With its ruggedly indented shores pounded by the ocean, TORY ISLAND, though only 12km north of the mainland, is notoriously inaccessible. Only 4km long and less than 1.5km wide, its vulnerability to the elements means little can grow here. Yet despite the island’s barren landscape and the ferocity of the elements, the Tory islanders are thriving, a situation no one could have predicted thirty years ago. Back then, conditions on the island were very poor, lacking essential amenities such as a water supply, proper sanitation, reliable electricity and a ferry service. The arrival of a new priest, Father Diarmuid Ó Péicín, in the early 1980s stimulated a transformation. Rallying the islanders, the pastor began to lobby every possible target, securing backing from such disparate characters as the US senator Tip O’Neill (who had Donegal ancestry) and Ian Paisley. The campaign attracted media attention and conditions gradually began to improve. Nowadays, around 160 people live permanently on the island and 25 children attend the local junior school, a happy sign of the island’s revival (older children spend term times in Falcarragh).
According to local mythology, Tory was the stronghold of the Fomorians, who raided the mainland from their island base and whose most notable figure was the cyclops Balor of the Evil Eye, the Celtic god of darkness. Intriguingly, the local legend places his eye at the back of his head. There’s also said to be a crater in the very heart of the island that none of the locals will approach after dark, for fear of incurring the god’s wrath. In the sixth century, St Colmcille landed on Tory with the help of a member of the Duggan family. In return, the saint made him king of the island; the line has been unbroken ever since and you’re more than likely to meet the present king, Patsy Dan Rodgers, who regularly greets arrivals at the harbour. Some monastic relics from St Columba’s time remain on Tory, the most unusual of which – now the island’s emblem – is the Tau Cross. Its T-shape is of Egyptian origin, and is one of only two such monuments in the whole of Ireland. It has now been relocated and set in concrete on Camusmore Pier in West Town, one of the island’s two villages. There are other mutilated stone crosses and some carved stones lying around, several by the remains of the round tower in West Town, which is thought to date from the tenth century and is uniquely constructed from round beach stones. A local superstition focuses on the wishing stone in the centre of the island, three circuits of which will supposedly lead to your desires being granted.
Tory Island's artists
Tory Island's artists
Tory islanders are famed for their painting, a development that originated in a chance encounter between the English painter Derek Hill and one of the island’s fishermen, James Dixon, in 1968, both now deceased. Dixon had never lifted a brush before the day he told Hill that he could do a better job of painting the Tory scenery, but he went on to become the most renowned of the island’s school of primitive painters – Glebe House has a remarkable painting by him. You can view the islanders’ work and, more than likely, meet the artists, at the James Dixon Gallery, the originator’s former home, a little way to the east of the harbour.