Our little boat was being thrown about on the ocean like a piece of flotsam. We stood at the front getting the soaking of our lives. Despite its size, the ferry negotiated these monstrous waves with considerable ease, and an hour after leaving we were pulling into the half-built pier on the remote and wind-beaten Tory Island.
We had both read in a book about a man who lives here who is known to all as the King of Tory, and figured it would be fun to travel to a remote island off the coast of Northern Donegal and meet a King. Although, as we stood on the pier soaking wet, the sky darkening with thick clouds and the rain slowly getting heavier, we began to have serious doubts about all this; especially as guesthouse after guesthouse was full with the workmen building the pier.
Three years later I found myself sailing into that same pier on that same boat. The only difference was the weather. The sun was blazing in the sky and illuminating Tory and its nice new pier. The crossing had been perfect, and this time I wasn't wet.
My travelling companion this time around was Nika, a very lovely girl from Slovenia who I met while travelling Spain the year before. At the ferry terminal in Magheroarty the lady behind the counter had told us that the King greets us at the pier, and kisses the girls. Nika had never been kissed by a King before, so she was quite excited at the prospect.
Tory Island is a remote, treeless place lying nine miles off the county's northern coast. 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. Overall, it is best described as a bleak and inhospitable place. Nevertheless, it has a population of 170 living in four towns, imaginatively titled East Town, West Town, Middletown and Newtown. 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, alias the King of Tory.
For decades the island was pretty much cut off from the mainland, especially in winter. Getting to Tory Island is a lot easier nowadays due to modern boats; although the crossing may still be rough enough to churn the stomach of even the hardiest traveller. The service operates from Bunbeg and Magheroarty on a daily basis. Magheroarty is the shortest crossing and also runs more often. The first time around, we hitched, bussed and walked our way there. Bus Eireann doesn't operate a service this far north, but there are a few local bus services such as Lough Swilly. This time around I had a camper van, which made life easier.
Much to our disappointment the King wasn't there to greet us on arrival. We made our way to the Radharc Na Mara hostel, which is a simple little house with no signs or anything to indicate that it's a hostel. Katherine runs the place and gave us a room with two beds, sofa, chair and fire for 12 Euro each. This hostel had been full last time I came and, after being sent from house to house, we ended up staying with a nice old lady called Mary Meehan who, for £16 per night, provided us with bed and breakfast, and even dried our clothes by the fire.
Intending to take advantage of the nice sunny evening, we hiked our way to the eastern side of the island, which is characterised by high cliffs that drop off at frighteningly steep angles. The rough sea pounds the island's jagged edges far below and a vast array of birdlife inhabits the cliffs, including puffins. An abandoned caravan that had sat alone in the middle of this expanse of wilderness three years ago was now lying in the same spot, flipped over and broken into pieces; an example of the stormy weather this island experiences during the winter.
Back in West Town we ate a cheap meal at the café, accompanied with homemade bread, and then went to the island's only pub (other than the hotel bar) Club Soisialta (Social Club) for a drink. It was my hope that the King would pop in (after all, he is a very down to earth King and not above drinking with the peasants). And sure enough, he did and came over to welcome us to his island. He shook my hand, and took a while to recognise me. Nika had been looking forward to her royal kiss so much that when the moment came she reciprocated so enthusiastically that I feared she would give the poor old man a heart attack.
In ancient Ireland there were three levels of kingship: the High King, the Provincial King and the Petty King. The Petty King rules over small agricultural communities and is effectively a tribal chieftain.
Tory is the last outpost of civilisation in Ireland to retain the tradition of electing a king. The King of Tory is a petty king, and the only remaining king in the country. The title is not hereditary, and petty kings are elected purely on their skills and personal qualities. In ancient times the King's role was to govern the island. Naturally, in more modern times, this role has become somewhat redundant.
For decades the island was pretty much So when Tory first opened up to tourism the islanders wanted to appoint a representative who could help attract visitors. Being a natural contender, the King was given the task. Patsy Dan has worked extremely hard ever since, using worldwide exhibitions of his famous paintings to promote the island.
Tory is steeped in history (it's been inhabited for 4000 years) and the islanders have fought hard to retain their way of life. Even today the islanders can be cut off for months in the winter. The government had managed to coerce inhabitants off other nearby islands, but Tory's inhabitants refused to leave. Fishing and farming had long been a way of life, although both have waned over the years. The locals now rely a lot on summer tourism.
In the morning the rain was back. In a sense I was quite glad. This is how I remember the island: cold, bleak and ravaged by the elements. It's also a reminder that good warm, waterproof clothing is needed. Three years ago I'd set out for a walk along the cliffs without my raincoat. By the time I got back I was too wet to do anything except sit by the fire.
One road runs the length of the island, at the end of which, I was amused to see, was a small dirt roundabout. We set out for the western side, which is flat but contains dangerous offshore rocks. It also contains the island's lighthouse, which was built in 1828 and fully automated in 1990. The sea around this little isle is littered with ships that have fallen foul of its deadly storms; the most famous of which is the British gunboat, the Wasp, which sank in 1884 while on a mission to collect taxes from the islanders.
Having not seen him all day, we wandered up to join the King at his palace. He came out front and greeted us with his usual warm welcome.
'I was just off to the gallery to put in a couple of new paintings,' he said, putting them down and suddenly realising that he was also carrying the remote control for the television. 'Oh, I'll be back in a minute,' he said, and rushed off inside.
It seems even Kings suffer from absent-mindedness.
He returned shortly after and gave us a couple of posters of the island. We then chatted as we strolled off towards the gallery. Halfway, he got into a conversation in Gaelic with some locals, and said he would meet us there.
Tory Island, like a lot of Northern Donegal, is predominantly an Irish-speaking area. All signs are in Gaelic.
We continued on to the gallery, but not before popping in to see Mary, whose comfortable home and open fire had saved us from having to huddle in that abandoned caravan and possibly die of hypothermia three years ago.
The small gallery houses an impressive display of the islanders' paintings. James Dixon is Tory's most celebrated painter and died in 1970. Work is underway to build a gallery for his work alone. We chatted to the owner who expressed his concern at the downfall in visitors to the island in recent years.
'Not so long ago the island would be dotted with tents in the summer. Now you don't see any,' he said.
It was a shame. Tourism in Ireland was down, and Tory was suffering the most.
As we set sail back to the mainland and watched as the King waved enthusiastically until he was just a dot on the pier, we headed out into what was possibly the roughest crossing yet. The way the skipper swept the boat in and out of these gigantic waves was testament to his skill and to the safety of this boat. I stood at the back as the waves crashed over the edge and the boat rolled from side to side. As I stood there enjoying the ride, I remembered something Mary had said to me: 'Don't leave it three years before you come back to see us again.'
I hoped I wouldn't.
Published February 2003