A brush with royalty on Tory Island

It’s not every ferry from which you disembark that a king is there to meet you with a firm handshake, writes Dan MacCarthy

In a lovely role reversal it is Tory Island which rolls out the red carpet for the visitor as the island’s resident king, Patsy Dan Rodgers, stands by the pier and greets every visitor with a firm handshake and a céad míle fáilte. It was his fellow islanders who conferred the title.

Tory is an Irish-speaking island with some English spoken according to the island’s website. And if you only have a cúpla focal that’s good enough too.

This treeless island is utterly charming with as relaxed a way of life as it is probably possible to have. Tory is derived from torai which may mean rock or pirate, but both indicate a kind of stark prehistory.

The population is centred around the pier where there is a fine hotel. Up along the road to the west is the island’s pub-cum-community centre and there is also a lovely cafe and hostel. Throw in a church and a GAA pitch and you have the foundations of a lively village community.

Near the pier is a unique artifact of early Christian provenance. The tau cross dates from the 6th century and is made from mica which is alien to Tory.

It is the only one in Ireland in situ. Another in Co Clare was removed for safekeeping. Other notable features on Tory include the lighthouse and the remnants of St Colmcille’s 6th-century monastery, and St Bridget’s oratory. And though treeless, Tory is nonetheless a little piece of paradise. Watch the oystercatchers frolic on the shore among the old nets.

Take a walk to the east of the island and marvel at the porridge-like rock formations.

When you do land, it is a welcome welcome from the king, for if you have crossed the towering seas on the 40-minute crossing from the Co Donegal mainland, you will need all the comfort you can get.

The huge north Atlantic swells that roll across the seas are mightily powerful and it is not just in song that their devastating strength are recorded. The eponymous character of ‘Báidín Fheilimí’ wasn’t the only poor mariner to perish thereabouts.

“Báidín Fheilimí briseadh i dToraí, Iasc ar bord agus Feilimí ann.

“Feilimí’s little boat crashed on Tory, Fish on board and Feilimí in it.”

Many souls have perished from stricken ships but not all as a result of Mother Nature’s whims. One such was the Irish commercial trawler the St Leukos which was attacked by a German submarine in 1940. Eleven crew were cut down in a hail of gunfire. They were mainly Dubliners with a few from England.

Sailing the waters of the Tory Sound can be deadly, but in part it gives the island its character. That has been expressed superbly in the primitive art movement that has taken root in the island.

It was inspired by the English artist Derek Hill who went to Tory in the 1950s. Hill encouraged a fisherman called James Dixon to swap his nets for a brush. Dixon proved to be a natural artist and he himself continued the primitive tradition for which the living embodiment is the king himself, Patsy Dan.

The artists capture the island in vivid colours, the subjects limned in dark borders or presented with an effortless sweep of the brush: Antoin Meenan; Ruairi L Rodgers; Michael F Rodgers; Majella Nic Ruaidhri; Daniel M Cullen; Christina Nic Ruaidhri; Noreen Meenan; Padraig Diver. They have been collected, exhibited, and been the subject of documentaries from Tokyo to New York. However, the island’s gallery has fallen into disrepair and is badly in need of funding. Donations can be made to the address below. Over to you, Arts Council.

Patsy Dan’s paintings are primarily landscapes — and Tory’s turbulent seas and twisted rock formations are his bread and butter. However, it is civilisation from which he appears to draw his inspiration and his numerous studies of Tory houses in all seasons depict a community at the edge of civilisation. Beyond, the savage Atlantic.

Patsy Dan is back on his feet again after a serious illness last year. “I paint landscapes but after every 12 paintings I do a religious one to give thanks to God,” he says.


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