little boat was being thrown about on the ocean like
a piece of flotsam. Anne and I 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 had both
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.
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. Nika, my travelling companion
this time round, had been told that the King greets
the ladies with a kiss. Nika had never been kissed by
a King before and was looking forward to the honour.
Unfortunately though, he wasn't there to meet the boat.
The pier had obviously been finished (although if you've
ever tried to get anything built in Ireland you wouldn't
have been surprised if it wasn't) and was officially
opened in July 2001. We made our way along the pier
with a Belgian couple who planned to camp somewhere
on the island.
you going to meet the King?' I asked them.
he still alive then?' asked the girl.
course he is,' I replied.
'Oh, it's just that we
heard he was very old.'
island is just 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. But looking at the
sky this evening you could be forgiven for thinking
otherwise. The island has a population of
people. As well as being King of the Island, Patsy
Dan Rogers is also a prominent painter and musician,
whose work has spread far beyond the confines of
his island and the country to which it belongs.
made our way to the Radharc Na Mara hostel and
this time found it wasn't full of workmen. Like all
the B&Bs on the island, the hostel was simply a
little house with no signs or anything to indicate that
it was a hostel. Katherine, a short lady with bobbed
red hair, ran the place and gave Nika and I a room with
two beds, sofa, chair and fire for 12 Euro each.
to take advantage of the nice sunny evening, we
went out and hiked our way to the eastern side of
the island, which is dominated with high cliffs
that drop off at frighteningly steep angles to the
sight of its jagged edges being pounded by the rough
sea below. The abandoned caravan that had sat alone
in the middle of this expanse of wilderness three
now lying in the same spot flipped over and broken
to pieces. An example of the stormy weather this
island experiences during the winter.
landscape was treeless and rocky with a sparse covering
of vegetation. The area is reputed to be a nesting
place for many species of bird, including puffins.
We spotted one or two perched along the cliff edge.
We followed the cliff line until we reached the
end of the island and then returned to town for
a meal in the café and then to the Club
(Social Club) for a drink and the hope that
the King would pop in for a drink (after all, he
was a very down to earth King and not above drinking
with the peasants).
Patsy Dan been in at all?' I asked the barman.
as I had already met him and written about him in my
book, I felt worthy of being on a first name basis with
'He was in earlier, but
left. I expect he'll be back in later,' he replied.
took our drinks and sat at a table nearby. Soon
after, the King walked in and after a chat with
someone across the room, he comes over to greet
us and welcome us to Tory. Understandably he didn't
remember me at first (I'm still not sure he did
after) but was pleased to see he was featured in
my book. It was late by this time and he was very
tired, but he pulled out his glasses and studied
the picture on the back, then turned to the chapter
in which he was featured.
was very pleased to see what I had done and said
he would get something written about it in one of
the papers he was connected with.
she hadn't got her kiss at the boat, Nika took the opportunity
here. We discussed the changes on the island. Tourism
in Ireland was down considerably and nowhere had it
hit more than Tory. The King was angry that no promotional
literature had been circulated this year. Like everywhere
in Ireland the weather had been worse than usual for
the year. He was also concerned as to the whereabouts
of the island's puffins. He left us soon after and we
agreed to meet the next day.
on the island three years ago I had stayed with a lovely
old lady called Mary, whose comfortable home and open
fire had saved us from having to huddle in that abandoned
caravan and possibly die of hypothermia. The next morning
when I came out from making a phone call an old lady
came by and started talking to me about the weather.
The more I looked at her the more I felt sure it was
her. So I asked, and found I was right.
probably don't remember me,' I said, 'but I stayed with
you three years ago.'
you do look familiar,' she said.
was with a girl with short reddish hair.'
'Ah yes, I remember you
now,' she said.
Mary's husband had died not too long ago from a
heart attack. His brother had died only two days
before. I imagined that must have been a big problem
for the islanders. There were no real medical facilities
on the island, and being so isolated must make it
difficult to get anyone to hospital on the mainland.
The delay could well be fatal.
Mary still did the B&B from time to time, offering
a much cheaper and homely alternative to the hotel
next door, which charged 60 Euro per night.
you married?' she asked.
not yet,' I replied.
should go and get yourself married,' she said.
I told her I'd do my best.
She was pleased to hear that she was featured in my
book and I promised to bring her a copy before I left.
and I walked to the western side of the island today,
at the end of which sits a lighthouse. This side
of the island is lower. The island only has a little
narrow country road that runs through the towns.
Occasionally this splits off into a dirt track leading
to a house or a row of houses. I was amused to see
that at the edge of West Town this dirt track formed
a little roundabout from which ran a couple of walking
We took one to the lighthouse and then returned
and had a bite to eat in the café. The night
before Nika and been won over by the owner's homemade
soup and bread and was delighted to see there was
We took the same table
by the window where Anne and I had sat all those years
before. I distinctly remembered the view from this window.
There had been nothing but an empty field of long clumps
of grass bending with the wind. I had watched in the
distance as a small fishing boat was making its way
out to sea amid waves twice its size. This time though,
there was a house in the way.
island was growing. New buildings had popped up
all over the place. During my first visit to the
island, there had been two towns: East Town and
West Town. When I returned to Mary with the book
she wrote down her address for me. She explained
that there were now effectively four towns: East
Town, Middletown, New Town and West Town. I imagined
that next time I return they'll have local councils
weather today was back to its normal miserable self.
I was glad. It's horrible of me to say, I know. Especially
as the locals were so fed up with it. But this is how
I remembered Tory. In my eyes it's what characterises
the island: wind howling across the open landscape,
dark clouds dominating the sky and rain lashing your
face. It's this stormy, unpredictable weather that has
produced such vivid and diverse landscapes, inspiring
people like Patsy Dan and the island's most famous painter
James Dixon to produce such incredible pieces of work.
wandered up to join the King at his palace, not having
seen him out and about all day. As we approached he
came out front and greeted us with his usual warm welcome.
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
returned shortly after and gave us a couple of
posters of the island. We then chatted as we strolled
off down towards the gallery. Halfway, he got
into a conversation in Gaelic with some locals,
and said he would meet us there.
The tiny gallery on the edge of Middletown houses
an impressive display of paintings mostly by the
King, James Dixon and Derek Hill. James Dixon
Tory's most celebrated painter and died in 1970.
The King had told us that they are currently working
on a gallery at the other side of town that will
be a shrine to him and his work. James never became
a painter until his later years when the English
painter Derek Hill was visiting one day. After watching
him paint James, then just a simple local fisherman,
commented that he could do better. Derek, obviously
amused by the man's audacity, took him up on the
challenge and set him up with the equipment he needed.
He then watched in pure amazement as this man's
natural talent unravelled before his very eyes.
got chatting to the owner of the gallery and he told
us how years ago the island would be covered with tents
this time of year. Backpackers and birdwatchers would
flock here in the summer. Nowadays you rarely see anyone.
It's a blow for the islanders who in these changing
times rely on tourism to some extent.
Suddenly I realised we
had fifteen minutes to go before the ferry left. Once
again I had to leave. When I left three years ago I
had sworn that I would return and spend more than just
one night. But time was running short for me. I had
a lot to do on this promotional tour.
King hadn't made it to the gallery, and we began
to think he wouldn't see us off at the ferry.
But at the very last minute he appeared, giving
Nika another kiss and me a hearty handshake.
the next five minutes he waved enthusiastically at us
both until he was just a dot on the pier, and we were
heading out into what was possibly the roughest crossing
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 and the crossing. I stood at the back as the
waves crashed over the edge and the boat rolled from
side to side. It was the best roller coaster ride in
the world. As I stood there enjoying the ride, I remember
something Mary had said to me: 'Don't leave it three
years before you come back to see us again.'
hoped I wouldn't.
na Mara Hostel, (074) 65145