Book review - Tory Island surveyed
Occasionally we are reminded of its existence by coverage in the media as, when in the summer of 2003 the ship of the RTÉ TV reality series Cabin Fever went aground and sank close inshore off East Town, or in severe winters when we are reminded of its isolation by renewed campaigns for an airstrip and helicopter service to the island. We in Irish Lights have a stronger link to the island of Tory, having established a fine lighthouse there in 1832 (designed by George Halpin and constructed by the workmen of the Ballast Board), which required the presence of Lightkeepers and continual attendance until 1990 when it was converted to automatic operation and the Keepers were withdrawn.
The station is now in the care of our Lighthouse Attendant, Sean Doherty and the aids to navigation are monitored via a telemetry link to Dun Laoghaire. The station is periodically visited by technicians who maintain the aids to navigation, and at least once a year by ILV Granuaile which replenishes the station with fuel.
The author of The Waves of Tory, Jim Hunter, first visited the island as a student in 1957 and over the years has done much to promote the island through the organisation of guided tours and primitive art seminars. He has also mounted exhibitions of Tory art and arranged cultural events to highlight island music and dance. Jim Hunter has a deep interest in Irish culture and the traditions of the countryside. He has travelled throughout Ireland collecting myths and folklore, which he uses to enliven his writings. He has broadcast regularly on radio and television and has written a series of books on local history.
His book on Tory Island, published in conjunction with the University of Ulster, encompasses every aspect of life there: history, geography, sociology, and culture.
It is presented in a hard covered A4 sized landscape folio illustrated with fine photographs, good maps, and interesting diagrams and information tables. It is presented in both English and Irish (to allow the islanders to read the book in their first language which is still in everyday use).
Jim Hunter acknowledges a special debt of gratitude to Mary Claire McMahon for the translation.
Mary Claire first came to Tory as a primary school teacher in 1994. In recent years she was appointed head of the island's new secondary school. Her long association with Tory has given her a special empathy for the island and its people, which is reflected in her elegant and graceful translation.
Despite the frequency of his visits, two or three times annually, bringing with him groups of visitors, both young and old, Jim has never tired of the island with a landscape constantly changing, each new Atlantic weather pattern revealing nuances of light and shade that cause even the islanders to pause and reflect on the beauty of their island home.
In his preface Jim states that it is not only Tory's dramatic setting which attracts visitors but they are also drawn to this Atlantic community for a variety of other reasons: they come because Tory is a repository of traditional Irish culture embracing music, dance, and folklore; they come because the island is permeated with pre-history and early Christian remains; they come for the warmth and hospitality of the people; and the come for contact with the Irish language which is still in everyday use intermingled with undertones of ancient Norse and Viking accents and vocabulary.
In spite of its many attributes Tory had largely been ignored over the years by government, by prominent artists, musicians, and literati who have had such a profound influence on many of the other islands along the western seaboard of the country.
The arrival of the artist Derek Hill in 1956 changed all that. He set up a studio in a disused hut (the old Irish Lights radiobeacon hut) and with his encouragement a thriving school of primitive art developed on the island. Not only did this art provide a livelihood for a number of families but it also gave worldwide publicity to the island.
During exhibitions of their work throughout Europe and America the artists acted as ambassadors for their island home. Friends made on these occasions were to come to the island's rescue in its hour of need during the 1970s, when Tory was threatened with evacuation.
The support and strength from abroad together with the community's will to survive persuaded the Government and authorities to abandon their plans to remove all the islanders to the mainland.
The treat of evacuation is still there but fading, and with the support from the wider community and government this rich maritime culture can continue to exist. Jim Hunter hopes that his book, in some little way, can draw attention to this forgotten island and in the process assist with its preservation for future generations.
The first section of the book is devoted to the land-
When God had finished his great work of creation on the sixth day, he discovered that some of the most precious stones were still lying around Heaven. As he was keen to complete his work before the Sabbath he threw the remaining pieces out of Heaven, from where they sped like jewels through space, plunging into the ice-cold seas off the north-west coast of Ireland to form Tory Island!
This section relates the history, folklore, and topography and is well sprinkled with anecdotes, stories, and superstitious tales. The complicated rundale system of farming, land ownership, and inheritance is well tackled. The cultivation of the main grain crops of oats, rye, and barley (used for feeding hens and making poteen!), of potatoes in their lazy beds, the use of horses and donkeys, the importance of cattle, and the recent decline in farming are all clearly described.
The following section deals with the sea and the effect of long wet and tempestuous winters, the isolation and physical dangers associated with this harsh season. Tales of severe storms, of numerous wrecks off the Tory shores, of the establishment of the lighthouse, further wrecks (HMS Wasp being the most widely known) are told here. An account of the importance of fishing in small currachs and of kelp farming, of trading with passing ships is illustrated with pictures and production tables. The sea has pervaded the rhythms of life on Tory over the centuries and particularly so during the twentieth century when fishing assumed primacy over work on the land.
Fishing affected the very structure of island life, for a fisherman had a daily and seasonal routine which could not be varied. The last and largest section of the book is devoted to the people. From the earliest times of the cruel race of Formorians, for whom Tory provided an impregnable fortress for their piratical activities and from where they harried the rest of Ireland, to the bringing of Christianity by St Colmcille in the sixth century, the use of Tory as a refuge for Covenanters fleeing from the forces of Charles II, and the fading into oblivion in the eighteenth century, are related here. Included are facts about the sociology of Tory's population, the houses they constructed, their livelihood, marriages, migration and, after the crisis in the eighties when people were pressurised to settle on the mainland, the gradual re-emergence of Tory and recent community development.
The construction of a new pier, the improved ferry service, a new secondary school, a health centre, and a community centre have led to the rejuvenation of Tory. A hotel has opened and guesthouses and B&Bs have emerged catering for an ever increasing number of visitors. In the last year a new supermarket has been opened and on every visit there is evidence of new houses being built and older houses being restored.
There is now a vibrancy and hope in the permanent population and many families living on the mainland and in Scotland are returning for the summer months. All these improvements to the infrastructure have made Tory a more attractive place to live in, and the population is rising yearly. The social structure of the island is of great importance and all aspects of Tory society are well covered in this book; song and dance, storytelling and, of course, the now famous artists and the school of primitive art. In recent years Patsy Dan Rodgers, the present king, has been a driving force behind all aspects of island life, including the island's art gallery, following on from his mentor and the founder of the primitive school, Derek Hill.
There have been many important changes over the last decade to the island's infrastructure. Government has provided better housing, power supplies, transport, education, and medical facilities. Concern has been expressed that these changes will give rise to social upheaval and destroy the island's culture.
However the islanders are masters of survival and have employed adaptive strategies, which have enabled them to remain on their island home since prehistoric times. Tory has been described as a hymn to human survival and social creativity.
Patsy Dan Rogers, the king of Tory, has confidence in his island's future. He places his faith in the attractions of the island's way of life and the strong community spirit, which generates a sense of security and trust. Patsy Dan speaks for his community when he asserts: 'We will never be happier anywhere else than we are on Tory. No matter where you are the place where you are born and reared is the place you love best. We have no desire to leave our island home. We want to stay here and hand our island on to future generations'.
A fascinating island, an intriguing people, and a highly recommended book that captures the very essence of Tory. Read it and keep it as a treasure amongst your favourite books!
Desmond O'Brien is Marine Assistant in the Marine Department of the Commissioners of Irish Lights. As an officer on ILV Granuaile he has visited Tory Island regularly.