Tory Island, or simply Tory (officially known by its Irish name Toraigh),[1] is an island 14.5 kilometres (9.0 miles) off the north-west coast of County Donegal in Ulster, Ireland, and is the most remote inhabited island of Ireland.[2] It is also known in Irish as Oileán Thoraí or, historically, Oileán Thúr Rí.[3] The word Tory comes from the Middle Irish word Tóraidhe which means bandit.


The main spoken language on the island is Irish, although English is spoken to communicate with visitors. Tory is part of the Donegal Gaeltacht and Ulster Irish (Canúint na Ulaidh) is the main Irish dialect in use.

Geography and transport

Tory in the evening

The island is approximately 5 kilometres (3 miles) long and 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) wide,[4] and 1.38 square miles.[5] The 2002 census recorded a population of 133.[6][7][8] The population is divided among four towns – An Baile Thoir (East Town), An Baile Thiar (West Town), An Lár (Middletown) and Úrbaile (Newtown).[3] Petrol and diesel are available from Tory Oil at prices significantly higher than on the mainland.[9]

Tory has no airport, but has regular ferry connections from mainland County Donegal.[10] The ferry travels daily from April to October and five times a week for the rest of the year. The ferry does not take cars, but holds up to 70 passengers.[11] During the winter months, sea crossings may not be possible due to rough seas – but from November to March, a small 4-seater helicopter runs from Falcarragh to Tory every other Thursday.[citation needed]


Ancient history

In the apocryphal history of Ireland, Lebor Gabála Érenn, Tory Island was the site of Conand's Tower, the stronghold of the Fomorians, before they were defeated by the Nemedians in a great battle on the island. The later Fomorian king Balor of the evil eye also lived here.[12] Balor would imprison Ethlinn in a tower built atop Tor Mór (or Túr Mór in Old Irish, meaning The High Tower). Tor Mór is the island's highest point.

A monastery was founded on Tory in the 6th century by Colmcille. The monastery dominated life on the island until 1595, when it was plundered and destroyed by English troops, waging a war of suppression against local chieftains. The monastery's bell tower is the largest structure to survive and was built in the 6th or 7th century.[citation needed]

Early modern history

In 1608, the Siege of Tory Island, one of the final incidents of O'Doherty's Rebellion, took place when a surviving group of rebels took shelter in the castle, only to begin killing each other to secure a pardon.

The Battle of Tory Island, the last action in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, took place at sea nearby.

The "king of Tory", Patsy Dan Rodgers, waiting near the harbour to welcome visitors to the island

Recent history

On 27 October 1914, the British lost their first battleship of World War I: the British super-dreadnought battleship HMS Audacious (23,400 tons) was sunk off Tory Island, by a minefield laid by the armed German merchant-cruiser Berlin. The loss was kept an official secret in Britain until 14 November 1918 (3 days after the end of the war). The sinking was witnessed and photographed by passengers on RMS Olympic, sister ship of RMS Titanic.

Since the 1950s, the island has been home to a small community of artists, and has its own art gallery. The English artist Derek Hill was associated with the Tory artist community.[13]

Reflecting a long-standing tradition, a "king" is chosen by consensus of the islanders. The current Rí Thoraí (Irish for "King of Tory") is painter Patsy Dan Rodgers (Patsaí Dan Mac Ruaidhrí). The king has no formal powers, though duties include being a spokesperson for the island community and welcoming people to the island.[14]

Tory Island power station

Power is generated on the island today from three diesel electricity generators.[15] These have a total capacity of 4 MW and burn through approximately 500 litres of fuel every day.[citation needed]

Public attention was focused on the island in 2009 when a one-time resident was awarded a payout following a court case after his house was demolished and the grounds used as a car park.[16] In 2015, the island's only café was destroyed by fire.[17]


The table below reports data on Tory Island's population taken from Discover the Islands of Ireland (Alex Ritsema, Collins Press, 1999) and the census of Ireland. Censuses in Ireland before 1841 are not considered complete and/or reliable.

Historical population
Year Pop. ±%
1841 399 —    
1851 402 +0.8%
1861 386 −4.0%
1871 343 −11.1%
1881 332 −3.2%
1891 348 +4.8%
1901 335 −3.7%
1911 307 −8.4%
Year Pop. ±%
1926 250 −18.6%
1936 291 +16.4%
1946 265 −8.9%
1951 257 −3.0%
1956 273 +6.2%
1961 264 −3.3%
1966 243 −8.0%
1971 273 +12.3%
Year Pop. ±%
1979 213 −22.0%
1981 208 −2.3%
1986 136 −34.6%
1991 119 −12.5%
1996 169 +42.0%
2002 133 −21.3%
2006 142 +6.8%
2011 144 +1.4%
Source: Central Statistics Office. "CNA17: Population by Off Shore Island, Sex and Year". CSO.ie. Retrieved October 12, 2016. 


Tory Island has a number of historical and mythological sites:

  • Dún Bhaloir (Balor's Fort) is located on the island's eastern side. This peninsula is surrounded on three sides by 90-metre-high (295-foot) cliffs. Balor's Fort is accessible only by crossing a narrow isthmus, defended by four earthen embankments.[18]
View from Dún Bhaloir
  • An Eochair Mhór (the Big Key) is a long, steep-sided spur jutting from the east side of the peninsula and ending in a crag called An Tor Mór (the Big Rock or the Big Tower). The spur has prominent rocky pinnacles – these are known as 'Balor's soldiers' (Saighdiúirí Bhaloir). They give the spur a 'toothed' appearance and contribute to the name, 'the Big Key'.
A view of East Town (An Baile Thoir), Tory Island.
  • The Wishing Stone is a precipitous flat-topped rock beside the northern cliff-face of Balor's Fort. Traditionally, a wish is granted to anyone foolhardy enough to step onto the rock, or who succeeds in throwing three stones onto it.
  • An Cloigtheach (the Bell Tower) is the largest structure to have survived the destruction of the monastery (see history section above). The round tower was built in the 6th or 7th century.
  • The Tau Cross (a t-shaped cross) is believed to date from the 12th century. It is one of only two Tau crosses in Ireland (the other being in Kilnaboy, County Clare).
  • Móirsheisear (Grave of the Seven): Móirsheisear, which actually translates as 'big six' – a term for seven – is the tomb of seven people, six men and one woman, who drowned when their boat capsized off Scoilt an Mhóirsheisear (the Cleft of the Seven) on the island's northwest coast. According to local superstition, clay from the woman's grave has the power to ward off vermin.[18]
  • The Lighthouse, standing at the west end of the island, was built between 1828 and 1832 to a design by George Halpin, a noted designer of Irish lighthouses. In April 1990, the lighthouse was automated. The lighthouse is one of three in Ireland in which a reference station for the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) is installed. The lighthouse is at coordinates 55°16.357′N 8°14.964′W / 55.272617°N 8.249400°W / 55.272617; -8.249400 (Tory Island Lighthouse)
  • The Torpedo: A torpedo can be seen midway between An Baile Thiar and An Baile Thoir. It washed ashore during World War II and was defused and erected at its present location.[18]

Flora and fauna

The island is an Important Bird Area.[19] It is a breeding site for corn crakes (Crex crex), a globally threatened species whose numbers have fallen with the intensification of agriculture. In 2007, Tory Island recorded 18 calling males, down from a recent year's maximum of 34 calling males in 2003. In addition to its indigenous bird life, the island records many vagrants.[20] In 2010 numbers dropped down further to 10[2]

Ancient records of the flora and fauna of this island can be found in Hyndman's notes on the history of the island.[21] Algae found locally include: Fucus vesiculosus, Fucus nodosus, Himanthalia lorea, Laminaria digitata, Rhodomenia laciniata, Plocamium coccineum, Ptilota plumosa, Conferva rupestrus, Codium tomtntosum, Codium adhaerens det Dr Harvey.[21]

The island has no trees due to its high winds.[22]

See also

References and further reading

  1. ^ a b Placenames (Ceantair Ghaeltachta) Order 2004
  2. ^ a b Walsh, David (2014). Oileáin. Pesda Press. p. 272. ISBN 978-1-906095-37-6. 
  3. ^ a b The Tory Islanders, a 1978 ethnographic account by R. Fox
  4. ^ A place of bewitching beautyBBC News article
  5. ^ "Tory Island Townland, Co. Donegal". townlands.ie. Ireland: Irish Townlands. 29 July 2017. 
  6. ^ CSO.ie – 2002 Census Archived 15 January 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Geological Survey of Ireland – Draft Groundwater Body Report – September 2005
  8. ^ Donegal County Council Report – Taobh Tíre (a better library service for rural areas) – July 2003[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ Pumps.ie – Tory Oil, West Town, Tory Island
  10. ^ Ferries departurt from Magheroarty and Bunbeg, with occasional services from Portnablath. The shortest crossing (Magheroarty to Tory Island) takes about 45 minutes. Oileanthorai.com — Official Tory Island Tourism Website – Travel details
  11. ^ Tory Island Ferry, County Donegal
  12. ^ G. H. Kinahan "Donegal Folk-lore: Ballor of the Evil Eye." The Folk-Lore Journal. Volume 5, 1894.
  13. ^ Funeral arrangements made for artist Derek HillRTÉ News article, 31 July 2000
  14. ^ "Patsy Dan Rodgers – Tory Island Artist, Musician and King of Tory, County Donegal". Patsydanrodgers.littleireland.ie. Retrieved 10 November 2008. 
  15. ^ The Navigator – Tory Island island life
  16. ^ Telegraph.co.uk – Hotel turned film director's home into a car park – 11 Nov 2009
  17. ^ Tory Islands Cafe Destroyed by Fire
  18. ^ a b c Oileanthorai.com — Official Tory Island Tourism Website – Places of Interest
  19. ^ BirdLife International (2015) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Tory Island. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 17 June 2015
  20. ^ Birds and Wildlife of Tory Island, leaflet published by Bird Watch Ireland
  21. ^ a b Hyndman, G.C. 1852. Notes on the natural history of Tory Island. Ulster J.Archaeol. 1: 34 – 3
  22. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/irish/articles/view/359/english/
  • Fox, R. The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe. University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 978-0-268-01890-0
  • Hunter, J. 2006. The Waves of Tory. Colin-Smyth Ltd. ISBN 978-0-86140-456-8
  • Williams H.G "Tory Island, County Donegal: a study on geographical isolation" Irish Geography, Dublin 1952
  • The Crosses of Tory Island, Dorothy Kelly, in Seanchas:Studies in Early and Medieval Irish Archaeology, History and Literature in Honour of Francis John Byrne, ed. Alfred P. Smyth, pp. 53–63, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2000