Tory Island (Oileán Toraigh) is an island 11 km off the northwest coast of County Donegal, with a population of 119 in 2016: the community are Irish-speaking. It has scrappy remains of a monastery, but the main attraction is the remote scenery, with sea-cliffs swirling with birds.
In old Irish toraí meant "the hunted", indicating outlaws and bandits. After Cromwell broke royalist resistance in 17th century Ireland, the opposition were scattered and could only mount guerrilla or bandit attacks. "Tory" became a term of derision for royalist supporters, and especially for those supporting the catholic James II's right to the throne. It came to apply to the traditionalist, monarchy-supporting faction that in the 19th century formed the Tories of the Conservative Party. Ranged against them were the Whigs: "Whiggamores" were Scottish drovers, and that nickname was first applied to a radical Protestant faction. The political Whigs championed the supremacy of Parliament over monarchy, and detested catholicism.
It's possible that the island's name simply means "Torrs", cliffs or headlands, but those are too common on the Atlantic coast to be much use as a placename. So more likely Tory Island was named as a good-for-nothing place for hideaways and pirates, and indeed it saw the last stand of Irish rule against the English. The Gaels of Tyrconnell (Donegal) and Tyrone had repelled the Normans then the English Tudors until broken by the Nine Years' War of 1593 to 1603. Tudor reign then seemed assured, but in 1608 Sir Cahir O'Doherty rebelled and destroyed the city of Derry. He was killed in battle and his surviving forces fled to Tory Island, where they came under siege. Their end was hastened by "Pelham's Pardon", the concept that any rebel might surrender and have his life spared, so long as he killed at least one of his superior officers. Pretty soon they were all at each other's throats and the rebellion self-destructed. The crafty Pelham went on to be Chief Justice of Ireland but his pardon is seldom invoked nowadays in the courts. The lasting legacy was that Derry was re-built with stout city walls, and the Tudors re-doubled their efforts to colonise Ulster with loyal Protestants, and to drive out those accursed Irish.
The island relapsed into obscurity and was just a bystander in the 1798 rebellion, when the last French invasion flotilla and rebel leader Wolfe Tone were captured by the Royal Navy off the Donegal coast. The population dwindled and dwindled until in 1974 the government sought to evacuate the rest, after a storm cut communications and supplies for eight weeks. So many island communities had ended that way, but those of Tory Island fought to stay, campaigning for basics such as electricity and a continued ferry link. They survived to become a tourist destination.
Get here on the Tory Ferry, which is for foot passengers only and sails year-round from 1 Magheroarty. There's normally a morning, mid-day and afternoon sailing, but times vary with the tides and daylight hours. The ferry has toilets, and indoor and outdoor seating. It's a 45 min crossing of the open Atlantic, so expect a swell. Fares as of Aug 2021 are adult return €25, student €15, child €10; RoI and Northern Ireland travel passes are valid, and cycles are carried.
Park free by the pier at Magheroarty. The village straggles along R247 and there's a cafe by the pier, and bar nearby. Mangan Tours run 2 or 3 times M-Sa from Letterkenny via Kilmacrennan, Termon, Creeslough, Dunfanaghy, Falcarragh and Gortahork to Magheroarty to connect with the ferry. (These buses don't use Letterkenny bus station, but start from the fish & chips shop just outside.) Local Link Bus 966 also runs once a day from Dungloe via Bunbeg to Magheroarty ferry pier.
The ferry operator (who also runs the "Blue Ferry" to Arranmore) knows the tides well in advance, but what about the weather and sea? Check with the website a day before.
Ferries to Tory Island no longer sail from Bunbeg, a much longer crossing, but freighters bring in heavy goods every week or two. Bunbeg is still the ferry port for Gola Island.
Tory Island 2 ferry pier is central on its south coast, in the main settlement of West Town.
The island also has a helipad but the helicopter service is reserved for urgent business, such as visits to or from the doctor. You are permitted to charter your own helicopter excursion.
Walk everywhere. The whole island is only 5 km long, traversed by a lane, with the main settlement in the middle. You can hire bicycles but hardly need them.
- Tau Cross stands at the pier as a benediction to those arriving or setting out to sea. At 1.9 m high and carved from a single slab of mica slate, it's probably 12th century and from the monastery. "Tau" means a T-shaped crucifix, unusual in the west and most associated with the 3rd century St Anthony of Egypt - cue for all sorts of fanciful legends.
- The Round Tower also by the pier is the main remnant of the monastery. Built of granite, it's dilapidated and truncated to 13 m, and you can't go in. Round Towers were church bell towers with no defensive purpose: most are 9th / 10th century but this one may be as early as 6th, which would make it one of the oldest surviving.
- The House That Vanished obviously can't be marked on the map, but it too was next to the pier - where is it now? Neville Presho of County Down owned it as a holiday home but was away some months in New Zealand; when he returned in 1994, there it wasn't. Even spookier was the wall of silence and obfuscation he met: ooh don't know about that, ooh there was a great storm, ooh there were mysterious lights in the sky. (The tornado or Martians had rejected the bathtub, leaving it upturned on the beach.) Police and solicitor enquiries met the same omertà, and Presho was almost driven mad by a psychiatrist suggesting he was imagining the whole affair. Not until 2009 did a civil court affix liability upon an islander who just happened to own a mechanical digger.
- 1 Balor's Fort or Dún Bhaloir is a redoubt on a narrow neck of land, almost isolated atop 100 m sea-cliffs and only accessible through an easily-defended gateway. It's perhaps Iron Age, circa 500 BC, but there's only a few embankments remaining and you come for the clifftop views. Balor in mythology was the Cyclops leader of the Fomorians, whose scorching eye destroyed his enemies, and several versions of the legend place his stronghold here. East side of the fort projects a serrated ridge An Eochair Mhór - the Big Key.
- 2 The lighthouse was built from 1828 and lit from 1832. It was automated in 1990 and remains in service, with a Differential GPS station incorporated.
- Report a rat: the island is free of rats, which is important to ground-nesting birds. It's too far offshore for rats to swim here, but there's always a risk from visiting boats. So if you think you see one, report it - a photo will help - but don't try to whack it yourself.
- No store here. Bring what you need if self-catering.
- 1 An Club, West Town, ☏ . Daily 13:00-23:30. This friendly bar serves good grub.
- The hotel does good meals.
- The long-established Creggan Restaurant burnt down in 2015.
- An Club is the island bar.
- Toast the Once and Future King: the island's community leader was traditionally dubbed the "King of Tory". The post was not hereditary, but conferred by popular assent, and its latest holder was Patsaí Dan Mag Ruaidhrí / Patsy Dan Rodgers (1944-2018). He led the 1970s resistance to evacuating the island, became its tireless ambassador, and for 20 years made a point of personally greeting arrivals. His were big shoes to fill, and the title has lain vacant since his death.
- Harbour View Hotel (Óstán Radharc Na Céibhe), West Town F92 WY64 (by pier), ☏ . Bright modern place with 12 rooms en suite, does good meals. B&B double €130.
- 1 Tory Hostel, West Town, ☏ . Not open in 2021.
- Graceanne Duffy, ☏ . Not open in 2021.
- Eílís Nic Ruairí, ☏ . Not open in 2021.
- Máire Nic Fhionntaigh, ☏ . Not open in 2021.
- Noelle & Eddie Doohan, ☏ . Not open in 2021.
- Jimmy Rodgers' self-catering apartments, ☏ . Not open in 2021.
As of Aug 2021 Tory Island has no mobile signal; your accommodation may have wifi. You might manage a call at Magheroarty with Eir, but that area of mainland Donegal is equally devoid of signal.
Back to the mainland at Magheroarty is your only transport.