Tory Island

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Tory Island
Irish: Toraigh
County Donegal
Cliffs of Toraig - - 673969.jpg
Cliff of Tory Island
Grid reference: B863462
Location: 55°15’45"N, 8°13’0"W
Population: 144  (2011)
Local Government

Tory Island is an island of 880 acres which lies in the Atlantic Ocean, nine miles off the north-west coast of County Donegal. It is the most remote inhabited island of Ireland,[1] inhabited by its 144 hardy souls at the 2011 census.

The island is part of the Gaeltacht and in the island's native Irish its name is Toraigh, also rendered as Oileán Thoraí or, historically, Oileán Thúr Rí.[2]

The main spoken language on the island is Irish, although English is spoken to communicate with visitors. Tory is part of the Donegal Gaeltacht and Ulster Irish (Canúint na Ulaidh) is the Irish dialect in use.

Geography and access

Tory Island from the mainland

The island is approximately three miles long and half a mile wide,[3] and covering some 880 acres (1.38 square miles).[4]

The population is divided among four towns – An Baile Thoir (East Town), An Baile Thiar (West Town), An Lár (Middletown) and Úrbaile (Newtown).[2] The 2001 census recorded a population of 133, which had risen to 144 by the 2011 census. In the middle of the nineteenth centry there were about 400 inhabitants.

Petrol and diesel are available from Tory Oil at prices significantly higher than on the mainland.[5]

Tory in the evening

Tory has no airport, but has regular ferry connections from mainland County Donegal.[6] The ferry travels daily from April to October and five times a week for the rest of the year. The ferry does not take cars, but holds up to 70 passengers.[7] During the winter months, sea crossings may not be possible due to rough seas – but from November to March, a small 4-seater helicopter runs from Falcarragh to Tory every other Thursday.


Legend and early history

In the legendary history of Ireland, Lebor Gabála Érenn, Tory Island was the site of Conand's Tower, the stronghold of the Fomorians, before they were defeated by the Nemedians in a great battle on the island. The later Fomorian king Balor of the evil eye also lived here.[8] Balor would imprison Ethlinn in a tower built atop Tor Mór (or Túr Mór in Old Irish, meaning The High Tower). Tor Mór is the island's highest point.

A monastery was founded on Tory in the 6th century, according to legend by Colmcille (St Columba). The monastery dominated life on the island until 1595, when it was plundered and destroyed by English troops, waging a war of suppression against local chieftains. The monastery's bell tower is the largest structure to survive and was built in the 6th or 7th century.

Early modern history

In 1608, the Siege of Tory Island, one of the final incidents of O'Doherty's Rebellion, took place when a surviving group of rebels took shelter in the castle, only to begin killing each other to secure a pardon.

The Battle of Tory Island, the last action in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, took place at sea nearby.

Recent history

On 27 October 1914, off Tory island the Royal Navy lost its first battleship of the First World War: the super-dreadnought battleship HMS Audacious (of 23,400 tons). It was sunk off the island, by a minefield laid by the armed German merchant-cruiser Berlin. The loss was kept an official secret in Britain until 14 November 1918; 3 days after the end of the war. The sinking was witnessed and photographed by passengers on RMS Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic.

Since the 1950s, the island has been home to a small community of artists, and has its own art gallery. The artist Derek Hill was associated with the Tory artist community.[9]

Reflecting a long-standing tradition, a "king" is chosen by consensus of the islanders. The current Rí Thoraí (Irish for "King of Tory") is painter Patsy Dan Rodgers (Patsaí Dan Mac Ruaidhrí). The king has no formal powers, though duties include being a spokesperson for the island community and welcoming people to the island.[10]

Tory Island power station

Power is generated on the island today from three diesel electricity generators.[11] These have a total capacity of 4 MW and burn through approximately 500 litres of fuel every day.

Public attention was focused on the island in 2009 when a one-time resident was awarded a payout following a court case after his house was demolished and the grounds used as a car park.[12] In 2015, the island's only café was destroyed by fire.[13]


Tory Island has a number of historical and mythological sites:

  • Dún Bhaloir (Balor's Fort) is located on the island's eastern side. This peninsula is surrounded on three sides by cliffs 300 feet high. Balor's Fort is accessible only by crossing a narrow isthmus, defended by four earthen embankments.[14]
View from Dún Bhaloir
  • An Eochair Mhór (the Big Key) is a long, steep-sided spur jutting from the east side of the peninsula and ending in a crag called An Tor Mór (the Big Rock or the Big Tower). The spur has prominent rocky pinnacles – these are known as 'Balor's soldiers' (Saighdiúirí Bhaloir). They give the spur a 'toothed' appearance and contribute to the name, 'the Big Key'.
A view of East Town, Tory Island.
  • The Wishing Stone is a precipitous flat-topped rock beside the northern cliff-face of Balor's Fort. Traditionally, a wish is granted to anyone foolhardy enough to step onto the rock, or who succeeds in throwing three stones onto it.
  • An Cloigtheach (the Bell Tower) is the largest structure to have survived the destruction of the monastery (see history section above). The round tower was built in the 6th or 7th century.
  • The Tau Cross (a t-shaped cross) is believed to date from the 12th century. It is one of only two Tau crosses in Ireland (the other being in Kilnaboy, County Clare).
  • Móirsheisear (Grave of the Seven): Móirsheisear, which actually translates as 'big six' – a term for seven – is the tomb of seven people, six men and one woman, who drowned when their boat capsized off Scoilt an Mhóirsheisear (the Cleft of the Seven) on the island's northwest coast. According to local superstition, clay from the woman's grave has the power to ward off vermin.[14]
  • The Lighthouse, standing at the west end of the island, was built between 1828 and 1832 to a design by George Halpin, a noted designer of Irish lighthouses. In April 1990, the lighthouse was automated. The lighthouse is one of three in Ireland in which a reference station for the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) is installed. The lighthouse is at coordinates 55°16’21"N, 8°14’58"E.
  • The Torpedo: A torpedo can be seen midway between An Baile Thiar and An Baile Thoir. It washed ashore during the Second World War and was defused and erected at its present location.[14]

Flora and fauna

The island is an Important Bird Area.[15] It is a breeding site for corncrakes (Crex crex), a globally threatened species whose numbers have fallen with the intensification of agriculture. In 2007, Tory Island recorded 18 calling males, down from a recent year's maximum of 34 calling males in 2003. In 2010, numbers dropped down further to 10. In addition to its indigenous bird life, the island records many vagrants.[1]

Ancient records of the flora and fauna of this island can be found in George Crawford Hyndman's notes on the history of the island.[16] Algae found locally include: Fucus vesiculosus, Fucus nodosus, Himanthalia lorea, Laminaria digitata, Rhodomenia laciniata, Plocamium coccineum, Ptilota plumosa, Conferva rupestrus, Codium tomentosum, Codium adhaerens det Dr Harvey.[16]

The island has no trees due to its high winds.[17]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Tory Island)

References and further reading

  1. 1.0 1.1 Walsh, David: 'Oileáin' (Pesda Press, 2014) page 272 ISBN 978-1-906095-37-6
  2. 2.0 2.1 The Tory Islanders, a 1978 ethnographic account by R. Fox
  3. A place of bewitching beautyBBC News article
  4. "Tory Island Townland, Co. Donegal". Ireland: Irish Townlands. 29 July 2017. 
  5. – Tory Oil, West Town, Tory Island
  6. Ferries departurt from Magheroarty and Bunbeg, with occasional services from Portnablath. The shortest crossing (Magheroarty to Tory Island) takes about 45 minutes. — Official Tory Island Tourism Website – Travel details
  7. Tory Island Ferry, County Donegal
  8. G. H. Kinahan: 'Donegal Folk-lore: Ballor of the Evil Eye' in The Folk-Lore Journal Volume 5, 1894
  9. Funeral arrangements made for artist Derek HillRTÉ News article, 31 July 2000
  10. "Patsy Dan Rodgers – Tory Island Artist, Musician and King of Tory, County Donegal". Retrieved 10 November 2008. 
  11. The Navigator – Tory Island | island life
  12. – Hotel turned film director's home into a car park – 11 Nov 2009
  13. Tory Islands Café Destroyed by Fire
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 — Official Tory Island Tourism Website – Places of Interest
  15. Tory Island IBA: BirdLife International
  16. 16.0 16.1 Hyndman, G.C.: 'Notes on the natural history of Tory Island' (Ulster J.Archaeol., 1852) Vol 1, p 34 – 3
  17. BBC: Tory Island
  • Fox, R. The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe. University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 978-0-268-01890-0
  • Hunter, J. 2006. The Waves of Tory. Colin-Smyth Ltd. ISBN 978-0-86140-456-8
  • Williams H.G "Tory Island, County Donegal: a study on geographical isolation" Irish Geography, Dublin 1952
  • Kelly, Dorothy: 'The Crosses of Tory Island': in Seanchas:Studies in Early and Mediæval Irish Archaeology, History and Literature in Honour of Francis John Byrne, ed. Alfred P. Smyth, pp. 53–63 (Four Courts Press, 2000)