In this week of the general election I thought I would write about a walk I undertook on Tory Island. Now if you are thinking that this is a summer retreat for the Conservative Party then you would be wrong. A small scrap of land just squeezing onto the top edge of Irish Ordnance Survey Map number one, this tiny outpost belongs more to the Atlantic than it does to Ireland and yet it has a population of 144. Measuring just three miles long by 0.6 of a mile wide who would want to eke out a living some nine off the northwest coast of Donegal.
From Google Wikipedia the ancient history of the island reads as if it could by a mythical far off land and states the following;- In the apocryphal history of Ireland, Lebor Gabala Erenn 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. Balor would imprison Ethlinnin a tower built atop Tor Mór which is the island’s highest point.
The island dips gradually from north to south with the north coast having jagged quartzite cliffs and blades of rock jutting out into the wild Atlantic. Away from the coastal fringe the land is covered in a thin layer of turf bog where islanders have made a living from for centuries using the medieval strip system of farming which has long gone in the rest of Ireland. The islanders still retain their unique Gaelic dialect and have their own customs. Getting to and from the island can leave one stranded and no guarantee of getting back the same day and often the islanders have been cut off for weeks on end. Well it was time to find out and to me this would be a challenge of getting out and back from the island in the same day.
I’ve always had a fascination in island life and why do people live on such remote scraps of land around the British Isles and yet here is an island with a reasonable population located in such a inhospitable area. It was time to find out.
On a previous trip to Ireland I had picked up a leaflet detailing trips out various islands together with timetables and so armed with this information and the prospect of a fine day I put my plan into operation.
I arrive in good time at Magheroarty on the Donegal coast only to find no activity around the pier. I am early and decide on a short walk along the nearby beach and dunes. On my return, things are happening and on enquiring at a portacabin, a rival company are offering trips out to Tory Island on a fast launch. Time is tight now as I quickly don walking boots and hurry down to the end of the pier to catch this earlier boat. I get one of the last seats which as it turns out is outside but in the shelter of the wheelhouse. This is a blessing in disguise because as soon as we are out of the harbour we pick up speed. The full force of the Atlantic swell is felt as we repeatedly thump the waves as we head out into Tory Sound and most people soon head indoors having got two or three soakings of icy spray. We soon clear the nearby island of Inishbofin and are soon into open seas with the odd wave sending spray over me. After a good half hour of being on a roller coaster of a ride we are coming into the shelter of Tory Island and as we entered Camusmore Bay, dolphins swim alongside the boat. This is truly a magical moment and under the deep blue skies I thought this type of thing only happened on the ‘Television Holiday Programmes’. Stepping ashore we are all greeted by the ‘Tory King’ a village elder before strolling up into West Town and the main village on the island. This small settlement is dominated by a tall round tower which is the last remnant of St Columcille’s Monastery that was founded in the sixth century. At least I have plenty of time to explore the island in full and decide to head east first and set off under brilliant sunny skies out of the village along the quiet road. What surprises me that there are street lights along the village street and plenty of building schemes going on which I can only imagine are summer retreats. Today there is no agriculture as the soil looks so thin and acidic. On the way to East Town I pass a lone rusty torpedo, stood on end and half buried in the ground. East Town is no more than a collection of whitewashed cottages plus one or two more modern dwellings huddled together on the barren and treeless landscape. I am witnessing it on a splendid day but I imagine what it must be like in a winter storm. Continuing east, I head to Port Doon, a tiny bay with a pebble beach. I cross a neck of land to head for the highest point on the island, a modest 83 metres, but on the way, I want to take a look at the rock formations at Tormore. Crossing the barren landscape I am soon confronted by an awesome view as the Atlantic had eaten into the rock face forming a fantastic spine of narrow rock almost 80 metres high with pinnacles and jutting out north a good quarter of a mile into the ocean. I stop and stare at this spectacle and take several photographs. With drops on all sides I walked carefully to a vantage point before retracing my steps to the main summit. Dun Balair is a promontory fort and what a sight. With the weather being so good, I stop nearby to have a leisurely lunch.
For the afternoon I will work my way along the very indented north coast with its fantastic weathered cliffs with many opportunities to stop for photographs. Stopping at each headland I am rewarded by more fantastic views. At one point there is a blow hole, not that anything is happening today. The only downside along this stretch of coast is a spot where the islands’ discarded rubbish has been dumped over the cliffs including a couple of rusting cars. I carry on west passing to the north of West Town and here the cliffs became less dramatic. I am heading for the lighthouse next set on the exposed western headland and facing the full force of the Atlantic. There is very little soil and vegetation here and just a sea of broken rock thrown up from the cliffs by massive waves. The lighthouse on the other hand is surrounded by a high wall and notices saying to keep out and it is clear that visitors are not welcome. With still time to spare, I head back along the lonely road to West Town. Most of the dwellings are summer houses but there were a good number of permanent residents on this lonely outpost. There was one farm eking a meagre living but very few animals. I pause here and there as I walk through the village. The pub is open but I decide press on to buy an ice cream at the village store then sit on a seat just to soak up the atmosphere and to take in what it must be like to live here. Despite its size, there are a number of cars on the island many minus wings and bumpers and some residents seem to pass the time of day driving up and down the same piece of road, – well there is only two and a half miles of road on the island. From my observations I think that none of the vehicles would get through a M.O.T. After sitting quietly for forty minutes and with the skies beginning to cloud up, it is time to return to the pier and catch the launch back to the Irish mainland and on reflection it’s been such a magical day in such a lonely outpost.