Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

HENRY O'DONNELL, champion swimmer of all Donegal, took four hours to swim the ten miles to Tory Island, and six to swim back again, a disparity due more to the prevailing winds and currents of Tory Sound than to any weariness on the part of the great man. On winter days, with a big Atlantic swell running, the stubby little ferryboat Tor Mdr is not much quicker, and when the gales come on to blow she does not go at all. Our sailing is the first for a week, a chink in the storms, and Tor Mor is low in the water, not from weight of passengers (we are four) but from the cargo lashed on deck: sheep-nuts, coal, UHT milk.

In 1974 Tory was cut off for two months. These days the Health Board helicopter brings essential supplies, but sheep-nuts must come in Tor Mor, and on the way out of the tricky harbour we alternately bump on the bottom and skid backwards in great green breakers.

`Forecast's bad,' says my neighbour at the rail, with glum satisfaction. We reach deep water, and Tor Mor begins a solemn corkscrew.

`This helicopter,' I ask him, wedging myself behind a life-raft, `how many seats does it have?'

`Six. But the old people have priority.' Tory islanders are famous for their longevity. I can see myself battling with hordes of implacable Gaelic pensioners, Saigon-style, for a place on the last chopper out.

Unlike the fangs of the Skellig Rocks or the whale-humps of the Aran Islands, Tory lacks a distinct profile. Slipping in and out of the squalls on the northern horizon is a lumpy wedge, with the tower and the twinkle of the lighthouse at one end and a jumble of crags at the other.

`Elvis on his back,' says my neighbour. `That's what they say it looks like. Though I never cared for him myself.'

Elvis would not be the first king to come out of Tory. In Celtic myth, the pirate chief Balor of the Baleful Eye held the whole of Ireland in thrall from his island stronghold. Balor's cyclopic glance was fatal to his enemies, though like many islanders he was getting on a bit, and ropes and pulleys were required to raise the drooping eyelid. Balor was disposed of by his grandson, but the raiding and rustling continued into historical times, so that the rough men of the islands became the very type of rogues and thieves, and 'Tory' became a resonant insult to hurl at one's enemies in land disputes, in family feuds, and even, later still, across the floor of a distant parliament.

The present king of Tory is on the quay to meet us, a duty he performs whether the boat is bringing hordes of summer trippers or a bedraggled handful of winter flotsam like today. Indifferent to the course of events `over in Ireland', as the islanders refer to the mainland, Tory has maintained its monarchy, though the succession, an 'appointment' from within the leading families, is as mysterious and Machiavellian a process as another, more familiar, Tory leadership contest. In the past, his role in apportioning the few acres of land for spuds and oats, and dividing the spoils of wrack washed up on the shore, gave the king real authority. Patsy Dan Rodgers, the present incumbent, is more of a roving ambassador, travelling to Gaelic gettogethers in Milwaukee and dispensing wise saws to the tourists.

`We never know what the Atlantic will bring us next,' he says, meaning weather or strangers or perhaps both. …

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