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
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 this journey.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
years later I returned. Click here
to read: Return to Tory Island