Ireland: Donegal & Tory Island

Excuse the interruption to our regular broadcasting on this blog, had that little addition to the family to first prepare for and then welcome into the world. He’s doing great and we’re actually getting more than three minutes sleep a night, which is nice!

Almost finished with the Irish leg of our big trip from last year. We’ve travelled all the way up the West coast along the Wild Atlantic Way and reached the far Northwestern tip of Ireland. I’d previously never been further than Bundoran so it was really exciting when we passed through this seaside village and continued North.

One of my bucket list photos for this trip was Errigal, a 751m stunner of a mountain that is the tallest of the Seven Sisters range. It’s a beautiful piece of rock that looks as if it’s perpetually coated in snow. This is in fact due to the scree on its slopes that glows an amazing pink in the setting sun.

As this trip was a bit of a flying visit and Gemma was pregnant, we didn’t have the time nor the inclination to make for the summit and that’s probably for the best, as like Carrauntoohil a few days before, its summit was obscured by clouds. I had seen the scene below in my research before we left and knew this was the shot I wanted to get. After a bit of a sketchy slog up some muddy and grassy slopes, I found a nice spot and quickly took some shots before the rain settled back in again.

The following morning we set off bright and early for perhaps the most adventurous leg of our journey around Ireland. We were off to visit Tory Island, home to Kings and famous and feared supernatural warriors. The most famous King of Tory was Balor. The title of King of Tory Island was last claimed by Dublin-born Patsy Dan Rodgers who sadly died late last year after a battle with cancer.

In Irish Mythology, Balor is said to be a tyrant who oppresses Ireland from his fortress on Tory Island. Balor is described as a giant with an eye which wreaks destruction when opened. “He had a single eye in his forehead, a venomous fiery eye. There were always seven coverings over this eye. One by one Balar removed the coverings. With the first covering the bracken began to wither, with the second the grass became copper-coloured, with the third the woods and timber began to heat, with the fourth smoke came from the trees, with the fifth everything grew red, with the sixth it sparked. With the seventh they were all set on fire, and the whole countryside was ablaze!”

That would do very well to explain the landscape on Tory Island. There isn’t a single tree to be seen as you wander across its bleak and barren undulations and it certainly looks as if it has been scorched by supernatural powers.

We only had a short time on the island that lies around 14km north of the mainland. The islanders don’t think of Ireland as the mainland. There’s a funny account of one schoolboy writing “Ireland is a large island off the coast of Tory Island”

Now…..Tory Island lies in the North Atlantic Ocean, which isn’t exactly known for its calm and tranquil seas. We knew the ferry journey over might be a bit rough and as we made our way to the harbour at Magheroarty and set our sights on the Queen of Aran, we realised this was going to be a little bit of a struggle. Gemma being a couple of months pregnant was particularly hesitant.

We boarded the ferry after the locals had brought on their menagerie of bits and pieces and were promptly handed sick bags by the friendly crew…..great. Off we set and for the first couple of kilometers it was actually kinda nice, albeit grey and muggy. Then we got into the deeper water, which we could see on the hand display screen which showed our heading and the depth of the water below us.

The boat started to wobble and sway back and forth, up and down, side to side. Gemma grew up going on trips on her parent’s boat and I’ve never had an issue with sea-sickness but I think even the hardiest sailor would have been feeling a little woozy on this trip. We finally approached Tory Island and the waters became calm once more. Everyone stepped up off the boat, a little dazed and wobble weary.

The Queen of Aran, a converted fishing vessel is the official Tory Island ferry.
I think these seats came from a Spanish airline from memory. Recycling is good for the planet.

We made our way East from the harbour and ventured towards what is known as Balor’s Fort at the far end of Tory. Poor Gemma had a rough go of it on the way over and couldn’t quite rouse the excitement we both thought we’d feel once we got on the island. I tried my best to shake off the ferry trip and take in our surroundings but it’s really hard when your stomach has been accosted in such a heavy hitting manner.

The weather which had been somewhat alright….ish, started to go a bit sour and the winds picked up. We struggled onwards to the peninsula where Balor once reigned. I was navigating via Google Maps and noticed that we were rapidly being cut off on both sides by the sea. Sure enough as we got towards the end of walkable ground we were indeed surrounded by huge cliffs that dropped off straight into the North Atlantic below, definitely a good spot for a fort!

The most prominent feature on Balor’s Fort is the Big Key which indeed looks like a large key jutting out into the ocean. The rocky outcrops on top are called Balor’s soldiers and I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with them. Thankfully we didn’t receive a visit from Balor himself and even if we had, sure there was only two of us and according to Mythology, it took four people to lift his evil eyelid. Phew!

The effort of getting down to the rocky Eastern shore of Tory, combined with our weary sea legs saw us longing for a bit of comfort and the great indoors. We hobbled back to the town and settled in to the Tory Island Harbour View Hotel. Call it the sea-sickness or whatever you like but my God the food we had in there was so delicious! The chocolate fudge cake was probably one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten.

With the weather showing no signs of abating and the effects of the ferry journey over still fresh in our minds, we decided to just stay in the Hotel for a little while and rest up before braving the return trip. I wandered about the harbour for a little bit to check it out and came across a Tau Cross, one of only two in Ireland.

Realising we couldn’t stay on the Island and had to get back to the “mainland” we ventured down to the harbour, the dread of the ferry crossing growing with each step. A bunch of young locals were the only other passengers and even they seemed a bit anxious as we left the safety of the harbour. Sure enough, the seas were even wilder on the way back and the crew struggled to make their way around the vessel. One of the young chaps succumbed to the rolling ocean and his mates didn’t look too much better off either.

Finally we reached dry land and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I don’t want our experience to detract in any way from the adventure that is visiting Tory Island. Sure it’s bleak, it’s barren as all hell and the weather can be atrocious but it’s not billed as a tropical paradise, it’s a unique piece of the story of Ireland and a fascinating microcosm of human life in a harsh unforgiving environment. The scenery is absolutely spectacular and we only got to see a tiny part of it. People will give places a 1 star review on Trip Advisor because it rained while they were there and that’s ridiculous. Yes the ferry journey can be horrendous but isn’t that part of the adventure?

Tir Chonaill is the ancient name for the area that includes modern day County Donegal
A 12th Century Tau Cross has pride of place in the harbour.
Gemma taking a breather on a random bench in the middle of the desolate surrounds.
Looking across to that large island off the coast.
Tory is definitely not a place for the faint-hearted to call home.
There’s plenty of beauty amongst the bleak and barren sights however.
The colours on these cliffs were beautiful.
A relic of times past.
A series of large cairns atop Balor’s Fort.
Looking back West to the far side of Tory.
You’d have to be very careful playing football in the back garden on Tory, one over zealous kick and your ball will never be seen again.
The Big Key at Balor’s Fort with Balor’s Soldiers standing guard. The large piece of rock at the end? Why it’s called…..The Big Rock. Sometimes simplicity is best eh?
Some more of that beautiful Irish heather adding a splash of colour.
If you’re afraid of heights, I would not recommend a trip to Balor’s Fort haha.
Epic coastline, epic island, epic Ireland.

4 thoughts on “Ireland: Donegal & Tory Island

  1. Thanks, Jim, for bringing us the authentic story of Tory. It’s not for the faint-hearted; it’s not ‘touristy’; these are serious-minded people who have to come to grips with a heartless environment. As always, the pictures are worth volumes of words.

  2. Tory Island. What an awesome place. Bleak yes but amazing history and vistas. Even I would tackle the seas to get there (as long as I could have some choc fudge cake).

  3. I admire you and Gemma so much for braving the North Atlantic β€” and her with child, no less! From your images I’m guessing it was 100% worth the risk of losing your chocolate fudge cake. πŸ™‚

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