When people think of Ireland, they might think of Guinness, music or even Leprechauns, but did you know that Ireland has a King?
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Travel Articles
An Audience with a King

Tory 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.

I 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.

I 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.

"I can take you seven kilometres up the road to Kilmacrenen," he said.

I hesitated, partly out of a slight fear of this man, but also because it wasn't very far.

"You won't get picked up here," he went on, "you've more chance in Kilmacrenen."

So we bundled our baggage in and set off.

We 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.

After 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.

"That's fine," I said, "just take us as far as you can."

And 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.

The 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.

Anne 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.

The 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 hardly needed.

What 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.
Tory 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.

The 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.

We 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.
They 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!

The 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.

After 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 door.

"Hello," I said, "is the king there?"

Now I think I can say with all honestly that I will never utter such a sentence again as long as I live.

"No," she replied, "he went down to the art gallery. If you wander down there I'm sure you will bump into him."

On an island this size I felt sure that we would also.

Down 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.

"Are you the King of Tory?" asked Anne.

"That I am!" he replied.

After 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.

Anne 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.

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

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