Earlier this year, I visited Rathlin Island just off the north coast of Antrim. I absolutely loved it and you can read the blog here.
At the end of June, I turned 30 and when my wife asked me if there was anywhere in particular I'd like to go, I immediately said Tory Island. Thankfully Julie was willing to join me and enjoyed it too! Maybe we could make visiting an Irish island an annual tradition....though her reading this will be the first she's heard of this idea.... (if she reads my blogs!)
Tory Island, 9 miles north off the coast of County Donegal, has long been on my wish-list for two main reasons
1) The stunning northern cliffs battered by the Atlantic ocean all year round; and
2) To meet the King!
The King?! Yes, Tory has its own King. King Patsy Dan Rodgers. Patsy Dan was the popular choice to become the latest in a long line of 'Kings' of Tory. Whilst Patsy has no formal powers, he ensures everyone is given a warm Cead Mile Failte as they arrive on the island. Patsy is also a painter, musician, storyteller, fisherman and guide.
Patsy often welcomes passengers from the ferry that leaves the stunning Magheraroarty beach at the foot of the Derryveagh mountains on mainland Donegal. However, on the day we made the choppy crossing across Tory Sound, Julie and I were the only two passengers. We had no royal welcome...he wasn't expecting us. However, Patsy didn't let us down. He found us within the hour as we got lunch in the hotel and gave us such a warm welcome. Patsy is a world-renowned artist and as such was pleased to hear I was to photograph the island that he loves so much. However, I got the impression Patsy was more photographed than the famous cliffs, and here he is! A real character and gentleman.
This blog is a mixture of history, trip review, painfully early sunrise shots, midnight hikes and snapshots. As with my Rathlin blog, I've tried to cover the landscapes, the pub and the church along with anything else I found interesting along the way.
The island is only 3 miles long and half a mile wide. One of my favourite aspects of the island was how you could see both sides of the island, north and south, at any one time. When, you arrive from Magheraroarty you are faced with two immediate views. The first is a welcome in Irish 'Failte go Oileán Thoraí', as Tory is a genuinely Irish-speaking island and the second is the Tau cross and the remains of a 6th century Monastery bell tower.
The monastery was founded by Colmcille and dominated island life and the island skyline until 1595 when it was plundered and destroyed by English troops. The bell tower is all that remains.
The Tau cross is one of only two in all of Ireland (the other being in Kilnaboy, Co.Clare). It is believed to date from the 12th century and is one of the oldest representations of a Christian cross. Island fishermen would often pray in front of the cross before heading out to sea.
Going further back, and into Irish mythology, Balor of the Evil Eye, a giant cyclops made Tory his home and Tor Mor, a precipitous rock at the end of narrow cliffs his fortress. In fact, these rocky tors are one of the main reasons I visited the island for photography. 'An Eochair Mhor', meaning 'the big key' is a stunning, long, steep-sided spur that juts from the east side of the island into the Atlantic. The rocky pinnacles along the spur are named 'Balor's soldiers'. They give the spur the key-like appearance. The large pinnacle at the end is 'Tor Mor', Balor's fortress.
Alarm set for 4am, I hiked the length of the island from our hotel to the upper reaches of the eastern part of the island to be met with this stunning view. How this is not one of Ireland's most well-known natural landscapes is beyond me. Afterwards it was a gentle stroll back for an hour's nap and a full Irish breakfast! (More on the excellent hospitality later!)
The whole northern stretch of the island is stunning from start to finish, a photographer and walker's paradise. Close by to where the picture of An Eochair Mhor was taken is a rock called the Wishing Stone. It is from this viewpoint the whole island can be seen. I climbed here on each of the nights we stayed to try and capture a sunset. On the last night, and at the last minute when I believed it just wasn't to be the sun popped out (and you can see that photo at the end) but up until then a combination of storm clouds and sea mist dominated the sky. However, I began to feel that these cool blue tones convey the personality of Tory better than a sky of oranges and reds. I'll leave that up to you.
After this photo, I began to walk along the cliffs and shortly before midnight made it to Tory's highest point, Morard ('big height'). This was the view over West Town from the summit under nightfall.
I continued my midnight hike and from the slopes of Morard there are great views of the western part of the island, with the distant lighthouse clearly in view and the distinctive shape of this rock, called Mearnaid.
The next morning, Julie and I went West from our hotel and explored West Town and the western cliffs. The whole island is a joy to walk with little to no traffic and when a car does drive past, a friendly wave is usually on offer. This was the view from the other side of Mearnaid rock by day, with a small fishing boat on the rarely calm seas.
The lighthouse is also on the westerly part of the island. It was built in 1832 and is seen below.
Tory Island has become a bit of an artist's retreat, with its own gallery, the Dixon gallery. In the 1950s, the famous English painter Derek Hill set up a painting hut near the lighthouse (I don't know why I didn't photograph it!) Derek started and then mentored the artists' community, teaching local fishermen (and indeed I believe King Patsy Dan) how to paint the dramatic landscapes around them, such as the view out to Balor's Fort, below.
It's hard to walk 20ft without seeing something new of interest along Tory's northern cliffs. There's even a large cave but I thought that was best photographed from sea level by someone with a boat!
Tory Island is accepted to be by far Ireland's most remote inhabited island. The population of just over 100 largely permanent hardy souls is split over four 'towns' An Baile Thoir' (East Town), 'An Baile Thiar' (West Town), An Lár (Middletown) and Úrbaile (Newtown).
What interested and impressed me about Tory was how the vast majority of residents lived there all year round, in contrast to some other Irish islands. Making a living is hard on an island with a lack of fertile land. Historically, Tory's bogs were used to help produce poteen and the islanders made a good living from exporting poteen to the mainland, benefitting from being far from the gaze of the authorities. However, now all that remains of these bogs are stony fields. Fishing and tourism is therefore of great importance to the island.
On one afternoon when I was walking up the northern cliffs I noticed a game of football happening and was impressed at how there were enough kids to get a proper game going. It seems an idyllic upbringing, but perhaps that's easy for a football-obsessed visitor to say.
I said earlier I'd mention the hospitality. We stayed at Óstán Radharc na Céibhe, also known as the Tory Harbour View Hotel. Its owners Sean, Patricia, Shauna and Damien gave us a great welcome. The rooms were clean, the location perfect and the food was superb (I recommend the homemade chocolate brownie cake!) After our hikes it was bliss to come back to the hotel bar for a pint of Guinness and then simply walk next door for a big steak dinner. If any of the owners are reading this, then thanks from Julie and I, we will be back! The full Irish breakfasts brought me back to the land of the living after some early sunrise starts!
As many of you will know, I'm a big fan of my old pubs. Now, the hotel was only built in 1994 and Club Sóisialta was closed when we were on the island so there were no real historical pubs on the island but I loved the character of the hotel bar regardless. King Patsy Dan was often found on his stool up at the bar and locals came in and out freely for a quick chat.
Next door to the hotel is Naomh Colmcille, the island's chapel. I visited the interior of the chapel for a photo when the rain was lashing down. A welcome retreat and a lovely colourful church to photograph.
The chapel was built in 1857 and in fact the stained glass windows were presented by artist Derek Hill to thank the islanders for their generosity and kindness during his time there.
This kindness and generosity came across to us on our visit and in King Patsy Dan the island has a truly great ambassador and asset. I would see Patsy daily and he would ask me if I'd captured sunset from the Wishing Stone as he knew I hiked up each night. I'd keep telling him that the sea mist just wouldn't shift. It disappointed him. He really wanted the weather to clear as he maybe thought I would go him disappointed without my shot (not the case!). He's exceptionally proud of the place he calls home and fought to help islanders stay after a hurricane in the 1970s.
The night before I left, the weather again was bad with a constant drizzle and greyness in the sky. I almost didn't head out from the hotel, but you just never know what way the sky will change.
I hiked up to the eastern cliffs and set up my tripod. I waited and watched the sky. The view was fantastic as it was, despite the sky. The white-washed houses of An Baile Thiar were clear and the light was flashing at the western lighthouse in the distance.
Then, the horizon started to clear...and just a minute before sunset, that elusive sun popped up and lit the horizon red. I had got my sunset shot.
I just didn't get to tell Patsy before I left!