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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Mayo Shipwreck – Inver

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

At the height of summer, in the townland of Inver, west Mayo, a fleet of bicycles of various sizes and colours lie in the grass verge, above a tiny beach and pier. These belong to a group of children and young teens paddling and rock-pooling in the last of the evening sunshine before heading back to holiday homes and barbeque dinners.

South of the main Inver beach and looking out across Broadhaven Bay towards Belmullet with Ballyglass lighthouse glinting in the distance, this tiny beach can be found. From here, take a stroll further south along the shore, over rocks and puddles providing safe haven for baby jellies and tiny crabs, marooned by the out-going tide, finally coming to this melancholy sight; the slowly decaying mass which the local children have dubbed “the Pirate Ship” (some say; “The Black Pearl”).

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The rusted metal of winches and pulleys and the wood creaking in the gentle breeze, now in its final resting place, the carcass lists toward the sea as if trying to return. The fat hull now breaking away with each storm and the ships ribs exposed revealing the internal organs. A tap, a valve wheel; traces of paint still clinging in protected grooves, the beauty of the silvering wood and the crafted joints now tearing apart to look like teeth of some ancient sea creature. Sea-weeds, anemones and limpets claim a home on the broken remains of a boat which must once have cut through the waves with speed and grace. Now, the sea begins to reclaim her for her own.

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On the 15th September 2015, the Irish News displayed the plight of a similar shipwreck, in Magheraclogher beach, Gweedore, Donegal. “Eddies Boat” has been a tourist attraction for some time, but now the wreck has become unsafe and may have to be removed. The boat that has been drawing tourists since it was washed ashore in the 70’s, may soon be no more.

Link to Irish News article

Who knows how long this Mayo shipwreck will stand the wash of daily tides and so if you wish to visit her, do so, soon. Back at the pier take a swim, either along the shore or strong swimmers might want to head across the 800m or so across to the small, private beach on the opposite headland.

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Perhaps we should take the chance to see and savour all that we can; for all our perceived mastery of earth and sea and sky, Mother Nature will never be conquered, like the children, we can only play and admire the fleeting glimpses we are privileged to view.

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On the Pullathomas 50km cycle loop from Barr na Tra on the R314 between Belmullet and Belderg. South of the village of Inver a sign from the loop road brings you to a small turning circle.

Camlough Lake Ice Mile Training

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

The last Sunday in November and a crowd of us gathered at Doyle’s bar in the centre of Camlough village. Nervous excitement permeated the air as we each debated our own sanity at even contemplating the journey we were embarking upon.

A queue weaved its way first into the bar to sign waiver forms and register, then back-tracked through the narrow porch and into the snug, where in turn we each rolled up our sleeves to have our blood pressure checked – despite my occasional case of “white-coat syndrome”, I was pronounced fit to swim. Not sure whether to be pleased, a high BP would have been a great excuse! Oh how good we swimmers are at finding excuses!

The briefing then started with Padraig Mallon sharing some of his hard-found wisdom with us, little tricks of the trade to help calm anxiety, finding a mantra that works for oneself – I have a super one for getting up hills when hiking or cycling; “Buns of steel – Thighs of iron!” (Yes, I can dream on but it gets me up the hill every time!)

So far my swimming mantra is more based on; “The stronger I pull the sooner I get there!”  It doesn’t work so well when one’s swimming for time rather than distance though.

Nuala Moore then gave us an entertaining but also slightly sobering talk on what to expect and how to conduct ourselves. The onus is on each and every one of us to be responsible for ourselves and our own safety. Yes, there is a team of willing volunteers but let’s keep their job as easy as possible.

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Down to the lake-side and as we gathered on the slipway a team of kayakers headed out to escort us round the 250m loop. As is my usual want, I hung around – I can faff with the best of them but once I started, I felt not too bad although my cheeks were cold and I was glad I’d remembered ear-plugs. I hate that one little drop of cold water that always seems to seep in no matter how far I pull the cap down over my ears.

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As we gathered to start I saw Donna hugging her Chill swim float, “Have you a hot-water bottle in there?” (Shh! That might be an idea for next time!) The first challenge was to complete 750m before the first whistle was blown and the 20 minute swim group left the water. Continuing to kick I tried to maintain heat, remembering as Nuala said, “If you stop kicking, your little bum muscles will tense up and you won’t be able to kick,” made me smile. By 30 minutes my smile was wearing off, I could feel my hands beginning to tense and the baby finger on my right hand was creeping out. I clenched and opened my hands to try to pull it back into line but the stubborn baby seemed bent on getting out of there – leaving the rest behind if need be!

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The next turn around the marker and the call was “3 minutes left. Don’t swim too far.” Hooray! I can thole another few minutes. When the three whistle blasts sounded our time up, I dashed for the shore. I raced to my feet and as I thought a well-deserved pat on the back when Padraig quietly said “Well done. Now get back in and swim out to that rib and back.” You are MEAN Padraig Mallon!

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Dried and dressed in several layers it was a pleasure to gather around the braziers burning merrily on the lake shore as we congratulated each-other.

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Thanks to CLWF, mean Padraig, Ger and nice Nuala for setting up this program and I look forward to our next session.

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Lough Derg – Co Donegal

©Paul McCambridge.com / MAC Visual Media

Words By Maureen McCoy

Photography By Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

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.

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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.