeltacht showcases, it preserves genuine customs and beliefs. Tory is not a mere remnant of an Ireland that’s fast disappearing, it’s living testament to a vibrant language and culture, to a way of life.
The island has, for decades, fascinated anthropologists, archaeologists, folklorists, genealogists, linguists, musicologists, ornithologists, writers and poets. It offers scholars, curiosity seekers and visitors alike not only spectacular vistas and a grand day away from it all, but “the full Irish-Irish experience.” In that, Tory is unique.
Moreover, the Islanders are friendly, hospitable and welcoming; and, if the island is enjoying a kind of cultural renaissance, it is a renaissance now dependent on tourism and art.
Is it a matter of time until tourism fades and Tory artists find more distant subjects? The craic in the hotel bar on any given night – there’s only the one hotel – or in the social club denies that. Tradition lives on in language, music, dance, and in great wonder-tales.
As long as there are fish in the sea and a king with charisma and pride of place, like Patsy Dan Rodgers, the Island will beckon visitors and émigrés to return. And return they will.
The people of Tory have a will to survive – it’s in the genes. There have been dramatic changes since the seventies and eighties – Tory has a modern school, a new community center, a fine hotel, art gallery, and supermarket. Population rises and falls, and adversities come and go, but as long as the Island has a school and children in it, and men and women passionate about life and about their way of living it, there will be a Tory.
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