Songs coming in from the sea

Tory Island off the Donegal coast is a unique place: wind-swept, isolatedand at the mercy of the north Atlantic winds

Tory Island off the Donegal coast is a unique place: wind-swept, isolatedand at the mercy of the north Atlantic winds. Often cut off from themainland for long periods due to the bad weather, it is the songs andsinging on the island that binds this community together. A new book and CD examines the tradition, writes Pól Ó Muirí

Tory Island will never be fashionable - even amongst Irish speakers. Twelve miles off the Donegal coast, it was a source of constant fascination to me, as I spent Easter and summer holidays in the summer college in Mín an Chladaigh. Tory lay prostrate in the ocean like a giant. That people lived there, chose to live there, was beyond my ken as a teenager.

Eventually, I visited. It was summer, I was at university studying Irish. A school friend had been on the island building what was to be a hostel. It was incomplete but I could stay if I wanted. There was no regular ferry service and I went over on a fishing boat with a crowd of locals. What seemed like calm seas to me, were more mountainous than I had imagined once out.

I was met by a group of other students coming the other way. They wanted to leave - and quickly. They had come for a couple of days and had stayed over a week. One of their number was a fiddler and, they suspected, the islanders had neglected to inform them of outgoing boats. There was no other fiddler on Tory.


At the time, it seemed like one of those amusing Gaeltacht stories that all students collect. Having read Lillis Ó Laoire's Ar Chreag i Lár na Farraige, on the tradition of songs and singers on Tory Island, I have finally begun to understand its importance. As Ó Laoire illustrates masterfully, music is at the heart of island life.

Song and dance operate on many different levels: they offer a way for the locals to showcase their own musical heritage; they bind the people together in common rituals; they invoke the memory of singers and people long since dead and, in so doing, provide communal continuity. The islanders remember of whom they sing. Illustrating this point, Ó Laoire discusses one song, A Phaidí, a Ghrá, and the central role which it plays in the lives of one island family, one of whose number died while in America. Reading Ó Laoire's account one is struck by the deep emotional bonds which the song creates between singer and listener. A Phaidí, a Ghrá, is to all intents and purposes a prayer.

For Ó Laoire, a fine singer himself and a native of the mainland Donegal Gaeltacht, song and dance build communitas, a sense of place, community and belonging. They are the artistic glue which binds people to the island. The importance of songs to the spiritual welfare of Tory cannot be underestimated. A community such as Tory, which lacks material and political wealth, validates itself through its artistic achievements and through communal celebration.

Ó Laoire undertook his work as a PhD thesis and the density of theory and commentary may be off-putting to some. However, when he leaves the academic to one side and concentrates on the actual - individuals and their part in the musical heritage - the text illuminates a living, breathing aesthetic. The accompanying CD illustrates the thesis simply - it's about song in a unique way, and about a distinctive and valuable environment which has been moulded over centuries.

Traditional singing in Irish is not to everyone's taste. However, the value of what Ó Laoire records should not be underestimated. Our society places huge financial emphasis on manuscripts by dead writers but does not always recognise the worth of living art, an art which regenerates itself and those who participate in it.

Ó Laoire identifies the mid-1970s as being the time of Tory's greatest peril. Wild Atlantic storms and poor infrastructure led to many families leaving the island for good.

Yet the community's own resilience ensured that the battle for survival was not lost. A new quay has been built, there's a hotel and a summer tourist season. This rock in the middle of the sea has life in it yet.

Ar Chreag i Láar na Farraige: amhráin agus amhránaithe i dToraigh, by Lillis Ó Laoire, is published by Cló Iar-Chonnachta. Price: €25