Tory Island: a king of the north

The idea of a monarchy currently existing in Ireland might sound bizarre, but Sam Cox pays a visit to the people off the coast of Donegal who make it work

Portrait of Patsy Dan Rogers, by Sarah Larragy


If you asked a Tory Islander how far from the coast their home was, you would be met with an indignant glare, and be told it is in fact Ireland that lies fifteen kilometres from their island. Such is the mentality of those who inhabit Tory Island. With few residents, fewer jobs and a paltry handful of possible pastimes, those who live there have developed a unique way of life. With no reason to rise in the morning and even less reason to go to bed at night, the island itself emanates timelessness. What better way to spend a weekend?

Home to some one hundred and forty people, Tory Island exists as a fairy-tale come to life in the Atlantic. Despite the minute number of inhabitants, the island’s only settlement is divided into two halves: West Town and East Town. Composed of the same families for generations, these towns have passed down through time with little change or integration. With a traditional Gaelic-speaking population, and its own democratically-elected king, Tory embodies an Ireland lost in time.

A Royal Welcome

“Our reality seems to have abandoned Tory, and yet it remains steadfast among the waves, determined in its right to exist”

Curious to see the island for myself, my stay was no less removed from the norm. Received with the customary fáilte from King Patsy Dan, the village breathed stillness. We stayed at a local hostel for tourists, and met others who were staying on the island for varying lengths of time. All had been greeted by the king, and agreed everyone on Tory was more than accommodating. If nothing else, Tory has hospitality.

The current monarch, Patsy Dan Rogers, is a painter and musician who has led the people of the island for years. Despite his age, his vitality still reverberates through his every action, and it is easy to see the artistic young man hidden within. Piercings and gold rings meld with a wise face and experienced hands to form a charming, if unconventional, air of royalty. Greeting every visitor individually, Patsy Dan is as much of the island as the whistling sea wind and briny air that welcomes you to Tory. Commanding respect and influence not through power, but kindness, talent and decency, his kingship is an integral part of the island. To many on the island, he has always been, and always will be, king.

Exploring the Island

“With a traditional Gaelic-speaking population, and its own democratically-elected king, Tory embodies an Ireland lost in time”

After dropping our things at the hostel, we decided to explore and see what the island had to offer. Following the sounds of a good time, we travelled up to the hotel bar. Inside was a crowd of people, huddled around watching the match and cooking on the barbeque closer to a gathering of friends than an afternoon at the pub. We were immediately invited to join in and have a pint. Those at the bar were happily watching the match, some already far into their (Second? Third? Sixth?) drink in the early afternoon. The social norms clearly weren’t the same as back home, but with everyone happy and friendly, who was complaining?

Getting to Tory involves boarding a small ferry and travelling for forty minutes against the harsh waves. Shoved around by the sea, you get an understanding of why the inhabitants of the island rarely travel to and from the coast. The island community traditionally relied on fishing, supplemented by a small amount of farming. As the years have worn on, though, the islanders have found themselves unable to compete with the expanding numbers of European trawlers, and have switched to tourism to support themselves. Workplace of the English painter Derek Hill, the island has its own school of art, as well as a rich history that would justify it as a holiday destination to any tourist. Tory is more than that, however.

Talking to some locals in the hotel, we were told about a few of the must-sees on the island, as well as given directions to find our way around. On such a small island, none of these were too complicated, and we quickly had the lay of the land. Rather than stay for the match (GAA never held much appeal for me), we decided to go see the island for ourselves.

Sheared by the sharp Atlantic wind and the relentless waves, Tory’s landscape has a minimalism reflected in its people. Tall cliff faces and barren rocky fields constitute the view from every window. The island isn’t characterised so much by what it has, but by what it lacks. No trees grow in its soil, lacking the strength to withstand the powerful oceanic gusts. No industry results in no employment, and with no capitalism to drive it, time ebbs away and loses its importance. Our reality seems to have abandoned Tory, and yet it remains steadfast among the waves, determined in its right to exist.

After satisfying our curiosity, we  arrived at the island clubhouse for the evening. There, we were met by a group of children sitting around another television. Watching the same match as their parents, they debated and discussed the players and situations. Their conversation, and their insights into the match, sounded twenty years older than the children themselves, and their maturity and passion shone through as they sat around the counter. Swigging from their pints of juice, it was hard not to smile. As the match ended, the adults (locals and tourists alike) from the pub came down and joined their kids, and a evening of dance, music and drink began.

The Seasons

“Zooming past us on the road to the clubhouse was a child no older than twelve driving his parents’ car”

Blurrily fumbling through the seasons, summers on Tory mean an influx of painters and the stillness that draws them. As the days darken however, Tory itself begins to shift. Winters consist of bleak, dreary days of separation. With storms from the Atlantic, the peace that makes the island a summer retreat quickly becomes a suffocating silence.  For those who live there, it is an exercise in isolation and endurance. The worst of these times occurred in 1974, when a particularly bad storm engulfed the island, returning it after a long and harrowing eight weeks. By then, ten of the native families had made the decision to leave and not to return, slashing Tory’s already small numbers.

Stories of Tory’s bizarre isolation go back centuries. One such tale frequently recounted to tourists tells of Tory fishermen washed up on the coast of Donegal in a storm in 1826. Ravaged by the waves, and drenched to the skin, locals reported half-conscious fishermen gathering leaves to stuff in their pockets. Temporarily escaping from their own land of myth to find something so foreign, the men were transfixed by these fallen green circles, the likes of which they had never seen before.

Trees aren’t the only thing missing from Tory, either. With no guards on the island, the laws are loose, and almost anything goes. Zooming past us on the road to the clubhouse was a child no older than twelve driving his parents’ car. Nor is there a curfew on selling drink, and so the party goes on long into the night. With live music as Gaeilge (except for Johnny Cash we were told some things aren’t meant to be translated) and tourists and locals alike gathered around, there was no end of things to listen to and learn. While people are more than willing to talk to tourists as Bearla, the cúpla focal went a long way towards making a good impression. Regardless of the state of your Irish, however, the atmosphere was warm for anyone willing to sit and have a laugh.

Over the next few days, we had a chance to see all Tory had to offer, and to take a breather from life outside. After passing the idle days reading and laughing with the locals, it was hard not to question our own way of living. Maybe we wouldn’t get rid of time completely, but there is definitely something to be said for Tory’s love of the moment.

Sam Cox

Sam Cox is a Staff Videographer at Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister Psychology student, and a former Crossword Editor, Features Editor and Assistant Features Editor.