Tory Island is a funny old place; not funny peculiar; not even funny ha, ha; it’s just, well, funny in a custard cream kind of way. It’s very traditional and comfortably reliable. You might explore the physical landscape in one day but it could take you a lifetime to explore the social landscape. It’s true; the physical beauty of Tory Island goes from lunar landscape to ‘Crock of Gold’ boreens interspersed with touches of the most endearing scenic views you would see anywhere on the island of Ireland. Moreover, the island is one giant rabbit warren; hopping bunnies will be a constant in your peripheral vision.
Flung into splendid isolation nine miles (14.5 kilometres) off the north-west coast of Donegal, Tory natives and residents have to be resilient on so many levels. I would not claim for one second to understand the vagaries of living on a rock in the North Atlantic, but perhaps rock is the wrong description; rugged oasis might be more fitting. The first thing you see as the ferry docks in West Town (there is also and East Town) is the 1.9 metre high T-shaped Tau cross, thought to date from the 12th century. Called after the Greek letter of the same shape, a Tau cross is unusual in that it is flat across the top. The most arresting site in West Town is the Bell Tower, which may have been built as late as the 12th century – rather late for such a structure - and is the only surviving round tower in County Donegal. It sits on the site of the 5th century monastery founded by St Colmcille. That monastery was destroyed by English troops in 1595 but the Bell Tower survived. Unfortunately, it was damaged by lightening in the 18th century, hence the missing chunk at the top.
Being home to a threatened species – the corncrake – means that walking around Tory Island demands sticking to the paths. Corncrakes’ preferred habitat is the long grass and careless or thoughtless walkers will frighten nesting birds away leaving their young to the mercy of predatory sea birds. I see an uncountable variety of birdlife in one day – but not the corncrake. Walking around Tory Island with my binoculars and a very patient seventeen-year-old daughter who luckily likes hill walking is a gift from the gods. Before setting out we visit An Siopa – the only one – to buy something for lunch. As much a tourist attraction (in my estimation) as the Tau Cross and the Bell Tower, this shop is as endangered a species as the corncrake. It is like stepping into a grocery time warp with its broad counter top, ponderous wooden shelving and dim interior. It reminds me of those nondescript shops we encountered on childhood excursions ‘down the country’; the shops that had faded comics and dead flies in the display window, wellington boots abutting boxes of washing powder with quaint names like LUX Flakes and OMO, VIM scouring powder nestling beside mouse traps and bottles of Lucozade; all of us over fifties have our personal random snapshots. I am unaware that Calvita cheese still exists until I see it in the fridge in An Siopa. I imagine myself in Olesen’s general store in Little House on the Prairie and if Mr and Mrs Olsen appeared behind the counter I would think it right and fitting.
The first time I braved the boat journey to Tory some years ago I provided sideshow entertainment for the stalwart regular passengers. The sea was rough, the boat was small and my inability to swim added to my fear of the boiling waves. If I was clever, I would have sat in the cabin, but I was stupid and I sat on a bench at the back of the boat. As the voyage of terror progressed I regressed from confident adult to inanimate humanoid. My fear mounted in a silent kind of way. I was the living embodiment of rigor mortis, which, to the stalwart regulars, just looked like a case of sea-sickness. This was no sea-sickness, this was abject terror. My stomach was fine but my self-composure had abandoned my otherwise even temperament. Fear of drowning rendered me immobile. I was unable to articulate my fear. I know I looked ridiculous because my husband and daughter (them with the sea legs) did not disagree when I commented that I must have looked like a complete and utter eejit. I was mortified and drenched leaving the boat and was immediately dreading the return journey.
Last June we travelled to Tory again, this time on a more substantial ferry from Magheroarty, and the sea is calm, so calm that I am brave enough to stand just outside the cabin door and chat to some passengers. Here’s what I learn from the lovely principal of the secondary school who also teaches Irish, geography and physics. Approximately 180 people live on Tory Island and that increases to about 250 in the summer months. There are nine children in the primary school and four children in the secondary school. There is no resident doctor on the island. The primary school kids are returning from an excursion to an adventure park in Donegal. It is the first decent day in ages so they struck it lucky.
The Harbour View Hotel in West Town, Tory Island, is a pint-sized, twelve room establishment just a few steps from the ferry landing. I scratch my head and marvel at how some enterprising folks can run what is really a very acceptable hostelry in such an out of the way place. How did they get the building materials over? There is even free WIFI in the reception area! All requests are met with ‘not a bother’, so much so that I am tempted to ask for something unreasonable just to see the response. But I’m a nice person so I only ask for a hairdryer and the WIFI password. You learn something new everywhere you go, at least you should do. We learn about the cider with the Guinness head in the Harbour View Hotel bar. And very acceptable it is too. Putting a Guinness head on cider stops it going flat and, well, gives it a bit more welly. I will introduce this practice to my circle and perhaps call it the Tory Topper.
Incidentally, the journey back to Magheroarty turns out to be horrendous. We have been forewarned by some friendly natives, so I head straight for the cabin in anticipation of the rough ride and try to compose myself. It feels like the boat is bare-back riding a hump-backed whale. On several occasions it actually feels like someone has picked up the boat and kicked it into the air. On one particularly fierce tidal surge, myself and seventeen-year-old daughter shout the F word simultaneously, much to the amusement of the two young lads beside us.
My terror has increased a notch. When I notice that the waves are flush with the window I crouch in the corner with my hands over my ears and my eyes shut tight. Snatches of conversations alternating between Gaelige agus Bearla swirl around the stuffy cabin. I am being flung around the North Atlantic in a floating tower of Babel. I have a flashback to a charismatic meeting I was dragged to on a fifth year school trip where people were ‘speaking in tongues.’ On that occasion a middle-aged woman grabbed my arms as she ranted in Aramaic, apparently. Given the choice, I would readily take to the high seas rather than attend one of those charismatic gatherings again. My brain has become a whirling Dervish. Nobody else seems to notice the madness; am I the only sane person on board I wonder? And why are those crazy people laughing at me? Yet again, I am providing free entertainment for my fellow passengers. While I endure this almost psychedelic experience, hubbie stands on deck chatting for the entire journey. He may as well be in his own living room. Daughter only stays with me out of filial duty. She would have enjoyed standing on deck with Dad. I am guilty of being a fun sucker; oh the shame.
If you have sea legs here’s my suggestion, and you can take it or leave it. Throw your walking gear and binoculars into a rucksack. Grab the 5 o’clock ferry from Magheroarty over to Tory. Stay in the Harbour View and have some pub grub and maybe a few Tory Toppers. After breakfast go to An Siopa to buy your lunch. Spend the entire day walking the island. You will see marvellous historic sites, a crazy amount of birds and the most stunning scenery you can imagine. It’s all there on one tiny island approximately three kilometres long and one kilometre wide. Go into the chapel beside the hotel; it’s a little beauty. Look at the mass rock down from the Bell Tower and of course, walk up to the light house. If you are an artist you might want to bring your sketchpad. Talk to everyone you meet, especially Patsy Dan Mac Ruaíri (Rodgers), one of the original members of the Tory School of Art and the King of Tory Island who has dedicated his life to the welfare of the island and its people. Do it next spring.
© Copyright Berni Dwan 2015