Found in the seas off the coast of Donegal, Ireland’s most northern county, Tory island has been shaped by its remoteness. A fascinating island, off the coast of a fascinating island, Tory has always been a place apart. Less than 2 miles long and only half a mile wide, the island’s 178 inhabitants are proud of their unique home.
Tory islanders have survived battles to rehouse them, regular forty-foot waves, gales and frozen temperatures. The islanders refer to Ireland as “the country” and speak their own dialect of the native Irish language, Gaeilge.
With a history and a culture shaped by its geography, some believe Tory’s name was taken from the native Irish word ‘tor’ after the cliffs that protect it from the battering Atlantic. Exposure to devouring sea winds have left the island treeless. Tory’s stubborn isolation and the passion of its people have kept traditions and beliefs alive here that have long vanished elsewhere.
Here are the 10 most interesting things you need to know about Ireland’s most interesting island!
1. Place of Pirates
One theory argues that the name ‘Tory’ itself reveals the island’s unruly nature, derived from the Irish for pirate or robber – torai. The illicit and illegal are well known to Tory. The island’s remoteness and peat soil made it perfect for the illegal distillation and smuggling of póitin (a peat whiskey), a very lucrative source of income in the nineteenth century.
2. No time on Tory island
Tory’s self-sufficiency left no need for the standard clock time that runs the rest of the world. On Tory, you will find no schedule, beyond the timings of the ferry that drop and collect outsiders to and from the island. Visitors are warned: “Please note that time has no relevance on the island, other than the ferry times. Nightlife starts later than on the mainland. When all are asleep on the mainland, Tory becomes alive.”
3. Come prepared
Tell an Irish person you plan to visit Tory and you will hear two words: “Come prepared.” Not only does the island run according to its own time and calendar, but the weather has also made planning improbable. If you intend to visit Tory, leave a few days flexibility at either side to allow for the whims of the Atlantic that batters its shores.
On the island, weather changes from moment to moment. You might not be able to arrive on Tory when you want to. And you might not be able to leave. You could be stranded. And while you’re there, locals warn to avoid cliff edges and bathe only where they recommend.
4. People have lived here for over 4,500 years
The first known inhabitants of Tory are the creatures of myth. In ancient Irish lore, the island is said to be the home of the legendary king, Balor of the evil eye. Evidence of the island’s later inhabitants can be seen in the remnants of the monastery founded by Colmcille in the 6th century. Early accounts of the islanders are less than flattering. In a study of the Myths and Legends of the Celts, T.W. Rolleston described them in wild, fanciful terms that expose the island’s reputation for strangeness. Rolleston writes that Tory’s “wild cliffs and precipices” are “a fit home for this race of misery and horror”, a people, “huge, misshapen, violent and cruel.” Today, the not at all misshapen islanders live in two villages — An Baile Thoir (East Town) and An Baile Thiar (West Town).
5. Be careful what you wish for
Tory’s Wishing Stone, Leac na Leannán in Gaeilge, is deceitful. The flat-topped rock juts out over the northern cliff-face of Balor’s Fort. Standing 300 feet above the Atlantic, it invites visitors to make a wish. The cost is a risk. Islanders warn that only the foolhardy accept the challenge and step on to the rock to brave a wish. A wish can also be granted to she or he who succeeds in throwing three stones in a row on to the stone.
6. The Tau Cross
The Tau Cross signals Tory’s ancient roots in the pagan past. It has many meanings across ancient cultures. Tau takes its name from a Greek letter. In Norse mythology, Thor’s hammer takes the shape of a Tau Cross. The Astrological sign Taurus also took its name from Tau. As Christianity gained popularity in Europe, Tau gained new meanings. It is one of the oldest representation of the Christian cross, after t-shaped Roman crucifixions. Tory’s Tau Cross dates from the 12th Century. Some say it connects the island with ancient Egypt, a symbol introduced by Coptic Christians.
Very few Tau Crosses remain, with Tory’s the most famous. It has always been central to Christian life on Tory. The island’s priest prays before the Tau Cross when islanders are stranded on the mainland. Legend says that a Cromwellian soldier tried to break the Tau with his sword. But Tory’s Tau would not break and the cross bears the scar today. Tory’s fishermen still pray before the cross before going to sea.
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7. Tory island elects its own king
In keeping with a tradition that reaches into Ireland’s Brehon past, Tory islanders elect a king to govern them. The island is currently ruled by King, or Rí, Patsy Dan Rodgers – Patsaí Dan Mac Ruaidhrí – who welcomes visitors to the island.
8. The house that vanished
In 2013, Tory’s strangest story was heard around the world – the tragic tale of Neville Presho. Like so many visitors before and after him, Neville was drawn to the island’s otherness and found himself unable to leave. Neville bought a house that was 150 years old and made a documentary about life on Tory. The success of his film brought him to live in New Zealand wherein 1993 his solicitor contacted him to say someone wished to buy his Tory home. Neville’s price was £7,000 Irish punts.
When £1,000 was offered, he declined. One month later, the house burned down. But Neville heard nothing until a year later when he received a letter from Donegal County Council saying his sturdy 150-year-old house was in a dangerous condition and needed repair. Travelling to Tory island, Neville realised his house was gone.
It was to be seen nowhere on the horizon. A hotel stood in its place. Neville’s house had “disappeared.” The difficulty of uncovering what happened had sad consequences for Neville’s health, with even his doctors in New Zealand failing to believe his strange story, labelling it a delusion.
9. Island tragedy
The tragedy of island life is represented on Tory as Móirsheisear, Grave of the Seven, and literally meaning Big Six. Móirsheisear speaks of the harshness of island life – a tomb of seven people, six men and one woman, who drowned when their boat capsized off Tory’s northwest coast. Local legend says clay from the woman’s grave wards off vermin. Not all tragedy is treated equally. When the “HMS Wasp,” a British boat on eviction and tax-collecting mission capsized in 1884, islanders claimed credit for the accident, attributing it to a combination of prayer and the power of the “Cursing Stone”.
10. Island of artists
The islanders enjoyed a change of career, gaining an international reputation as a colony of artists in the late 20th century. It began with English artist Derek Hill. When Hill arrived on Tory in 1956, local man Jimmy Dixon claimed he could paint better himself. Taking up the challenge, Dixon and locals reworked basic canvases and ordinary house paints to create beautiful representations of Island life. The artists went on to exhibit in galleries throughout Europe, with their work now found in many important collections.