Tory Island, the northermost outpost in Ireland, has been populated for thousands of years, and is rich in history and heritage despite its tiny size.
Also known by its Gaelic name of Toraigh (same pronunciation) this small and barren land mass is situated nine miles (13km) off the shore of Ireland’s northern peninsulas. It is about three miles (5km) wide and one mile (1.2km) long.
Up until the mid 20th century, the island was extremely isolated, receiving only rare visitors. Today, the daily ‘Tor Mor’ ferry carries passengers from Donegal coast on the mainland to and from Tory Island. Ferries depart from both Bunbeg and Magheroarty. Often a choppy sea ride, the ferry takes more than an hour from Bunbeg, and around 40 minutes frmo Magheroarty. A helicopter also departs from Falcarragh, around once a week. The views while on board the ferry are spectacular on a clear day, featuring the wild Donegal coastline and its islands.
The island has a hotel, a hostel, and a pub. Apart from some ancient historical ruins, listed below, there isn't much to do or see while walking around the island. Visitors typically make a day-trip, or stay for one night, exploring a couple of the ancient sites, enjoying the unique scenery and then partaking in some authentic Irish pub culture for the evening, before reverting to the mainland the next day.
The other main attraction is the island’s round tower, which has been partially destroyed.
It has a unique conical cap, made from granite with a slight pinkish hue. It is said to be cemented with the lime from seashells. Over 13 m high, the tower has endured more than one thousand years of wind and salt water.
Of the five original churches on Tory Island, only the ruins of one remain – the foundation of the Church of the Morsheisear (Seven People). There is a t-shaped cross 2m high, carved from one single stone block.
On the eastern part of Tory Island sit the remains of a walled fort known as Dun Bhaloir or Balor’s Fort. Balor was a one-eyed giant, leader of the Fomorians -- the original inhabitants of Ireland. According to Irish mythology and ancient Gaelic texts, the Fomorians were a half-divine race of people, believed to have preceded the Celtic gods. In this way, they are similar to the Greek Titans. Some historians have suggested that the Fomorians may in fact have been the Carthagians, proposing that the name "Balor" is derived from the Carthaginian god Baal. The city-state of Carthage ruled a large empire across Europe around 3,000 years ago, before being defeated by the Romans.
The northeastern tip of Tory Island is the location of the Wishing Stone, thought by islanders to have the power to destroy enemies. Local folklore tells the following story: in 1884, a group of policemen on a “Wasp” British gunboat arrived and attempted to collect taxes, a foreign and unwelcome concept to the islanders at the time. They called upon the power of the stone, which sunk the boat, leaving only six of the crew members alive.
From ancient times, the island has had a ceremonial ruler -- Rí Thoraí (Ree Toree), which means the "king of Tory". Originally a hereditary title, the kingship was held for centuries by the Heraghty clan, who also provided kings for the island of Inishmurray. The Heraghtys were said to have made a pact with the Catholic Church, which allowed them to perform some of the duties of priests, without having being formally ordained.
In 1933, "Queen" Mary O'Heraghty died, having succeeded her father Patrick Heraghty to the "throne" in 1903. Newspaper accounts at the time described how she had lived a normal life, tending to her spinning wheel and other domestic duties typical of the women of the island, whose population was then around 300. However, in legal matters or petty disputes of any kind, the islanders turned to Mary. She was said to be extremely fair in her decision-making, and her wisdom was rarely challenged.
In subsequent years, the kingship finally stopped being hereditary, but Tory remains one of the only parts of Ireland to continue the local "king" tradition (another is Claddagh in Galway, where the practice was recently revived).
The current king of the Tory island is Patsy Dan Rodgers, a painter. Nominated by the community, which now numbers less than 100, his role mainly consists of acting as a spokesperson for the island to the outside world.
The inhabitants of Tory Island today are friendly and welcoming. Many still make their living from fishing. They speak in their own dialect, and many refer to the mainland as ‘Ireland’. Although rather isolated, they have a pleasant and contented lifestyle.
James Dixon Art Gallery
Recently, new enterprises have been added in an effort to stimulate the island’s economy, including a successful school of painting.
The islanders are uniquely artistic, creating paintings that depict island life and its landscapes while using only ordinary house paints.
Their work is well known across Ireland, and has been exhibited at prestigious venues, including Glebe House and Gallery. James Dixon, a native islander and artist, runs Dixon’s Gallery to showcase and sell Tory Island paintings.
Tory Island. Image by Liam Moloney