Off on the waves of Tory

'Ireland is a large island off the coast of Tory,' explained one local

'Ireland is a large island off the coast of Tory,' explained one local. A new book details the myths and realities of Tory life, writes Rosita Boland.

Tory Island is the most remote of all Ireland's offshore islands, lying nine miles (14.5km) north of the tiny harbour of Magheraroarty in Co Donegal. Of course, it depends on what is defined by remote. Remote from what? The mainland?

In Jim Hunter's fine and newly published book about the island, The Waves of Tory, The Story of an Island Community, he says:

"Tory's isolated position helps to explain the islanders' attitude to the mainland. They talk about 'going out to Ireland' and they refused to acknowledge 'summer time' when it was first introduced in Ireland, preferring to continue with their local time. The story of a Tory schoolboy, who was asked to write an essay about Ireland, exemplifies Tory's independence. The young boy commenced his essay with the phrase, 'Ireland is a large island off the coast of Tory'."


Jim Hunter first went from the large island off the coast of Tory to Tory itself in 1957 as a student, and he has continued to return ever since. This book is the result of half a century's knowledge of the place, and the associated research he undertook in studying records of population density, seasonal migration and land utilisation. There are currently 190 people resident on Tory in the summer and 120 in winter: some islanders winter on the mainland.

"I gathered a lot of information as a student, when I went to Tory first," Hunter says. "Since I kept visiting over the years, people have been nudging me to write a book on Tory."

HUNTER RETIRED AS head of administrative services from the University of Ulster four years ago and finally took up the project of working on the Tory book. The book is dual language, in both English and Irish (Irish is the first language of the island), and the translation took considerable time. The majority of this was done by the principal of the island's secondary school, Mary Claire McMahon.

"The book wasn't a solo performance," Hunter is anxious to stress. "It was a team effort."

McMahon's initial translation was into Donegal Irish, and there were further amendments from Hunter's former colleagues at the University of Ulster.

There are no trees on Tory, as the island is so exposed. Neither are there rats on the island. This is not due to a protected eco-system, where the rats have been poisoned to allow other elements of nature to thrive, but to the famous Tory clay. The tradition is that if you have some of this clay in your house, a rat will never enter it.

"People come from afar to receive the Tory clay," Hunter says. "But it has to obtained from the eldest member of the Duggan family, and it has to be asked for in the proper manner, 'in the name of God and Colmcille'. All the fishermen place it inside their boats to protect them from drowning."

Islands by definition almost always have some distinctive elements, whether it's in their physical landscape or their cultural and social history. Tory is famous for two things in particular: its king and its highly regarded school of primitive art.

The creation of the tradition of the king of Tory is believed to date far back, and nobody is quite sure how it began. In pre-Famine times, Hunter suggests, the king would have had to interpret the laws of land inheritance, as well as being responsible for crop rotation. Given that only 250 of the island's 785 acres are arable land, he also had to ensure that the fertile areas and bogland were fairly rotated among families.

Today, however, Hunter writes rather bleakly: "There is no longer any enthusiasm for growing crops, caring for animals, or gathering shoreline products. The land is no longer of any significance, the islanders can exist without it; unemployment benefit, subsidies, shops and remissions from emigrants have all reduced dependence on it."

Hunter has studied records of the numbers and types of animals that were kept on Tory between 1896 and 1995. In 1896, there were 220 sheep, 90 cattle, 45 horses and ponies, and 663 fowl. In 1995, there were 50 sheep, five cattle, no horses or ponies, and 660 fowl. Curiously, there are no records of pigs ever being kept on the island.

As a result of the decrease in agriculture, the island is increasingly dependent on supplies from the mainland. In 1974, when the island's ferry service doubled as the mailboat and was entirely weather dependent, the island was cut off for almost eight weeks by storms. It coincided with a period in the island's history when morale was low and the population was dwindling. After the storms ended, 24 families applied to be rehoused on the mainland. Although some later withdrew their applications, 10 families did leave permanently.

THE ISLAND NOW has a designated ferry boat, a regular service and a new pier. It also has a small hotel and a secondary school. The school in particular has helped keep the community together. The king of Tory continues to be a key figure in the island's community, although his role is now more symbolic, helping promote the island to tourists.

"When you are king, you are king for life. The islanders take their time electing a new king," Hunter says. "It took them five years of careful thought before they elected Patsy Dan Rodgers, the current king."

In the 19th century, there were so many ships wrecked off the coast of Tory that a signal and telegraph station was established there, tied down by steel to protect it from the high winds that frequently sheer across the island. A hut that was part of the station still endures. It had another life as an artist's studio and retreat when painter Derek Hill rented it in 1957, a year after his first visit to the island. Hill continued to make this his base for the rest of his life.

It was Hill who encouraged James Dixon to start painting when Dixon came upon him painting, studied what he saw, and announced that he could do better.

Dixon and other islanders painted what they saw around them in a detailed, distinctive, naturalistic style: boats, the wild seas, the island and the small villages grandly named East Town and West Town. Dixon in particular went on to become famous, and his canvasses are now held in several public galleries.

Although Tory has neither trees nor rats, it does have spectacular cliffs on the east side of the island. From the Donegal shoreline, Tory's coastline is distinctively serrated and jagged. The cliffs of Tory were the subject of Hill's most famous paintings, where he captured the troubled texture of the sea and the elusive light that sweeps over the island, turning the landscape from black to silver in seconds.

As recently as 1910, the Ordnance Survey maps depicted a dolmen on high ground to the east of West Town. Sadly, this priceless piece of our heritage was dismantled to provide building material for the wall surrounding the island's lighthouse. Hunter writes that, according to local lore, the two horses that pulled the stones to their new location died soon after. Nobody is agreed on whether this was because of a piseog (charm or superstition) or because their hearts gave out after hauling such heavy loads.

Hunter writes about one Tory piseog I've personally encountered. "There were many taboos and superstitions connected with the currach. It was considered a bad omen to put to sea if anything red had been seen prior to departure. It was particularly ominous to meet a woman with red hair. Some islanders even considered it unsafe to walk between a red-headed woman and the sea-cliffs."

MORE THAN 20 years ago, I stood on the pier at Magheraroarty one June day, waiting to board the half-decker mailboat to Tory.

At that time, the mailboat went twice a week, but only when weather permitted, which made the nine-mile journey both infrequent and unreliable. I have red hair. The skipper told me he couldn't take me on board: that I was bad luck. I thought at first he was either joking or winding me up. He was serious. However, I'd spent the whole of the previous day hitching to Magheraroarty from Dublin and I was not to be put off.

In the end, I was allowed on board, but only on the strict condition that I wear my hood up at all times while the boat was at sea.

I wonder what would happen today if I turned up for the island's posh, new all-weather ferry, head uncovered. In a way, although nobody likes the idea of being bad luck, I hope the response would be just the same, and thus show that tradition still endured.

The Waves of Tory: The Story of an Island Community, by Jim Hunter, is published by Colin Smyth, €27

Fear na nÓilean, a documentary about Tory Island, is on TG4 on Wed at 9.30pm