New book details life on Tory Island

The new edition of the Altas of the Irish Rural Landscape. (0302MM05)
The new edition of the Altas of the Irish Rural Landscape. (0302MM05)

Life on Tory Island off the cost of Donegal is examined in detail in a new edition of the Altas of the Irish Rural Landscape.

The illustrated book, which is published by Cork University Press, features an intricate analysis of the island, which lies nine miles off the coast of Donegal.

Tory Island, which is the subject of a case study in the new edition of the Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape. (0302MM08)

Tory Island, which is the subject of a case study in the new edition of the Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape. (0302MM08)

It is the second edition of the atlas to be published, although it has undergone a major reworking with the inclusion of more than 500 new maps and photographs, and six case studies on interesting locales, including Tory.

The book looks at all aspects of Irish life and society, from archaeology, peat bogs, settlements, churches, to handball alleys. It also features a collection of maps from the earliest drawn to the latest cutting-edge cartography.

In the case study, written by Jim Hunter, a former administrator at the University of Ulster, Tory is described as the “most remote and exposed of all the inhabited Irish islands.”

The island, which is visible from a number of locations in Inishowen, is often regarded as being one of the few areas in the country where traditional ways remain and is also described as “one of the last truly remote places of Ireland.”

The book recounts an incident from 1826 when a group of Tory fishermen were driven onto the mainland during a story and were amazed to see trees and leaves as the island is completely treeless as a result of the prevailing Atlantic wind.

In its detailed examination of the physical make-up of the island, the book states that Tory is mainly made up of quartzite, but that granite was traditionally used as the main building material because the islanders considered the speckled stone to be lucky.

The book also points to the number of wells on the island and how they have been preserved for centuries and, indeed, many are still in use by locals today. The island also has two large loughs, one of which is used to supplement the water supply, but many locals are said to prefer well water as the loughs are exposed to constant salt sprays from the Atlantic.

The first archeological evidence of human occupation on Tory dates from 2,500 BC when neolithic farmers arrived. Excavations have shown there was once a dolmen on Tory but it was demolished to provide building materials for a wall close to where the island’s lighthouse now stands.

The case study reveals how the islanders’ search for fuel has helped shape the archaeological picture of Tory’s history. As the once plentiful peat bogs were stripped, ancient field boundary walls and other historical features began to emerge.

Stripping back the peat bog also revealed a line of stones, believed to have been contemporaneous with the Dolemen. Archaeologists say that it may have been a ceremonial pathway to Dún Balor, the promontory fort named after the one-eyed God said to have ruled the island. An Iron Age fort has also been discovered at the eastern end of the island which dates from 700BC.

The book also examined the key role faith and spirituality has played in the life of the island. It recounts how Saint Colmcille came to the island in the sixth century and established a monastery there. Its remote location was ideally suited to remote monastic life.

The ruins of a church founded by St Colmcille, the Church of the Seven Saints, can still be seen on the outskirts of the island’s West Town. The church gets its name from a legend where a boat containing seven holy people, one of them an Indian holy woman, was wrecked close to the island and their bodies were buried beside the church. According to island tradition, the next morning the body of the Indian woman rose to the surface and she was buried separately.

The case study also reveals that other visitors came to the island over the centuries. Archaeological finds, including a silver Viking pin, have shown Viking intrusions in the late eighth century.

The author makes repeated reference to the island’s mysterious qualities, which is reinforced by the absence of any clear history for the island for centuries. The next historical reference is from 1588 when the Annals record that sailors from the Spanish Armada took refuge on the island. Sheltering the island did not bode well for the islanders as the Annals later recorded that in 1595 George Bingham, Governor of Connacht, ravaged Tory for harbouring the Spaniards.

The island was the scene of an other bloody confrontation in 1608 between the O’Dohertys and the O’Donnells and Crown Forces.

The book also looks at the impact of modernisation on Tory and the battle between tradition and modernity. One of the main catalysts for change was the purchase of the island by the Congested Districts Board in the 19th century. The islanders were given grants to replace thatched cottages with two-storey, stone-built, tiled houses.

The fishing industry was also developed with the construction of a pier and the building of a number of yawls. A curing station was also built on the island to preserve fish when conditions prevented the fishermen from getting to the markets at Falcarragh.

Lobster became the main quarry for the islands fishermen and continued to be the mainstay catch until the 1990s.

Fishing dominated island life until the last two decades when it was replace by tourism as the main industry.

“Tory has become utterly dependent on the mainland, not only for its dairy products but also for potatoes, vegetables and fish, which its self-sufficient economy once supplied,” the book states.

However, the modernisation did not end the hardships for the Tory people. The island’s existence was threatened in 1974 by a eight-week storm which cut it off from the mainland. Following the storm, ten families moved to the mainland, a period described in the book as Tory’s “darkest hour.”

The authorities wanted the entire island evacuated but the islanders remained defiant and refused to leave.

The case study ends on a positive note with a quote from the island’s king, Patsaí Dan Mac Ruairí. “We will never be happier anywhere else than on Tory. We have no desire to leave our island home. We want to stay here and hand it on to future generations.”

The Altas of the Irish Rural Landscape is published by Cork University Press and is available in bookshops.