TORY ISLAND AND THE KING OF TORY – RÍ THORAÍ
By Maureen McCoy and Paul McCambridge
Tory Island lies 9 miles off the coast North-west Donegal. 3 miles long and 0.6 of a mile wide, it is a rugged and exposed outpost of Irish island life. The small population of 154, at the time we visit, had recently been swollen by 3 new babies, Patsy Dan, the King of Tory, proudly tells us. His vision and hope that the island will begin to regenerate seeing a flicker of life with these happy tidings.
In his Gaelic island lilt, Patsy Dan takes his duty as the King of Tory very seriously. All visitors are made welcome. Patsy, as far as his health will let him, comes down to the harbour to welcome the ferry each time it arrives. A striking figure, although not a large man, Patsy conjures an almost Pirate King image to me. A large gold ring in his ear, sailing cap on his head and sharply dressed in a dark double-breast pea coat with a gold “O” pin on his lapel he cuts a dapper stride. His silver car parked close by with the personalised plate; King of Tory.
Patsy Dan Rogers, the King of Tory, passed away Friday, 19th October 2018, after a long-term illness aged 74.
Having only met him last year over a few days on the island, I was struck by his welcoming manner. On learning we were there to explore the islands interesting swimming spots and the music and art that the island is famous for. He immediately insisted that we pitch our tent close beside the Dixon Gallery where he, Anton and other local artists exhibit their work, to shelter from the stormy weather due to hit that evening.
Patsy Dan described himself as a primitive artist and his paintings in the gallery hang alongside those of other family members. Although not born on the Island Patsy Dan was a great ambassador for the way of life there and it seems to me that they chose well on electing him King. The island has had a history of electing artists as their King. Born in Dublin he was adopted and came to the island around the age of four. A gifted musician and a natural storyteller he regaled us with stories both historical and recent of the island. Patsy Dan was also a great friend of the English artist Derek Hill who kept returning to Tory for close to 50 years. He described how Derek would spend days in his little studio/ ‘shack’ on the exposed northwest cliffs. He pressed the key into my hand and said “Go up and spend some time there when the weather clears, follow the track up from the road, just leave me the key back before you leave Tory!”
After a wet and windy night, the day was settled as we cycled out towards the light house then turned right up the rough path to the shack. Between the natural rock and sparse grass were great slabs of concrete, most with heavy and rusted metal hoops embedded in them. I guess a hangover from the old telegraph station.
Inside the shack is left as Derek had left it, a small tale in the narrow entrance hall with a slate top, perhaps this is where Derek would place his camping stove to boil water as he worked. The one-roomed building has windows on 3 sides and a second table sits in front of the largest, looking inland. In the corner a cabinet houses a few collectibles – an old soap flake package, Oxo tins, a kettle, tea pot and even his paint palette on a slate. Derek might have only just stepped out the door a moment ago.
Looking across this craggy coastline with its cliffs and inlets, the rocks flayed with lines as though the sea, wind or both had whipped them repeatedly creating scars. I can see the draw for an artist to return year on year. How the light must change on the rock, sometimes grey, sometimes brown and even pink in the evening light. The Atlantic, even on a calm day beats against the shore, whirlpools and sea-spray surging around the base of the cliffs and, as you follow the shoreline into one of numerous inlets the water is calm, the outer rocks taking the brunt of the ocean waves.
A wooden bench painted bright red and tethered down to large rocks, a makeshift solution after the original bolts had sheared off, provides a perfect seat to watch the changing elements. Just below a curved metal barrier hangs over the edge of the inlet and from this a steep and narrow stone staircase leads down to the water. The sun lights up the sea-weed under the surface as it sways gently in the crystal clear sea – who could resist?
This northern shore of Tory Island has the high cliffs, taking all the battery of the sea and not far from Derek’s shack is a small walled graveyard called ‘The Foreign or Commonwealth Graveyard’. Still tended by the islanders this is the resting place of British sailors who’s ship the HMS Wasp sank here in 1884, with only 6 survivors from their 56 crew. Their mission was to vacate the island as their landlord owed over ten thousand pounds to the British government and HMS Wasp was going there to collect rent and rates or remove the residents off the Island. As word filtered to Tory that the ship had left Westport, Co Mayo, two islanders carried the ‘Cursing Stone’ to the extremities of the island, praying that it would put upon the ship a curse from the heavens. The Gun Boat sank 23rd September 1884.
The island has had many years of battling to maintain its permanent residents, a fight Patsy Dan continued to struggle with as he tried to convince the government and others to invest in the islands infrastructure and improve access for tourism.
A place for bird watchers, artists and poets, walking or off-road biking along this cliff top brings one past a series of inlets and inspiring rock formations. Approximately halfway along the island is a very narrow and extremely steep inlet that has two little gems for swimmers. The very steep grassy sides mean you must zig-zag your way carefully down to the waterside rocks. From here it’s a fairly easy climb down into the water, a large dark cavern gapes in the opposite wall. As swimming out of the sunlight into the darkness my heart beats faster, that nervousness of the unknown. My eyes take a moment to adjust to the dim light and I cannot stop myself from imagining all sorts of great sea creatures lurking in the shadows – quickly coming back into the safety of the light I spy a large rock near where I got in and I see a narrow gap behind. I slip through this gap into a tall circular chamber; an almost enclosed little pool.
Tory has many swim spots to discover; on the east of the island at Port an Duin, right at the end of the road, two beaches frame the narrow land bridge leading out to Balor’s Fort and The Lovers’ Flagstone. Lying back to back, depending on which direction the wind is from, one or other of these can often be sheltered enough to swim.
Worth the trip and despite its small landmass, Tory has a lot to offer for a visit, music, art, swimming and bird watching.
Thank you Patsy Dan, King of Tory for making us welcome.
Dunagree Point, Inishowen Peninsula
Words by Maureen McCoy
Follow the road out of Moville towards Inishowen head and you can stop at almost any hole in the hedge, park your car or bike on the roadside and take a peek through that gap and you will likely find a cove or tiny beach all to yourself, if someone is there and you want solitude, there are plenty more to explore. I have selected some of the best I have found.
Dunagree Lighthouse, sitting proud in its private gardens and flanked by two white sand beaches, the first, petite and sheltered with its soft white sand quickly shelving to deep water. The second is larger, has a car-park and life guards hut yet holds a quaint old-fashioned Irish-ness about it. The light house watches from the dunes and at the other end of the beach, the rough and craggy rocks carry an old concrete bridge spanning across and beckoning one to explore. This bridge once led to a diving board, long since gone but never the less it still draws one to step across.
One other tent was pitched on the beach, tucked in nicely out of the wind and hidden from view when you first walked onto the beach, a perfect spot. Towels hung on every guy-line and soon I met the occupants; four young girls who had persuaded Mum to let them camp out; “for just one night?” and where still here five days later. Mum, keeping a watchful eye from their own house only a few metres away across the road, supplied daily meals, life guard cover and fresh towels, yet gave the girls the freedom to have a ‘local adventure’. I joined her during life guarding duties and we watched the girls playing and diving under the surf, getting knocked over and picking themselves up, long salt-ridden hair whipping across their faces in the wind and spray. When finally the cold worked its way through their wetsuits and their lips began to take on a slight bluish tinge, the girls agreed it was time to leave the water. Running up the beach they shouted goodbyes and “Will you swim with us tomorrow?”
Later, as the sun was going down, a procession arrived, dressed in fleece “ones’ies” (perfect attire after a days’ swimming), to say goodnight.
I ended the day cooking over my camp stove on the beach as the sun lowered to a beautiful sunset, the sea calm and the soft swish of the waves on shore lulling me to sleep.
Words By Maureen McCoy
The reeds whispered in the gentle breeze as we walked into Lough Derg on a warm summers evening and swam out into the dark, peaty water. Far across the lough rose the impressive structure of the Sanctuary, the circular Basilica with its great copper dome dominating the lake. I thought of the many thousands of pilgrims who have travellled here seeking enlightenment, or to ease their suffering and that of others, or came here in thanks. Clearing my mind of the everyday rush, I stopped making lists and simply enjoyed being here, immersed in the water and the moment. In a kind of meditation I let myself relax and breathe, taking the time to enjoy the cool water, the warm sun and the soft breeze.
For hundreds of years, Station Island where the Sanctuary sits was believed to be a special place, even before Saint Patrick travelled here in the 12th Century. But it was after Patrick’s vision of the afterlife during contemplation in a cave here that it became a place of Christian pilgrimage and the island was given the name, Purgatorium Sancti Patricii.
The largest lough in Donegal at six miles by four, Lough Derg can afford the swimmer plenty of quiet places to explore without interrupting anyone else’s spiritual experience. Away from the main car-park there are plenty of access points used by fishermen and with no motor-craft allowed, the peaceful air is tangible.
Although it would be tempting to swim out to the Sanctuary, they ask that no craft go within 300m of the island, and I accept that this would include swimmers and so I am happy to enjoy my solitary contemplation, enjoy the peace and admire the grand building from afar.
Moville Lighthouse Swim (Dolphins included)
Written by Maureen McCoy
Photography by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media
The sun was shining on lough Foyle as a small crowd gathered at the harbour. Keen long distance swimmers and some completely new to open water were there to brave the sea on the 3rd annual Moville Lighthouse swim – 1.2km out from the harbour, around the lighthouse sitting pretty on its stilts and back to the slipway.
As the 38 swimmers, mostly “skins” (normal swimming togs) with just a few in wet-suits, walked down the slipway to ready themselves for the start of the race, an audience of family and friends cheered them on. Kayaks sat a little way off waiting to guide the swimmers and out near the main channel rescue boats hovered. As the field began to spread a huge container ship sounded its horn as it slipped on down the Foyle.
The organiser Peadar’s comment before the swim, “Those of you not racing for a fast time, when you get to the lighthouse just take a moment…look back at the scenery” was ringing in my ears as we watched the swimmers finishing and a pod of Dolphins appeared, jumping and riding the wakes of the safety boats.
A spectacular show followed and I was jealous of the lucky devils out there in boats and kayaks with those magnificent creatures showing off around them.
My apologies now to the swimmers, you did great but the Dolphins stole the show!
Certainly this event will continue to grow in numbers, it’s a beautiful swim, well organised and I am keen to sign up for next year, especially if there is a chance that the dolphins might return and I will be taking a camera with me!
Swimmer and spectator quotes
“Moville Lighthouse Swim completed today. Can’t believe a few months
ago I started swimming. If you had said to me I would have done a
triathlon and an open water event, I would have laughed out loud. To top
off the swim today I was literally swimming with dolphins. Happy Happy
“Congratulations , another superb event . We are getting bigger and
better each year , the dolphins were a master touch!”
“…a great swim today. I had the added bonus of swimming with the
dolphins for part of it. I look forward to next years’ swim.”
“Mammy, when will I be old enough to swim around the Lighthouse like them?” – Comment by 5 year old boy to parent
19th July 2014
Jack Sail-by-the-Wind or Velella Velella
Words by Maureen McCoy
Photography by Paul McCambridge
A strange creature has been washing up on the beaches of Donegal, at first sight I, and many others on the beach, thought they were mussels. Why would mussels, usually holding so firmly on to rock or rope, have detached themselves from their beds? On closer inspection these dark blue shells were perhaps only half the mussel, broken apart by stormy seas? As each wave flushed more to be stranded in the sun, it looked as though the top layer of shell was peeling off. Like fine clear silicone with a spider web pattern, but this wasn’t mother of pearl with its rainbow colours and pearlescent sheen. This was transparent and it was not a layer peeling off but a tiny sail atop a tiny raft. Twisting slightly as it stretched over the length of the shell in a long thin S shape with fine spokes fanning out connecting a series of concentric growth rings, a delicate pattern so like the spiders web.
I picked one up and as I set it on my hand I was surprised to feel its soft underbelly on my skin. I immediately thought of oh-so-innocent looking jellyfish with their vicious tentacles and decided that perhaps it was not a good idea to handle them – I wasn’t stung though.
No-one seemed to know what they were, so snaps were taken and google was activated, I introduce you to –Jack Sail-by–the-Wind (or Velella velella)
The science bit;
About 6cm long they are widespread in the oceans where they float on the surface with their tiny sails driven by the wind. There are two kinds with the sails running in the opposite diagonal across the raft, so some will always sail to the left of the wind, some always to the right.
The little raft is a float, filled with many air sacks, on its underside are attached a colony of cnidarians – (specialized ocean surface animals which include the Portuguese man o’ war) but although they do possess nematocysts – (the stinging bits of jellyfish) they are relatively harmless to humans – (some people can be irritated by contact so best not to rub your eyes or face after handling them). They are related not only to jellyfish but to anemones and coral.
Also known as Sea raft, purple sail, little sail.