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Sunday 6 May 2012
Tory Island, Ireland

An audience with the last King of Ireland

Patsai Rodgers   The...
The King of Tory Island

It's a popularly held belief that the last of the Gaelic Kings in Ireland died off several centuries ago after the Norman/English invasion but I was rather surprised to discover one still remains...

Tory Island off the north-west of Donegal is home to the last King of Ireland - Patsai Rodgers - a man whom (in keeping with Gaelic tradition) was elected by the 100 or so people on Tory Island rather than inheriting the position. He acts as spokesperson for the islanders and is a one-man welcoming committee for the occassional tourist that decides to take the 1 hour boat trip across from the mainland.

He doesn't wear a crown or have robes of state (although he does have a car with "King of Tory" on the licence plate), but Patsai is an otherwise ordinary islander who takes his role seriously acting as ambassador for the island and it's people. Tory Island is the furthest inhabited island from the Irish mainland, so can often get overlooked by tourists, and even the Irish government.

Patsai's other claim to fame is as a painter of some renown: he is one of several on the island that paint in the "Primitive" style, an style exclusive to Tory.

Very few people in Ireland are even aware that there is a King on Tory Island, nevermind knowing where the island is, so my interest was piqued! On the first sign of good weather I ventured north-west to Donegal to spend the May bank holiday weekend with the king.

I left Dublin on Saturday and headed up toward the town of Dunlewy, in a Gaeltacht area at the northernmost point of Donegal. I knew very little of the area I was visiting, so when I landed myself in the middle of a place called "Glenveagh National Park" I was awe-struck by the beautiful carst landscape centered around the huge Errigal mountain and Lough Veagh. It was like a scene out of Lord of the Rings, amplified moreso by the sunset across the lough. Stunning. I stayed at an excellent hostel in Dunlewy.

The following morning I drove up to Magheraroarty (a non-descript place with a pristine white-sand beach) to get on the ferry that leaves the mainland for Tory and returns in the evening. There is also one that leaves from Bunbeg in the west much earlier in the morning, but this was the best point to get to the island faster and more directly. A group of 100 cyclists from Derry were coming back from their overnight stay on the island as part of a charity tour. The population of Tory Island had literally doubled overnight. I can't imagine how they all got on the tiny ferry!

The sea in this area is infamous for being rough, but thankfully I was heading over on a glorious sunny day. Tory was barely visible on the horizon as we passed a deserted island at the half-way point. I was joined by only 2 other visitors so it looked like I was going to have the place to myself.

The sail over was fast and as we arrived I was expecting the king to welcome us at the port (as I'd been led to believe he does) but alas he must have had a late one the night before and there was no sight of him. My hostel (the ONLY hostel on the island) was really a B&B with a self-service kitchen. I got a great room overlooking the harbour. Booking a room here was a matter of ringing up the owner, Deirdre. There is also a hotel, but it was currently closed. It seemed that most things on the island were closed unless a lot of visitors were expected. Fancy a meal at the one restaurant? It was a gamble as to whether or not the place was open! TIP: Bring your own food just in case

As I wandered around the island, I stopped to chat to an elderly man in a black coat and hat, with distinctive ear-rings and several rings on his fingers. He was sitting outside the island's only shop. He didn't let on and it didn't occur to me until later, but that had been my first royal encounter! Doh!

I started exploring by heading eastwards, passing from West Town to East Town (yes there are separate "towns" on the 3km long island!) and started to find little gems which make the island particularly interesting...

Whereas the south side of the island - where all the people live - slopes down to the sea, the north side is a complete contrast with seagull-filled high cliffs and jutting craggy rock formations. Puffin and seals were visible from the vertigo-inducing cliff-edges. The north essentially acted as a shield protecting the south from fierce northern winds and wild Atlantic waves. It was beautiful and the red-coloured cliffs reminded me of the 12 Apostles in Australia.

I eventually came to a spot where Balor ("of the Evil Eye") had his fort. This afforded a splendid view back toward the mainland from a high promontory, but also provided a view of the entire 3km length of the island. There are no trees on the island because it is so windblown, and not many insects come to mention it (apart from a lot of flies at the harbour).

Considering it's diminutive size, the island affords a rich and varied history plus interesting sights: one of only 2 Tau crosses in Ireland (put there by Coptic Christians) can be found here; Colmcille's round tower (used to fend off Viking invaders); a German WW2 torpedo that is now a road-side ornament(!); the island's history as a base for pirates; a HUGE 3-storey lighthouse complex on the west of the island that takes up 1/5 of the landmass but is completely unmanned and automated; a "Foreigner Graveyard" containing the mass grave of English tax collectors whose ship was sunk off the northcoast in 1884 because they had been cursed using the "cursing stone"; the artist Derek Hill's tiny 4x4m house where he lived for 30 years (without somehow going crazy!). It's a quirky place to be sure!

After watching the sunset at the northwestern-most point in Ireland, no visit to the island is complete without taking a session in at the "Tory Island Social Club".

There are no gardai on the island so invariably this means the bar stays open as long as the locals like. The bar doesn't really get going until the wee hours, but after my full day of trekking back and forth taking photos I was ready to tackle innumerable pints of Guinness with the locals (and the two other tourists!). There was music and lots of gossip including tales of the rivalry between East and West town (despite a population of only 96 they still manage to find a reason for animosity amongst themselves), and the "real reason the hotel was closed" (something to do with the burning down of an Australian's house that was blocking the hotel's view), plus complaining about the twins from East Town joyriding around in their noisy banger. It was like an episode of Father Ted!

A visit from the king was inevitable and, whisky in hand, Patsai showed why he is the spokesman for the island with tales ranging from the history of the island to defiant anecdotes of confronting Irish Government neglect over funding and attempts to move the islanders to the mainland (as they had with the deserted island I passed on the way over). It was lovely to hear Irish being spoken in the bar amongst the locals. At least some things are going their way: the secondary school has 6 teachers despite only having 3 students! Smart kids!

Patsai said he'd give me a private tour of the gallery the next day (even offered me the key to Derek Hill's house if I wanted!).

The rest of the night was a blur as we ended up drinking until daylight hours watching some local lads driving around with a B.B. gun...

All in all a fantastic trip and certainly a gem in Ireland's crown. Highly recommended.

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Exploring Eire

Travel blog by peterforan

Patsai Rodgers   The King of Tory Island

Patsai Rodgers The King of Tory Island

Various trips I took around the homeland, including meeting the last King of Ireland and touring lesser-known areas in the west.

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  • Ancient...

    Tory Island


    Ancient monastic tower
  • Gaeltacht...

    Tory Island


    Gaeltacht gravestones
  • World War 2...

    Tory Island


    World War 2 unexploded German torpedo / roadside ornament
  • An Eochair...

    Tory Island


    An Eochair Mhór. "The big key".