A Rugged Beauty With a Pirate Past


"...like it or not, we are, all of us, Tory Islanders under the skin."  

          -- Marius O'hEarcain

The remotest of Ireland’s inhabited islands, Tory has Neolithic and Bronze Age roots and a fascinating mythology all its own. But for the past several decades the Island has been feeling its way into the Big World, venturing into new, uncharted waters: it’s become a tourist destination and home to an indigenous artist colony. Year-round ferries from Bunbeg and Magheroarty in Donegal carry tourists and islanders to and fro, barring occasional interruptions from “perfect” and imperfect storms. A helicopter from Falcarragh sets down on a makeshift Island pad every other week. Tory is still Irish speaking – natives there speak a dialectal variant of Ulster Irish – but the island is not just another Gaeltacht gem, it’s a rich repository of Irish culture, an archaeological and anthropological treasure.
    Isolated on the Celtic fringe for centuries, Tory offers unique insights into Old Ireland and early Irish society. It preserves traditions and remnants of traditions: storytelling and song long gone from the mainland, rundale farming, naming systems, kinship patterns, marriage customs, bi-lateral inheritance, and more.
    Tory Islanders, like islanders elsewhere, are resilient and fiercely independent. Patsy Dan Rodgers is the current King of Tory, a position that may, in fact, be a latter-day holdover from the age of the Gaelic chieftains and brehons. (The office is not hereditary it’s kingship by consensus). In addition to being island spokesman, Patsy Dan is an affable “man for all seasons”: painter, musician, storyteller, fisherman, and guide. He welcomes visitors to his island, referring to mainland Ireland as “the country.” “Always a pleasure to welcome people from the country here,” he says.
    Islanders heading to the mainland for the day, talk of “going to Ireland,” and Maire Clar McMahon, an Island teacher, tells of a youngster who when asked to describe Ireland wrote, “Ireland’s a large island off the coast of Tory.” And, in a way, that’s how Tory people see themselves.
    Nearly three miles long and a little over a half-mile wide, Tory has a population of about two hundred, depending on the season or who is asked. In pre-Famine times there were perhaps as many as four-to-five hundred living in three or four clachans, distinctly Irish cottage clusters appropriately named East Town, West Town, Middle Town, and New Town. By 2002, population had declined and was concentrated in An Baile Thiar (West Town) and An Baile Thoir (East Town).
    In ancient times West of Ireland islanders, and Tory Islanders in particular, were typecast as wicked Formorian pirates, as smugglers and thieves living by stealth and the law of wrack. Though the island likely takes its name from the high torrs at its Northeast corner or from tor ri, “the king’s tower,” in Irish, the word toraigh means “robber” or “bandit.”
    Not only that, but T.W. Rolleston, in his once popular Myths and Legends of the Celts, tells us: “The stronghold of Formorian power was Tory Island, which uplifts its wild cliffs and precipices in the Atlantic off the coast of Donegal – a fit home for this race of misery and horror.” The text goes on to describe Islanders as “huge, misshapen, violent and cruel.” But that is, of course, pure fiction – legend and invention.
    The reality is that, going back more than four thousand years, Tory Islanders have been farmer-fishermen, monks, currach-builders, poitin-distillers, kelp gatherers, spinners and weavers, warring occasionally with aggressive interlopers and an unpredictable, tempestuous sea. Braving sometimes forty-foot waves, force-nine gales and sub-zero temperatures, men and women of “Toraigh na dTonn,” the Tory Island ferry, have carried on.

A Rich Mythology and a Modern Day Saint
    The island’s landscape is steeped in mythology and folklore. It is said that Balor of the Evil Eye, a mythical Cyclopsean giant and demon deity of darkness, made Tory his island and Tor Mor, a tower on Tory, his fortress. That mythological tale, preserved as it is in living folklore, has many variations, and Islanders have been  known to regale visitors with Balor stories and tales from the Celtic myth-cycle, pausing dramatically to gesture towards Tor Mor or Balor’s Fort or stone effigies of Balor’s soldiers in nearby rock formations.
    Those telling the story may sometimes even suggest that the old gods may not be dead, just napping. Storytelling is, after all, high art on Tory.
    Since Old Balor’s day, a lot has happened on the island. It’s said Colmcille himself established the mid-sixth-century monastery that dominated Tory life for more than a millennium and served as an important house in the Columban church. There’s little physical evidence of the monastic foundation now, other than the ruin of a sixth or seventh-century bell tower, outlines of chapels and oratories, and the symbolic twelfth-century Tau Cross.
    In spite of the very few references in the Irish Annals, it’s difficult to imagine, especially given its isolated geographic location, that Norse raiders didn’t pay frequent plundering visits to the Tory monks or didn’t enslave them, as they did those on Iona. However, there’s but a single story of an attack by “Danes” (Norse) in Tory folk memory.
    In 1595, the island was, we know, overrun by English army despoilers who pillaged and destroyed more than a thousand years of monastic continuity. There are, of course, other memorable events associated with Tory history: the vicious slaughter of O’Doherty and O’Donnell forces on the island in 1608; the final naval encounter of the 1798 Rebellion, fought within sight of Tory; and the wreck of “HMS Wasp,” a British gunboat on an eviction and tax-collecting mission in 1884. The Islanders credited the power of prayer and their “Cursing Stone” for the taxmen’s “terrible misfortune.”
    Tory Island has also escaped more recent calamities, like the Irish government’s evacuation and relocation scheme. In 1974, after a nearly eight-week storm mercilessly pounded the island, cutting off food supplies and communication, it appeared Tory’s fate was sealed. Off-shores, like Inishturbot and Inishbofin, were doomed, but Tory simply would not die.
    Enter Diarmuid O’Peicin, feisty Jesuit and parish priest of Tory, to champion the Islanders’ cause.  On arrival in 1980, Fr. O’Peicin vowed to go down fighting. Highlighting the plight of the Islanders, taking their cause to the European Parliament and the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress, the determined priest called attention to the Irish government’s “benign neglect,” and raised funding to help underwrite ferry services and an electric power station. Cottage industries and an Island Co-op added to Tory’s fiscal stability.
    Nonetheless, offers of government housing on the mainland and memories of the ravages of “the Great Storm” drove some island families to relocate, many to nearby Falcarragh. Frank Dolan, writing in The Irish Post, called the unfortunate affair “a mighty battle against all the odds.” It was, in fact, a Pyrrhic culture-shattering victory, but, in the end, the Islanders would persevere.