TORY ISLAND AND THE KING OF TORY – RÍ THORAÍ

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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!”

180817 - Tory Island 1st edit 18aAfter 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.

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Inside the shack is still as Derek had left it, a small table 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 collectables – 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.

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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.

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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?

 

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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 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.

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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.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media Tory Island. Picture by Paul McCambridge

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. 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.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media Tory Island. Picture by Paul McCambridge

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.

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Worth the trip and despite its small landmass, Tory has a lot to offer for a visit, music, art, swimming and bird watching.

©Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media Tory Island. Picture by Paul McCambridge

Thank you Patsy Dan, King of Tory for making us welcome.

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Neil Shawcross

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©Paul McCambridge – MAC Visual Media –  Renown Irish Artist Neil Shawcross takes his weekly dip in Strangford Lough, over 40 yrs he has kept this ritual

 

Words by Maureen McCoy, Photos by Paul McCambridge

Neil arrived in the café, casually dressed in jeans and a shirt, he immediately spied us across the room and approached with a smile. I was relieved as we had arrived late due to the horrendous traffic and a staff member had told us that Neil had had to go on to take his brother to the airport, but that he would be back if we would wait. Of course we would.

 

As Neil shook Paul’s hand he introduced me saying,

“This girl swam the Channel…”

 

Neil shakes my hand and seems intrigued, he pulls himself a chair as I launch into the reason we asked to meet.

“I believe you are also a keen swimmer.”

“Yes.” He confirms, “I swim in the sea every week, all year through.”

 

I explain the concept I’m working on, this diary of swims, writing how I feel during the swims and of others who swim, what they gain from it, why they do it. Is it meditative? Does it clear the mind? Is it for the health benefits?

 

Neil thinks for a moment then looks intensely at me, smiles and says

“I do it for fun. There is perhaps an element of the rest, I’m sure there are health benefits and it’s certainly become a habit, but mostly I do it because it’s fun and I have done for forty years.”

 

It’s refreshing to hear such a simple explanation, something so in line with how I feel, it is fun, and that’s the point.

 

His face becomes more animated as he talks of his regular swims with his friend, Henry French. He clearly does love this, it’s written on his face, and he seems pleased to talk to a couple of like-minded folk who understand.

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©Paul McCambridge – MAC Visual Media – Maureen, Henry and Neil 

I think of how many of the poets and artists of the past who also enjoyed the freedom of swimming in the sea, rivers and lakes. Of course, then, that was where one bathed – swimming pools are a fairly modern phenomenon – but it seems sea swimming is now done by a growing number as simply an enjoyable thing to do. It’s not seen as a workout, performed for some future goal of health, fitness or weight loss but rather for the pleasure it brings at the time. That strikes a cord with me, being ‘in the moment’ is something I strive to be aware of and I catch glimpses of it. Swimming can be one of those glimpses, the watch is discarded time is forgotten and so, briefly, stands still. Of course later, after I dress, or perhaps it’s during that dressing, time has to catch up again and suddenly I am brought back to the fast world with a bump.

 

Neil is quite right, it is fun.

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©Paul McCambridge – MAC Visual Media – Renown Irish Artist Neil Shawcross takes his weekly dip in Strangford Lough, over 40 yrs he has kept this ritual

Since that first encounter, I have been able to meet up with Neil and Henry, Bob and Dougie many times to join them for this fresh sea dip. There is no ‘Hanging around.’ With these guys! My usual tentative, halting, walk in means I am put to shame. They will drive up, jump out of the car and nip behind the nearby wall to quickly strip into swim shorts then, with a childlike exuberance they race across to the water’s edge, walk straight in and begin to swim – no fuss.

 

I am left standing, marvelling; how do they do it? I know standing there and waiting will not make it any easier to take the plunge but for some reason I simply cannot will myself to dive straight in. Once I do stretch forward and move out into the deep water to join them my body tingles with the cold and I giggle with the joy of a swim for no other reason than pure pleasure.

 

The current is strong here so we will look at the boats moored a little way out and decide which direction to swim, the aim each time is to get in and allow the water to assist, sweeping us down towards the slipway. In the warmer weather we might take two of these trips, or begin by pressing up against the flow, working hard to gain a little ground against the strong current and then stop, lie on our backs and drift lazily back to our starting point.

 

Over-coated onlookers gaze down at us calling out; “Is it cold?” We reply; “It’s fabulous! Lovely! The water feels beautiful!” Surprise in our voices even though we do this every week, each time feels new… a tiny little adventure.

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©Paul McCambridge – MAC Visual Media –  Maureen and  Neil Shawcross 

WILD ART

Aside

WILD ART

Irish Artist Neil Shawcross – Weekly dip in Strangford Lough

Image

 

A weekly sojourn            To catch his bliss

Determination                 In a clenched fist

Strides in with purpose    And submits to the Sea

Tense for one moment     Then exquisitely free

 

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