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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 May, 2005, 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK
A place of bewitching beauty
By Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent

Off Ireland's north-west coast lies a picturesque island that has almost no visitors. In fact, Tory, or Toraigh Island, does not have much of anything, apart from lots of high winds and ocean views, as Kevin Connolly discovered.

Shoreline of Tory Island
Local landscape artists are known all over the world

Tory Island is not, as you might expect, an isolated maritime community peopled by men in well-cut blazers with strong views on immigration.

It is a rocky sliver of land stuck out in the wild Atlantic - just beyond the point where Ireland sits with County Donegal like a shoulder hunched up against the ocean winds.

You reach it by a ferry which butts its way through the waves like a ping-pong ball in a dishwasher - you can duplicate the experience at home by eating a large meal of underdone fish and lightly-boiled eggs, then performing a somersault in a car-wash.

Tory is like a granite kaleidoscope where the shifting patterns of light in the seas and skies produce a curious ephemerality

Your reward - apart from the fact that the ferry journey has ended - is a place of bewitching beauty; a home in the past to a tough breed of fishermen-farmers which has also beguiled generations of artists.

It looks rather like a fragment of Cornwall towed out to sea and left to fend off the worst of the Atlantic storms before they reach the rest of Northern Europe.

It is about three miles long and one mile wide and, in the bar of the only hotel, there is a group photograph that looks like a medium-sized family wedding - it is the entire population.

Buffeting winds

They are a hardy bunch - after all, they spend every waking minute in the sort of buffeting winds otherwise known only to wing-walkers in the flying circuses of the 1920s.

Map showing the Irish coast and Tory Isand

Anything that struggles in high winds, struggles on Tory. I didn't notice a single flying insect, for example, and there are - famously - no trees.

I thought I spotted one growing in the garden of the priest's house, as though God had undermined the forces of nature as a sign of high favour to a good servant.

I was corrected by locals. It is a very tall shrub, apparently, not a very short tree - although there is a subtle point of definition in there which slightly eludes me.

Tory clings not just to the edge of Europe but to the edge of viability too.

There was a time when it supported itself through fishing and farming, but those days are long gone and it survives these days because the Irish government chooses to foot the bills.

It is a measure of how hopeless things seem economically that, if you order fish in the only restaurant, it tends to have been brought across by ferry, not plucked from the rich seas that surround you as you eat.

Time capsules

All, perhaps, evidence that a spark of romance burns somewhere deep within Dublin's bureaucratic soul.

Period photograph of the island
A local exhibition celebrates the history of the island

Ireland keeps its offshore islands going because they are time capsules of a vanished national life, Gaelic-speaking reminders of how the country was before the demands of Britain's imperial economy took a grip over the centuries.

That spark, though, burns with an uncertain glimmer. In the 1970s, the Irish government planned to evacuate the islanders to council houses on the Donegal mainland and use the island as an artillery range.

But something, it seems, always comes along to save Tory.

At the end of the 19th Century, a Royal Navy gunboat, HMS Wasp, broke up and sank on rocks within sight of the cliffs on its way to investigate why the islanders had not paid any rents or taxes for several years.

Contemporary reports blame heavy seas and treacherous rocks. Well, that and a lapse in the old seafarers' craft of looking where you're going.

Fairies

But Tory Islanders insist the Wasp, on its way to do Her Britannic Majesty's dirty work, was cursed or sunk by fairies.

Rocks in the sea off the island
Bad weather and high seas deter people from visiting Tory

That seems a little rough on the crew who were nearly all drowned, but the moral is clear - powerful forces guard this strangest of places.

Towards the end of the 20th Century, help came from an even unlikelier source.

A local man out for a walk paused to look over the shoulder of Derek Hill, a distinguished English artist who was on a painting holiday. The local was unimpressed and observed that he could do better himself.

Anywhere else the exchange would have ended with a dismissive grunt. Here, somehow, it led to the founding of the Tory Island school of painting - a possible spark of economic regeneration which has seen many local men achieve global renown as landscape painters.

When I was there, a group of local artists were just back from New York and were deep in negotiation with agents in Italy.

Hundreds of canvases have been sold around the world.

Solitude

Salvation in this country will be based on tourism. This is one more wilderness relying for economic survival on hordes of visitors who could one day overwhelm the solitude which attracts them to it.

Still, the beauty which inspired the artists is a powerful draw.

Tory 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.

I will be back myself and, although I'd hate to be responsible for helping to erode that sense of solitude, I do recommend it.

I feel safe enough knowing that the weather and seas help to guard Tory.

And if they fail, well, there are always those vengeful fairies.

After 48 hours and what felt like a similar number of pints on the island, I was half inclined to believe I could see them myself preparing for the challenges of the future.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 14 May, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
Exhibition to celebrate Tory life
10 May 05 |  Northern Ireland


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