Island is a remote place off the northern coast of Co.
Donegal. It is three miles long and half a mile wide.
Its situation in the Tory Sound, a treacherous section
of ocean, makes it extremely vulnerable to bad weather.
All in all it is described as a bleak and inhospitable
place. Nevertheless it has a population of 170 living
in two towns, imaginatively titled East Town and West
Town. The island is famous for its school of painters
whose work has been displayed throughout Europe and even
in New York. The most famous painter is Patsy Dan Rodgers,
also known as the King of Tory.
first heard about the King of Tory when I read Tony Hawks'
book Round Ireland with a Fridge. The Islanders wanted
someone to take on the job of promoting the Island and
attract visitors. Patsy Dan was the only one willing to
take on the task and as a joke he was dubbed King of Tory
- a perfect example of the Irish people's sense of humour.
The name stuck and he is known all over Ireland by this
title. I had met Anne in Glengarriff who had also read
the book, and we decided it would be fun to go there and
meet a king. After all neither of us had ever met a king
before. Sure he was a bogus king, crowned with a paper
hat, but he was still a king. Idiosyncratic as it sounds,
this actually gave a purpose to the long trip. Anne and
I met up again in Galway and took a bus to Letterkenny.
We stayed overnight and then embarked on the most difficult
part of the trip.
figured that as we were going on an adventure to a bleak
and near desolate island, we should do it the hard way
and hitch. The ferry to the island leaves from Magheroarty,
which was about fifty kilometres away. It didn't leave
until five that evening so I figured we had plenty of
time. I was sensible enough to be travelling with a backpack,
but Anne had a large suitcase on wheels that kept jack-knifing
as she wheeled it along. After an hour on the outskirts
of town we were beginning to think that maybe the idea
of hitching wasn't such a good one after all, when a van
pulled over. I ran up, opened the door and stared into
the face of a bloke in his thirties with rotten teeth
and soiled clothing.
can take you seven kilometres up the road to Kilmacrenen,"
hesitated, partly out of a slight fear of this man, but
also because it wasn't very far.
won't get picked up here," he went on, "you've
more chance in Kilmacrenen."
we bundled our baggage in and set off.
never did get his name, but we did learn that he was a
film's location manager. As it turned out he not only
knew the costume company in London where Anne had recently
resigned from, but had also punched her boss. He grinned
a toothless grin at the announcement of this. At Kilmacrenen
we stood by the roadside in the rain for well over an
hour. It was a tiny village and hardly any traffic passed
through. Those that did wouldn't stop. This was possibly
due to the amount of luggage we were carrying. Our saviour
came in the form of the local bus. We clambered on and
struggled with our bags down the narrow aisle to a couple
of empty seats. I asked the lady in front where the best
place was to get off for the ferry port. She discussed
this with the lady next to her and then they both went
down and consulted with the driver. Soon the other passengers
were involved and the monotony of their journey was temporarily
broken. After much debate it was decided that we should
be dropped at the turnpike just outside Falcarragh. From
there it's just two and half miles to Magheroarty. With
that the bus returned to silence.
ten minutes of unsuccessful hitching, Anne suggested that
we walk the rest of the way. A brave suggestion on her
part, she had the most difficulty because of her bag jack-knifing.
We made a short stop in a nearby pub. It was nowhere near
any form of civilisation. Inside we found the bartender
sat with his feet up watching the football. It appeared
we were the only customers, until two funny old men joined
us. We spent a bit too long in this pub - an easy thing
to do in Ireland - and suddenly realised our time was
running short. So we dashed back out on to the road and
increased our pace, trying to hitch as we walked. The
only lift we got came in the form of a nice lady driving
a large van. Katrina explained that she could only take
us a short way because she was on her way to pick up children
from the local school. If she were seen giving a lift
to hitchhikers then she would be in trouble.
fine," I said, "just take us as far as you can."
that she did. About 500 metres up a hill in fact. Round
the corner was a village full of people who knew her.
Even so we were grateful because it had saved us from
struggling up a steep hill. We eventually made it to the
port with ten minutes to spare. That was too close.
ferry port wasn't even a port really. It was a rickety
old pier. As we bought our tickets we noticed a
CD for sale. It contained music written and performed
by the king. The lady behind the counter explained
that the king himself had left them, but hadn't
left a price. Along with the passengers the boat
was loaded with building supplies, and stock for
the one shop on the island. The boat was small and
as we headed out into the Tory Sound it was tossed
about on the huge waves like a piece of flotsam.
and I were stood at the front to begin with, but were
soon driven back by the fierce winds and the spray
from the waves as they crashed against the sides.
The floor of the boat was slowly turning into a river.
The people around me all wore a look of sheer terror
on their faces. All except one man. He spent the entire
journey with a grin on his. He turned out to be one
of the island's workmen and was obviously used to
pier at the other end was still being built. Once the
boat was moored we disembarked and made our way along
a muddy road until we reached a junction, which is actually
the only one on the island. It also contained the only
signs on the island. These signs were in Gaelic so they
weren't much help. Mind you with only two towns, each
with the required direction in their names, signs were
we did need was to find the Radharc Na Mara hostel.
I hadn't booked, figuring that a hostel on an island
like this was hardly likely to be full. I hadn't figured
on the fact that the island would be full of construction
workers. The hostel was indeed full. From there we
were directed to various houses that were apparently
B&Bs, although no signs were out front to indicate
this. But they were full of construction workers too.
It was looking more and more like we were going to
be marooned on this island.The ferry on which we had
come over was
the last of the day. As I surveyed the area this idea
became more and more unappealing. The landscape was
extremely barren. The weather was cold, wet and windy.
Also we were both cold and wet due to our ride on
the front of the boat. We had heard that the king
often came to meet visitors as they arrived, as part
of his royal duties. But he was nowhere to be seen.
A pity, I thought, he might have room for two weary
travellers in his palace. There was a hotel on the
island, but I figured that to be too expensive - forty
pounds, I found out later. Fortunately a little old
lady called Mary came to our rescue. She had two beds
in a room upstairs.
Island has one pub, one café, one shop and
a hotel bar. The café is at the top of a hill
on the edge of town. We ordered our food and sat by
the window watching as the weather outside grew steadily
worse. In winter no one can get to and from the island
for weeks at a time. Back in the 80s a storm that
lasted for months rendered the two towns devoid of
electricity, and cut off all communications to the
island. After this manyof the
inhabitants applied for relocation to the mainland.
The government tried to get all the islanders off,
but the more stubborn ones remained.
island is predominantly Gaelic speaking. The two young
girls running the café happily switched between
the two. They explained to us that they go to school on
the mainland during the winter, but have to spend their
summers here. They didn't like it and couldn't wait until
they were old enough to leave. I couldn't blame them really.
After all there literally was nothing to do. Anne and
I had no choice but to spend the evening in the pub, finished
off with a conversation by the fire at the B&B.
had got chatting to one of the workmen staying there.
He told us that the islanders are paid double dole
or pension to live here and that people like Mary
make more on top with the B&B business.
have plenty of money but nothing to spend it on. Most
of them just sleep, drink and paint. You can buy a
house for £2500, but only if you were born here
or have relatives living here. The locals are not
tempted by money. Our workman/tourist guide had tried
to buy one, in the hope of selling it at a huge profit.
He even offered a higher price, but no one would sell
to him. They weren't interested in the money; they
just wanted to preserve the culture of the islanders.
How nice it is to know that there are still some things
that money can't buy. He eventually shooed us off
to bed, saying that he wanted to sit by the fire alone
and think. Fair enough!
next morning we took a stroll to East Town before trying
to find the king. The bleak landscape had a certain majestic
quality about it. Rugged cliffs that were constantly being
pounded by the surrounding rough sea dominate the eastern
side of the island. East Town was basically just a residential
area. As we got there it started to rain. I had stupidly
left my raincoat back at the B&B. In a place such
as this a raincoat should be kept on you at all times.
Needless to say I was soaked upon return.
warming ourselves by the fire in the hotel bar, we
set out to meet the king. We had hoped to meet him
the night before in the pub, but he never came in.
The obvious place to look was his palace; his palace
being a nice little house on the hill near to the
café. As we approached his front door I wondered
what I should say. After all, it's not as though
I've ever knocked for a king before. A French couple,
who had also come over on our boat, joined us too.
As we all stood there on the doorstep eagerly waiting
to be ushered in, a smiling old lady answered the
I said, "is the king there?"
I think I can say with all honestly that I will never
utter such a sentence again as long as I live.
she replied, "he went down to the art gallery. If
you wander down there I'm sure you will bump into him."
an island this size I felt sure that we would also.
at the pier we spotted an old man dressed in wellington
boots, a blue raincoat and wearing a black cap.
He fitted the description well, so we wandered over.
When he spotted us he waved and came to meet us.
you the King of Tory?" asked Anne.
I am!" he replied.
hearty handshakes and introductions he explained that
he had seen Anne yesterday but was busy working on some
paintings for an upcoming exhibition. He apparently came
into the pub very late, but we had already left.
He left us momentarily as he went to see off the first
wave of tourists about to leave on the boat. The French
couple went on this boat also. When he had finished he
returned and spent about half an hour chatting with us
and posing for photos. He was quite a character: chatty,
friendly, helpful and with a fantastic sense of humour.
He gave us a brief rundown on the island and its inhabitants.
He explained that English was his second language and
he wasn't as confident with it as he was with Gaelic.
He sounded all right to me. He enjoyed his role as king
and said that he always tries his best to meet everyone
who visits the island. He took his royal duties seriously
- as serious as could be expected, I suppose. Most evenings
he would entertain visitors in the pub with his music.
We had been unfortunate enough to be there on a night
when he was too busy. After a lengthy chat he bade us
farewell and promised to see us off on our boat.
and I went to the pub and had one for the sea. Then we
collected our stuff, said goodbye to Mary and her husband
and wandered down to the pier. True to his word, the king
came down and saw us off. As the king and his island shrank
off into the distance I realised that this was one place
I would be returning to. The remoteness, the bleak weather
and the barren inhospitable look held a strange attraction.
I could understand why it was a haven for painters. It
had a sort of cold beauty. It was the perfect getaway.
Also it contains great people. One of the girls from the
café had gone out of her way to get Anne some sea
sickness pills for the journey home, which she had taken
with her Guinness. She was now clinging on to the rails
in a sort of trance like state. The island also has a
king. Sure he wasn't an actual king, but the warm and
friendly way he welcomes you to his island and the hospitality
he extends, makes him, in my opinion, a true king of hearts.