A Visit toTory Island
By Stephen B. Coleman, Jr
Anticipating an adventure going to Ireland’s beautifully rugged, remote and historic Tory Island, we did not expect to meet a king and become so involved with the islanders. As we witnessed their struggle to maintain their heritage and culture in the onrush of modern society, we realized that the rest of the world shares that same problem.
In July 2010, my wife Sumter and I decided upon a visit toToryIsland, nine miles off the coast ofDonegal, for two days of sightseeing, bird watching and hiking. From Googling on the internet, we learned about Ostan Thoraigh Hotel on the island, called for reservations (074 9135282) for both room and ferry and were all set.
Early on Sunday the eleventh of July 2010 in very stormy weather with winds and rain lashing at our car as we drove into the town of Letterkenny in the upper middle area of Donegal. From there Road N56 narrows significantly, winding through valleys of green pastures and peat bogs, taking us deeper into the rural lowlands, arriving at the northern coast, we wended our way to Magheroarty, a tiny coastal village with massive concrete seawall and pier where a thirty foot motor ferry awaited us. After parking our car and walking down the dock with our luggage, we were greeted by Pat Doohan, the ferryboat captain, and his crewman, William, who helped us aboard. Another couple arrived and we were off, proceeding past the jetty and then past two small inshore islands out to the ocean. Although the strong winds had subsided, the waves had not, charging at us from the northwest and opposed by the now easterly-flowing ebbing current that would reach seven knots, creating a choppy and confused sea, making for a rough forty-minute ride to Tory. More often, the passage between Magheroarty and Tory is relatively smooth. In the winter, however, the seas can be rough enough to prevent crossing for days on end. There is a helicopter, Pat advised, that can be summoned fromDonegalAirportfor emergency medical evacuations.
Despite the rolling and pitching of the motorboat, our attention was upon the island’s unique silhouette rising before us. Punctuated by a lighthouse, the island’s western end appears sloping and flowing down more gently to the sea while to the east great rock promontories, huge massive rectangular shapes jut imperiously into the ocean. The incongruity of its skyline strikes you as strange and, indeed, we soon were to be told the dark legends inspired by those high sinister crags. The main cluster of houses and the port lay along the middle to western end of the island, but two other villages dotted the coastline to the east.
Finally entering the breakwater and tying up at the island, our captain Pat announced that it was now time to meet “the King of Tory” and seek his permission to stay. Actually, we did not meet him until later, and our encounter would be much longer and more interesting than a mere exchange of greetings.
A larger ferry boat arrived from the town ofBunbeg, which lies closer toDonegalAirport, convenient for those who fly in. There were surprisingly few boats in the harbor, a couple of sailboats, a fishing trawler, and the two ferries. Up on the rise above were several older wooden boats that appeared not to have been in the water in recent times. Fishing may have been the major occupation once but did not appear to be anymore.
We walked the hundred yards to Hotel Ostain Thoraigh, passing the ancient “Tau” cross, carved from mica slate more than one thousand years ago and brought to the island, perhaps by St. Colmcille or his monks, about whom we’d learn much more from the king later. At the small hotel we checked in and discovered that its proprietor is Pat Doohan, the very same boat captain who had just ferried us over. Inside at the desk, his assistant, Sophia, a very sweet Slovakian lady who was one of the few of the total population of 150 who weren’t born on the island, showed us a most comfortable room on the ground floor, convenient to the bar and lobby. The hotel presently was being run as a B&B, Sophia explained, offering no food service except breakfast. WhileSumterrested from our journey, I sought lunch and learned that the one and only restaurant was a five minute walk to the west.
Becoming hungry I headed up the narrow little street with whitewashed stone cottages huddling together along the lower island midsection like a covey of birds guarding against the sea to one side and the fields on the other. The road was just wide enough for two cars to squeeze by, just maybe, but since very seldom any vehicle would come by, it was plenty adequate for me to pass the few walkers I met. Everyone spoke, usually with the one-sided head nod and smile characteristic of the Irish. To a man repairing a window on his cottage, I offered the standard greeting, “Not a bad day,”, which prompted him to stop work and provide a three minute discourse on the weather in general and Tory weather in particular.
“T’was as unpleasant last night as any we’ve seen all this past winter. But a stormy June and July it’s been, I’ll tell you.” He pointed to ominous bluish purple dark clouds hanging over mountains on the Donegal mainland. “Hopefully, that’s one we’ll miss.”
His century-old cottage stood right beside the old bell tower that dates to the 12th Century, erected as part of the monastery founded by St. Colmcille six hundred years earlier. Made of grayish round stones and sandy mortar, the tower rises to a height of about thirty feet. The top of its western side has been broken away, likely victim to a very rare lightning strike centuries ago (or perhaps damaged by plundering Elizabethan soldiers in the late 16th Century). Atop the tower a lone seagull was perched, looking much like a sentinel, the on-duty lookout for the island.
Birds abound on the island, going about their lives, barely inconvenienced by the presence of people. Glaucous, Common and Blackback Gulls soar overhead or share the rocky beaches with Oyster Catchers. Gannets, Fulmars and Puffins nest along the cliffs in breeding season. Inland the fields abound with Martens and Wagtails. Corncrakes chattered noisily, announcing that, while rare to nonexistent elsewhere inIreland, they abide happily on Tory. There is a kind of community of birds and people, separate in their own business of life, yet in it all together on their three-mile by six-tenths-mile island home.
At one o’clock I completed my five minute walk from the hotel and entered the restaurant, another whitewashed block building with the traditional whitewashed stone fence surrounding a few weather-worn wooden picnic tables out front. Inside the bright yellow, well-windowed room, I found nine tables with oilcloth covers, all fully occupied by island families and a few tourists enjoying Sunday lunch. It was pleasant to see family members of at least three generations happily lunching together, with everyone clearly knowing everyone else in the restaurant. They spoke quietly in their lilting native Gaelic Irish, shifting to English only when necessary. It was obvious that I was the newcomer. Everyone gave me a passing nod that made me feel conspicuous but welcomed.
I found a seat in the corner and looked at the menu, delighted to see that the fare was extensive, a good thing, since this was the only restaurant. I decided on a cheeseburger and chips (fries) for myself and a roast beef sandwich to be “take away” forSumter. (I usually choose more traditional Irish fare, but I was curious about the cook’s interpretation of American food.) When the two of us returned that evening, however, we were treated to a more elaborate gourmet menu. While it featured such traditional dishes as Irish stew, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, fried haddock with mash, carrots and peas, the evening fare included several fresh seafood dishes of continental cuisine.Sumterordered baked halibut en sauce with mashed potatoes and a selection of steamed vegetables. I had a bowl of seafood chowder and a plate of turbot with yet another delectable sauce. The food was excellent and presented as only the best sous-chef would. Obviously, the chef had been to school, and she took great pride in her cooking. The pleasure of our meal was greatly enhanced by the view of the distant Donegal mountains, changing from hazy blue to gold in the light of the setting sun.
For an afternoon hike, we struck out across a wide grassy field sloping up to cliffs on the north side. As expected we saw a large number of birds that flew up occasionally, disturbed by our arrival. But what we did not anticipate were all the rabbit holes—not hundreds but thousands of them, dug into the clayey ground. Well ahead of us brown rabbit scampered away to the safety of their burrows, their cotton-tails a show of fleeting white. Endangered by few if any predators, and with the people rarely interested in eating rabbit, there are an estimated 250,000 of these creatures on the island. Surprisingly, there were no sheep or cows in the pasture, though there were a few in one pasture near the eastern end. Over all ofIreland, one finds such pastures populated with livestock, and I wondered why some islander did not take advantage of the use of a naturally grassy field. I soon would learn that this was symptomatic of the problems of coping with island life in the modern age.
Having ascended the slope while crossing the field, we came to the edge of a deep finger-like chasm, an indentation in the high cliff that overhung the sea. Into this chasm, waves from the sea rolled in and crashed on the rocks below. Startled by our arrival on the cliff above, two Oyster Catchers loudly peeped their warning, spread their black and white wings to fly to sea. Below us in the ruddy jagged rock we saw the sea rushing into caves, eroded into the cliff by millions of foamy breaking waves. A lone gannet circled offshore, then jerked its six-foot-wingspanned black-tipped wings into dive-bomber-like shape and dove into the sea.
Turning around to look south, from our vantage point above the village, we saw an amazingly spectacular view of Donegal in the distance. Far to the east and in the blue haze was Malin Head, the northern-most point of Ireland at the tip of theInishowenPeninsula. Panning our gaze to the south, we saw Horn Head where we had stood to view Tory earlier that day. Behind the low coastal hills at Magheroarty, the great Derryveagh mountains of Donegal, most spectacular of which is Errigal, a quartzite mountain rising to 752 feet.
Due to the northern declination of the sun in summer, nighttime comes late inIreland, and later on Tory. This gives cause for midnight parties, and this Sunday was no exception. Gathering in the hotel’s pub, men whom we may have seen demurely carrying out their daily chores now became musicians, singers, dancers—a great gala of Irish music and fun. Among them was an elderly but very handsome and lively man scarcely five feet tall, wearing three rings on each hand and an earring in his ear, looking very much like what you would imagine to be a leprechaun. I would find out the next day that he was none other than Patsy Dan Rodgers, the King of Tory himself.
Following a lovely Full Irish Breakfast, cooked and served by Sophia at the hotel, I determined to spend the morning finding the King to interview him. Pat said I should walk to the yellow house across from the restaurant, the King’s home, but that I’d likely find him out and about. Sure enough, on the road near theBellTower, I encountered the man, who had played the accordion the evening before, walking in company with two young ladies and greeting everyone who came by.
“You must be the King,” I said, convinced of his regal demeanor.
“Aye,” he replied with a smile and a warm handshake. “Sorry to have missed greeting you yesterday,” he said, “but I knew you’d be here for two days.” I was soon to learn that everyone on the island knew we’d be there for two days, just as everyone knew virtually everything that everyone else on the island knew.
I said that I intended to write a “wee” travel article (throwing in wee as the Irish use the word to make things gentler, softer, and not so important sounding) and would like to interview him about his position as king. He introduced me to the two young ladies, his daughters, and said they were off to take the older one to the ferry. As we walked back to the pier together, he said he would tell me why there was a king on the island and the history of the making of the first king.
There is evidence that people have lived on the island for about 3400 years, he explained, but the known history begins 1400 years ago with the arrival of St. Colmcille.
In the 6th Century, while walking in the Derryveagh mountains, St. Colmcille encountered St. Begley and St. Fenian along the way, all on a mission to share Christ’s message and convert the pagans. Each carrying a crutch or walking stick, they came to the ocean where the three of them saw the three islands, the two smaller, closer ones with Tory in the distance. They decided that they would determine their destinations by throwing their crutches.
“With my own help and the help of God,” St. Colmcille said as he gave his stick a mighty toss. It sailed through the air and landed onToryIsland. St. Begley andSt.Fenian, with less fervent devotion in their words, tossed their crutches which landed one on each of the smaller inshore islands. Thus their missions were decided.
Interrupting the story when we reached the pier, we watched the ferry from Bunbeg arrive. As is his faithful custom, King Patsy greeted the passengers one by one as they debarked and welcomed them to Tory. His daughter’s husband arrived on the pier and I stood aside while the king bade them farewell and watched them board the ferry for Magheroarty. Seeing them off, he continued his tale.
Bound to carry out his mission, St. Colmcille with two monks landed on the rocky point just east of where this pier is today, he said. They found the island inhabited by peoples, many of whom were Scandanvians, who also had landed onRathlinIslandat the northeastern corner ofN. Ireland. But Tory was overrun with pirates and other bad folk. In the great volcanic cliffs on the eastern end lived a black giant, Balor, who spit fire and poison from his tongue. (Formorians, who were African pirates, are known to have resided there.) From his lair he challenged St. Colmcille, spitting his firey poison, but the saint held up his cross, which blocked the fire and sent the creature tumbling backwards, flipping over three times and falling off the cliff into the ocean.
WhenSt.Colmcille had toured the island and was greeted and accompanied back to his boat by islanders, he favored one of the natives there, a man named Doogan. He blessed Doogan, appointed him king, and charged him with the duty to rule the island and put down all evil and strife. The holy father then gave the new king two gifts for the islanders. First was the promise to establish a monastery, which he did, and it survived until being plundered by Elizabethan English troops in 1598. Even though the monastery lasted only a thousand years, the kingship has continued for more than fourteen centuries. Patsy Dan Rodgers has been king for nineteen years and his predecessor held the position for forty. He mentioned that Tory Islanders had serious problems which he concerned himself daily. He said he would explain further, but first he wanted to tell me more about their history.
The other gift St. Colmcille gave to Doogan on their fateful meeting fourteen centuries ago was a deposit of clay that destroys vermin. Every household has a bit of it tucked away. Every boat that sails carries the clay, which protects fisherman and sailors from dangerous sea creatures. Even today, Mr. Philip Doogan and his wife, though in ill health, will still provide a little packet of the clay to anyone who comes to their door and asks, “I would like from my heart out and in the name of St. Colmcille to have some clay having the power to banish rats.” For fourteen hundred years the eldest member of the Doogan family has faithfully been the keeper of the clay from that day to this, and there have been no rats on Tory.
(Other versions of the arrival of St. Colmcille (Columba or Columb-kille) are available from other sources, but what I have related are my understanding of the King’s account to me.)
Learning that my wife Sumter has difficulty walking, the king insisted that he drive us the two miles to the eastern end of the island where one can visit the cliffs of Balor. The ride was slow because King Patsy had to wave and speak to everyone along the road. Heading east we passed through two more clusters of houses, “villages” they are called but with no real boundary of definition to them.
In fact, organized government does not exist on the island, I learned. There once was a manager and council, he said, but it really didn’t work out. No money was collected, and that killed the idea. There are six men on the island who act as a volunteer fire department, and might show up if there was trouble. But there never is. I had noticed that the only “no” signs I had seen announced the ban on smoking. When you think about how many prohibitive signs and regulations there are in the modern world, it was very refreshing to be without either. The government entities on the mainland provide the board of education, run the electrical plant (generators on the island) and Telecom keeps up the phones. One uniting force is their Catholic Church, the only real institution there. The bishop, he reported, was most sympathetic to their needs and respected their unique life and culture.
One hundred fifty gentle, friendly, peaceful people seemingly need no more. It’s interesting to note that young people often leave the island in search of a better life, but many of them return, finding that the life they had enjoyed there in their youth was best. But we didn’t see much activity, and that seemed unusual for a Monday, and we wondered if that was significant in some way. He himself was busy greeting the ferries and taking us about but otherwise there did not appear to be much going on.
“Oh, but there’s plenty for the king to do, I’ll tell you,” Patsy said. For one thing, he and others continue to petition the two state governmental bodies for funds to help develop tourism, an important part of the economy. Yes, Sumter and I agreed, having found no real efforts being made to attract us to come there, and we had needed to seek out for ourselves a plan for touring the island. The king thought that the islanders needed to become better organized, making people welcome.
On the other hand, I asked, “Wouldn’t too much development, too many tourists, too much outside influence be harmful?”
“Aye,” he replied. “My job also is to save our ancient heritage.” While tourism brings money, he recognized, outside influences were corrupting their culture, customs and language. For example, for centuries islanders made their living fishing from small skiffs and yawls. People depended upon the sea for their livelihood and this instilled a humble faith in God. When large companies on the mainland began fishing around the island from large fishing vessels with huge nets, the mackerel and other schools of fish were decimated and moved offshore, making it impossible for the more primitive island fishermen to survive. Collecting seaweed to make kelp (for extracting iodine) was another industry that once flourished but no longer exists. The loss of these occupations has brought about a big change in the culture of Tory. As I heard this, I wondered if it may have destroyed some incentive and sense of industry there.
A very positive event has been the growth of an art colony on Tory. On a Sunday morning in 1956 while visiting the island, a well known painter, Derek Hill, was seated on the hill overlooking the pier, sketching the landscape. An islander, James Dixon, peered curiously over his shoulder at the canvas.
“What do you think?” Hill asked.
Dixonshrugged and said, “I think maybe I could do better myself.” And that he did, starting a colony of unschooled painters in association of Hill. The king, Patsy Dan Rodgers joined in as one of the first four. Their “primitive art” soon became widely known. Rodgers himself has received numerous awards for his work, and I was pleased to attend his public showing that afternoon.
“How did you become king?” I asked as we slowed to wave at an elderly lady walking her Corgie dog.
“Ah, t’is a story,” he said. Although originally fromDublin, Patsy Dan Rodgers had become a staunch and permanent islander when the old king of forty years reign died. There was no king for about two years until it appeared to everyone that a successor must be found. The son and daughter of the previous king decided to ask Patsy to accept the kingship. Patsy appreciated the high honor and the awesome responsibility but was not sure how he could be approved by the people, there being no provision for holding any election or appointment. Then it came to them that they should throw a great party and invite all the islanders to come celebrate the new king. On 19 September 1993 everyone came and stayed all night, singing and dancing and celebrating, and no one left until six o’clock the next morning. And thus for the last nineteen years, Patsy Dan Rodgers has been king.
Things were great in the early 1990’s, but since then he has seen a troubling change in their way of life.
“People are getting smaller,” he told us.
At first discounting the statement as untrue, Sumter and I soon realized his meaning was metaphoric. During our brief stay, except for those people running the ferries, hotel, restaurant, gift shop and convenience store, I did not see any signs of business activity. A few people appeared to be going to the mainland in the morning and returning in the afternoon, some of whom likely going for employment. Knowing the principle of economy of scale in today’s highly organized and efficient agribusiness, I understood that any agricultural pursuits would be boutique and unprofitable. And as he already had explained, commercial fishing now was usurped by well-capitalized companies. The corrupting influence of modern life with television and fast food along with an erosion of the work ethic unfortunately infect this community, as is the case everywhere.
So then, what is wrong on Tory?
On the north coast of the island, standing above the main community, the land rises up to a hilltop on the edge of the ocean. On the crest is a second tau-shaped cross that gleams in the sun. I crossed the fields and climbed the steep slope expecting to see this ancient and significant monument to the island’s faith and heritage. Arriving nearly breathless at the top, I was surprised to find that this cross was not some ancient image of the glorious past but merely a couple of pieces of rusted steel C-channel erected in a makeshift pile of stones. Lying close to its base were a couple of old rusty, iron wheels that the creator of the cross had no use for and had left sitting there to junk things up. In a way I felt cheated, as if my climb had been for naught. But turning to face north, I discovered that I stood on a most wonderful cliff overlooking the wide expanse of ocean, with a gannet soaring by, and the sea stretching to the hazy blue horizon. Looking back at the rusted steel icon, I realized that I was standing before a metaphor of the island’s present problems. The rusty steel icon was imposed upon the wonderfully natural scene just as modern society is imposed upon the community below. Tory is a microcosm of our twenty-first century world. Too much is falsely manufactured, standing in the way of the natural order of things. Big government, mass communications, mind-erasing media, and even the give-away of pension money have removed not just the Tory Islanders but all of us from being in touch with the earth. Metaphorically, we will have to remove the hollowness of our modern existence if we are to return to those things which make our lives meaningful and of value.
So still wondering about the lives of the 150 islanders, I asked the king again about the basis of income on the island. Did they have an occupation or were they doomed to live merely on government pension subsidies. His reply at first seemed to be evasive, but after thinking about it further, I realized his answer was very relevant.
“Our business is to be the people of Tory,” the king replied, “speaking our language, conserving our culture, being proud of our heritage.” This is a worthy endeavor, he maintained, and he sees his role as king to be the lead spokesman and translator of Tory life. If they can preserve the remnant of their past with its simple, moral, salt-of-the-earth existence, then they will offer an important model in contrast to our modern society.
Attracting tourists to come and visit the island, therefore, follows logically. But this then raises the problem: how can you bring more visitors and provide activities that will attract them without destroying the quaint and fragile native island life, which was what the tourists would be coming to see in the first place? Is there a way to find a proper balance so that commercial development doesn’t destroy what remains of the past? Patsy Dan Rodgers, the King of Tory, knows this well and is dedicating his life to achieving it.
One other factor is the worldwide recession that has devastated tourism in so many places, though the halt it has brought about in commercial growth may just give Tory the pause it needs to reconsider and redirect the way it accommodates tourists while preserving its heritage. Noting that on our second night’s stay we were the only guests in the hotel, I asked the hotel owner and ferry captain, Pat Doohan if he thought he could make it through.
“Aye,” Pat replied, a life-long resident whose family had been there for generations, at least some of his ancestors dating back fourteen hundred years . “We Tory Islanders are survivors.”
On the ride back to the mainland in Pat’s ferry, we took a last look at the island with its sea and wind carved cliffs that inspired the stories of evil Balor and then the belltower of St. Colmcille’s monastery on this little island in the ocean. And then I saw the empty fields and the harbor with what remained of the old fishing boats dragged up to uselessness on the beach. I was headed back to the mainland, now, to the outside world that is in so many ways just one big troubled island.
-Stephen B. Coleman, Jr
July 26, 2010