Tory Island (Co. Donegal)


Tory Island is approximately 5km / 3mi long and 1km / ¾mi wide. The best way to get around is on foot or by bicycle; a people-carrier / minibus is also available for hire.

Tory’s lndscape is magical. To quote a BBC radio broadcast, it “is like a granite kaleidoscope where the shifting patterns of light in the seas and skies produce a curious ephemerality, as though the cliffs and beaches somehow change every time you look away.”

Tory is designated a Special Protection Area and SAC (Special Area of Conservation) for its wildlife. Interesting plants include Scottish scurvygrass, scots lovage and sea kale. There are very few bushes and virtually no trees, despite which a determined gang of tree sparrows compete with their domestic cousins. Most importantly, the island is an important breeding site for Corncrakes, threatened with extinction elsewhere in Ireland due to changes in agricultural practices. The seabird colonies are of national significance,  with puffins particularly prominent, and there are also snipe, eider ducks, mallards, swans, peregrine falcons, ravens and choughs.

Apart from seals, the only wild mammals are rabbits, pygmy shrews and wood mice.  Passing whales are occasionally spotted, and lesser cetaceans are frequently seen. Just offshore, Duggie is a friendly dolphin who liked being joined by brave swimmers.


View from Dún Bhaloir (Photo by AF Borchert)

The oldest manmade structure on the island is a Bronze Age cairn; burnt parts of the summit indicate that there was once a source of wood on the island, thought to have been hazel, yew and Scots pine trees. The stones of a megalithic tomb were used to build the island’s Lighthouse. Traces of ancient fields are visible where bogland was cut away as peat, long used as fuel by the islanders.

The inhabitants of Tory Island have always been largely self-sufficient, variously reliant on fishing, gathering molluscs, crustaceans, kelp and  seaweed, raising farm animals and cultivating barley, potatoes and other vegetables in fields farmed on the rundale system. (Could decoying ships to their doom have also provided occasional bounty, as is known to have happened in Cornwall and the nearby Scottish Hebrides?)

The islanders also have a long tradition of cottage industry and trade with the mainland. It is said that Tory’s turf boglands were utterly depleted for turf used as fuel by the island’s famous poitín distillers in the C19th, and peat thereafter had to be brought in from a reserved area of nearby Bloody Foreland.

Balor of the Evil Eye

According to myth, Tory Island was the scene of a titanic struggle in which the Nemedians eventually defeated the sea-faring Fomorians, a race of pirates once ruled by a cyclopian chap called  Balor na Súile Nimhe / Balor of the Evil Eye, aka Balor of the Mighty Blows, whose single eye was so destructive that he had to keep it covered most of the time.

Dún Bhaloir (Balor’s fort), on the eastern side of the island, is virtually impregnable, located on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by 90m-high cliffs, and is only accessible by crossing a narrow isthmus, defended by four earthen embankments.

An Eochair Mhór (The big key) is a long, steep-sided spur jutting from the east side of the peninsula, strikingly shaped due to prominent rocky pinnacles called Saighdiúirí Bhaloir (Balor’s soldiers), and ending in a crag called An Tor Mór (the Big Rock or, if you must, High Tower), the highest point on the island, where Balor imprisoned his daughter Ethlinn in a vain effort to prevent her impregnation.

Leac an Leannán (“The Lovers’ / Wishing Stone”) is a flat-topped rock beside the northern cliff-face of Balor’s Fort. Traditionally, a wish is granted to anyone who succeeds in throwing three stones onto the rock, or is foolhardy enough to step onto it. NB: the rock is extremely dangerous, and visitors are strongly advised not to approach it at all.

Balor was eventually killed by his grandson Lugh, who represents goodness and light in Celtic mythology, in direct contrast to his dark, malign ancestor.

Some contend that the mythical Fomorians may represent a folk memory of North African corsairs, who undoubtedly raided Ireland’s shores many times over the centuries.

The harbour, with An Cloigtheach. (Photo by Thomas Salgado)

Saint Colm Cille’s Monastery

Saint Colm Cille / Columcille / Columba is credited with founding a monastery on the island in the C6th.

According to Rev. Hugh Forde, in his Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland (1923),

“It is generally understood that St. Columba introduced Christianity into this remote island and built a monastery there. The legend says, Columba, being admonished by an angel to cross into Tory, set sail with several other holy men for the Island, that there arose a dissension among them with respect to the individual who should consecrate the Island, and thereby acquire a right to it in the future, each renouncing from humility and a love of poverty the office of consecration and right of territory. They all agreed with St. Columba that the best way to settle it was by lot, and they determined by his direction to throw their staves in the direction of the Island, with the understanding that he whose staff reached nearest to it should perform the office of consecration and acquire authority over Tory. Each threw his staff, but that of Columb-kille at the moment of issuing from his hand assumed the form of a dart, and was borne to the Island by supernatural agency. “The saint immediately called before him Alidus, son of the chief of the Island, who refused to permit its consecration or the erection of any building. St. Columba then requested him to grant as much land as his outspread coat would cover. Alidus readily consented, conceiving the loss very trivial, but he had soon reason to change his mind, for the saint’s cloak, when spread on the ground, dilated and stretched so much by its divine energy as to include within its border the entire island. Alidus was roused to frenzy by this circumstance, and incited or hunted upon the holy man a savage, ferocious dog, unchained for the purpose, which the saint immediately destroyed by making the sign of the Cross. The religious feelings of Alidus were awakened by this miracle, says the legend. He threw himself at the saint’s feet, asking pardon, and resigned to him the entire Island. “No further opposition being made, St. Columba consecrated Tory, built a magnificent church, which he placed under the control of Eranus, one of his disciples. Among other things he commanded that no dog should ever again be introduced into the Island. The ruins of the fine church he built are to be seen on the Island to this day.”

The monastery flourished and dominated island life, making Tory the principal ecclesiastical centre in northwest Ulster for many centuries. It survuved several Viking attacks, and was long unaffected by King Henry VIII‘s 1540 Disolution of the Monasteries.

The monks fled to the mainland in May 1595, after their monastery was plundered and destroyed by a detachment of English troops commanded by Sir George Bingham.

 An Cloigtheach (the Bell Tower) is the largest structure to have survived the destruction of the monastery. The remains of two churches can also be observed.

St. Colm Cille’s Chapel (1857) is chiefly notable for the stained glass windows by Patrick Pollen, presented by Derek Hill to thank the islanders for their generosity and kindness.

The Tau Cross, situated by the pier in An Baile Thiar, is believed to date from the C12th, although some claim it is considerably older. It is one of only two such distinctively shaped crosses  in Ireland (the other is at Kilnaboy in Co. Clare). Carved from a single slab of mica slate, it measures 1.9m in height and 1.1m in breadth. The cross is of great importance to the local fishermen, many of who pray here before going fishing. It is said that the marks made by the sword of a Cromwellian soldier who liked breaking symbols may still be discerned; despite his best efforts, the cross did not break!

 (The Tau / T symbol is of great antiquity, associated with the Roman god Mithras, the Greek god Attis, and the consort of the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, the solar god Tammuz,  patron of fishermen and shepherds. In Christianity the Tau has been used by Saint Francis (to model his followers’ monastic habit) and Saint Anthony the Great, the C4th Egyptian anchorite leader of the Desert Fathers, still widely revered by the Eastern Orthodox and Captic churches, whose harsh asceticism was very influential in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, perhaps nowhere more so than Ireland).

Móirsheisear (“big sixer” – an archaic term for seven) is an early Christian oratory and also the burial place of seven people, six men and one woman, who were washed ashore dead at Scoilt an Mhóirsheisear (“the cleft of the seven”) on the island’s northwest coast. Legend has it that Saint Colmcille ordered that the corpses be buried together, but that the female cadaver insistently returned to the surface, until he finally realized that it was the body of a saint and had her interred separately. The clay from the woman’s grave is widely believed to keep rats at bay, and indeed there have never been any rats on Tory.

The Battle of Tory Island

The Battle of Tory Island, (aka the Battle of Donegal, Battle of Lough Swilly or Warren’s Action) was fought on 12th October 1798 between French and British squadrons off the northwest coast of Donegal. It was both a naval action of the French Revolutionary Wars and the final attempt by the French Navy to land substantial numbers of soldiers in Ireland during the country’s 1798 Rebellion.


An earlier landing at Killala by a small French force under General Humbert had been defeated, as had early the rebellion itself. Unaware of this, the French despatched reinforcements under the command of Commodore Jean-Baptiste-François Bompart.


Three thousand men aboard the ship of the line Hoche, and eight frigates, departed Brest on 16th September. However, the Royal Navy were on the lookout, with roving frigate patrols in the approaches to Ireland and squadrons of battleships from the Channel Fleet nearby, ready to move against any new invasion force. In command of the squadron on the Irish station was Sir John Borlase Warren, a highly experienced officer who had made a name for himself raiding the French coast early in the war.


After a long chase led by HMS Ethalion under Captain George Countess, the French were brought to battle close to Tory Island. They were badly outnumbered by the Royal Navy ships, and their attempts to escape proved in vain, as they were run down and defeated piecemeal, with the British capturing four ships and scattering the survivors.


Over the next two weeks, British frigate patrols scoured the passage back to Brest, capturing three more ships. Only two frigates and a schooner reached French havens. British losses in the campaign were minimal.


After the action, the United Irisnmen leader Theobald Wolfe Tone was recognised aboard the captured French flagship and arrested. He was later tried for treason, convicted, and having botched a suicide attempt, cutting his own throat, he was bloodily hanged.   In Britain the engagement was considered a great success, with the thanks of Parliament bestowed on the entire force. Numerous junior officers were promoted and all crew members received financial rewards from the sale of the eight captured prize vessels to the government.


Hoche, Embuscade and Bellone were renamed HMS Donegal, HMS Ambuscade and HMS Proserpine respectively, while Résolue became HMS Resolue. Of the other captured ships, HMS Immortalité and HMS Loire served in the Royal Navy for many years, while. Coquille was intended for purchase but suffered a catastrophic ammunition explosion in December 1798, which killed 13 people and totally destroyed the vessel.

The Lighthouse at the west end of the island was built between 1828 and 1832 to a design by George Halpin. Measuring 30m in height with 2.3m thick walls at the base, it was converted from catoptric to dioptric in 1862,  and was fully automated in 1990. It is one of three Irish lighthouses equipped as a reference station for the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS), a satellite-tracking system managed by the US Department of Defence.

Many wrecks lie submerged  around Tory, notably the Jamaica Merchant (1744), the Belfast (1847), the Sisters (1853), the Lavinia of Quebec (1866) and the Fairhorn (1874). Of the eighty-odd drowned hulks identified in the deep waters near the island, some 30 were casualties of WWI mines or torpedoes.

HMS Wasp, a gunboat sent to investigate the islanders’ non-payment of tax, struck and foundered on An Feadán, the isolated rock under the lighthouse now aka Feadán an Wasp, on 23rd September 1884. Fifty of the crew were lost. Some are buried at the nearby Reilig Ghallda  (Foreigner’s Graveyard).

On Friday 13th June 2003, the Cabin Fever, carrying participants from an RTÉ reality show, ran on to the reefs on the southwest coast of the island. Although the ship was broken up and lost, all on board made it to shore safely.

A WWII Torpedo that washed ashore in 1943 was defused and erected at its present location midway between An Baile Thiar and An Baile Thoir

It stands near the site of what was perhaps the bloodiest event in the history of the Island, when Sir Henry ffolliott, Governor of Ballyshannon, learning that Seán Mánais Óig Ódomhnail / Shane MacManus Oge O’Donnell, a leader of the 1608 Rebellion,  was still holding out with some 240 men on Tory Island, took them by surprise and massacred them all, as evidenced by the names of Log Anáil na nDaoine (Hollow of the people’s breath), Claí an Áir (Bank of the massacre) and Fuíoll na bhFear (remains of the men).

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