Along with my then girlfriend of 6 months I visited Tory Island (Oileán Thoraí) for three days and nights this Summer. This must have been my fourth or fifth time on the Island and by now the locals know me on a first name basis. Although time and space does not permit me to write about all of the hidden gems to be found on the Island, I will try to highlight those that made the biggest impression.
I love the Island and it’s history and people. For it is one of the few places in Ireland where traditional Irish culture, language and folklore remain unimpeded by the continual onslaught of modernity and neo-liberalism in Ireland. Traditional Catholic Ireland remains very much intact on this outcrop of rock situated c. 9 miles off the coast of North West Donegal.
The first thing that strikes you upon casting eyes on Tory is her small size and sharp and jagged features. The Island is an outcrop of rock just 5km in length and approximately 1km wide at best. Here Irish Gaelic is spoken first and foremost, and English is used primarily for tourists or outsiders.
Personally speaking, I took a serious interest in our native language approximately 8 years ago and decided I must become proficient in it. I slowly learned the rules and grammar through sustained individual effort and motivation and became a proficient writer in Irish Gaelic. But I could never grasp the fluency and conversational skills required until I visited Gweedore on a regular basis. Now, having moved to Donegal and spending as much time as possible speaking Irish in Gweedore and Tory Island I am pleased to announce that I have strong fluency in Donegal Irish. Yet it is something I do and practice every day and I will always be learning new words, phrases and reels.
There are two small towns on the Island. East town (baile thoir) lies on ‘the pagan’ side at the foot of Balor’s fort, and West town (baile thiar) is adjacent to the main pier and Catholic Church c. 1.5km from the Island’s lighthouse which is perched on the most westerly point of the Island.
At Balors Fort (East End) looking West
West Town (Baile Thiar)
It is somewhat telling that the only place to enjoy a beer or alcoholic beverage is on the Christian side of the Island (West town). There are only two bars here, the hotel bar and the club house bar (An Club), yet the craic is always mighty and people welcoming and friendly. Indeed, if you are an introvert beware because the locals will force you to engage in conversation and music (whether you like it or not). Better still, there is always a traditional Irish music session at the weekends, or traditional Irish dancing. Truth be told, many a time I have been cajoled into playing guitar and ended up singing until 4 or 5 in the morning with a plethora of other musicians and fantastic people.
Despite it’s small size, if one is interested in the outdoors, wildlife and history there is much to explore, learn and to see. The Island is a Mecca for wildlife lovers and birdwatchers from all over the world. Each summer the Corncrake (endangered species) makes the Island it's home and if you listen carefully you can hear it’s distinctive and hypnotic cry in late evening or early morning. There is also a good chance you will see seals or basking sharks along the westward coast of the Island.
One of several seals spotted off the West coast of Tory Island
Over the centuries the Island’s way of life has been threatened by the threat of British colonialism. Yet, fortunately such efforts had failed. One of the most striking features of the Island is the ‘Bell Tower’ which was built c. 600 A.D. and was constructed during the time of St. Colmcille. The tower was used as a look-out and was a primary line of defence against invasion. It was later partially destroyed by a British Invasion in 1595, when it was plundered and destroyed by English troops, who were waging a war of suppression against local chieftains. Yet remarkably the remains still stand tall and strong and the tower is a prominent feature of the West town.
Further to this, during the Irish Land War the H.M.S. Wasp mysteriously ran aground and sunk close to the lighthouse in 1884. 53 souls perished and 6 clambered to safety. The boat was en-route to evict three families on the island of Inishtrahull. Officially, the Wasp is recorded as having sunk due to accident and inexperience on behalf of the crew, yet some say it was intentional sabotage or curse on behalf of Tory islander ‘Fenians’. Whatever the reason, families were saved from eviction and the disaster was an embarrassment for the British establishment at the time. The islanders did however recover 8 bodies that washed ashore, and buried the British sailors in a mass grave that is located discreetly (away from view) behind the Lighthouse.
Mass grave of 8 recovered sailors from H.M.S. Wasp
A lesser known fact is that before the 1916 Easter Rising, the great Roger Casement visited the Island in 1912 while learning the Irish language. Here, he mingled and got to know locals and ultimately fell in love with the Island. There is a suite and portrait dedicated to Casement in the Island's Hotel.
Roger Casement on Tory Island, 1912
~ Gamhain MacCionaoith
mí Lúnasa, 2022
Oileán Thoraí, Éire