Monday 17 December 2018

On Tory time

When home is the farthest inhabited island off the Irish coast, access to the mainland matters. Kathy Donaghy visits Tory, nine miles off the Donegal shore, and finds a community ­revelling in its freedom but anxious about the future of its ferry service.

A royal welcome: King of Tory, Patsy Dan Rodgers meets all the visitors from the ferry. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
A royal welcome: King of Tory, Patsy Dan Rodgers meets all the visitors from the ferry. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
An idyll for childhood: Donal and Marjorie Uí Chearbhaill with their children Ann (2), Caitlín (5), Pádraig (7) and dog Darby. Photo: Frank McGrath
Community nurse Eamonn Mac Lughadha and social club manager Daniel Cullen (below right), who play in the céilí band on the island. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

It's still dark with a sliver of moon overhead when we arrive at the pier in Bunbeg to catch the first ferry service of the day to Tory Island.

The boatmen work quickly to load the crates of supplies on to the small ferry. It's a mixed cargo of household staples like milk, vegetables and cartons of juice. There is even a mattress making the crossing. The water is flat calm - it looks as smooth as glass in the half light.

We set sail at 8.30am, passing the small islands of Gola and Inishmeane, hugging the coastline around Bloody Foreland in the heart of the Gaoth Dobhair and the Donegal Gaeltacht, before entering the vast openness of the north Atlantic.

As the dawn breaks, Tory can be seen in the distance, a flat plateau with two promontories at either end. It's good to be on our way. Notoriously rough seas rule the crossing from the Donegal mainland to Tory, making the journey difficult, often impossible. The ferry can't go if the winds are too strong. We have a window of opportunity - the weather forecast for the next day is bad but on this day, we have been blessed with a promise of blue skies.

As soon as we leave the shelter of land, the waves rise up. Not so much waves as huge mountains of water moving and rising up from the depths, making our small ferry roll back and forth. I feel it in the pit of my stomach - the boatmen laugh and tell me this is calm. I wouldn't like to see it on a bad day.

An hour-and-a-half later we pull into the harbour and disembark on to the ancient soil of Tory. The day is beautiful. Biting cold and clear. The sound of the ocean crashing against the rocks is loud, even from the safety of the harbour. Set against a bright blue sky, the houses, ancient round tower and small church make it look like you've stepped into a painting.

On the island, at St Colmcille's Church, Gortahork parish priest Fr Seán Ó Gallchoir is preparing to say Sunday Mass. It's Thursday, but the bishop has given special permission for the priest to say the weekly Mass on a Thursday. Fr Ó Gallchoir has just come in on the once-weekly helicopter service which has also brought the GP to the island for the day.

We have an appointment with the king of Tory, Patsy Dan Rodgers, but our meeting will have to wait till after Mass. We are on Tory time now.

At the local primary school, principal Anna Ui Bhaoill makes the short walk to the church for Mass, leading the 11 pupils of Scoil Cholmcille through the church gates. It's like a scene from an Ireland of long ago when everything stopped for Mass.

Jimmy Rodgers, who runs the local shop and post office with his wife Jackie, has already told me that there's no rushing on Tory. He was the only other passenger on the ferry which left Bunbeg full of supplies for his shop. Aside from catching the ferry, there's no need for racing around, chasing the clock, he explains.

After a few years away from the island doing odd jobs in factories and hotels, Jimmy returned to Tory where he reared his five children, now aged between 23 and 33.

"I always wanted to come home. Even when I'm away, I want to come home, but I know it can be hard for people who are not used to it. It can be hard for young ones to meet someone. But I like the peace. There's no rush. We never lock our door," he says.

His wife Jackie says island life was great for the kids - they had great freedom when they were young. She says the children come and go now, although four of her children are currently living at home. Long term, she says, she doesn't know what the future will hold.

"We'd love to see them staying but there's nothing to keep them. They come in for a while, but they'll probably have to go again," she says.

Jimmy and Jackie are waiting to see if they've been successful with an application for funding to operate a tourist angling boat. Jimmy says it would mean one of his sons could stay at home. While fishing was a mainstay for Tory Islanders for generations, these days only three boats fish out of Tory. Tourism has become increasingly important as a means for people to survive.

At the island's health centre, community nurse Francis Donnelly is seeing patients. A soft-spoken six foot Armagh man, Donnelly has been tending to the islanders for 12 years. It wasn't planned, he says, but Tory wove its magic and now Donnelly spends two weeks of every month living in an apartment at the health centre and two weeks back on the mainland with his partner and young daughters.

Music and fishing

He's the first to admit that island life takes a bit of getting used to, especially the isolation and remoteness of it. But he got used to it and passes his downtime playing music and fishing. "I have to slow down when I come to the island. The islanders have an easy way with them - they have a certain sense of humour," he says.

His colleague, the nurse who takes over the other two weeks of the month, pops in for a chat with Donnelly. Limerick man Eamonn Mac Lughadha is no stranger to islands. He has just flown in on the chopper with the priest and the GP. He used to work on Skellig Michael for the OPW but retrained as a nurse and was drawn to Tory after first visiting it to play the banjo. He jokes that Tory is like Las Vegas compared to the Skelligs and is looking forward to trying out his new banjo with his fellow musicians later on.

As Mass ends, the primary school children troop back up to their classroom carrying small gifts in Christmas wrapping - presents from their former priest who had moved on. School principal Anna Ui Bhaoill says the gifts are symbolic of island life; of how the islanders care for one another.

After training in St Pat's teacher training college in Dublin, Anna, from Magheraroarty on the Donegal mainland, met and fell in love with her future husband Patrick Gerard, a Tory islander, and they had three children Treasa (10), Paddy (7) and Charles (4).

Anna says she never considered rearing her children anywhere else and says the freedom and space her children have on Tory is amazing.

A battle with breast cancer meant that Anna spent eight months on the mainland getting chemotherapy and radium treatment, and she only went back to work last year. As hard as it was being away from her children, she says she knew her little ones were well looked after on Tory. "You know what you have here," she says.

Like all islanders, she keeps a regular eye on the forecast. While her family is not far away - Magheraroarty Pier is 45 minutes away on the ferry while Bunbeg is an hour and a half - the weather dictates if and when she can see them. Anna explains that islanders are very anxious at the minute and it's not the winter storms that they're worried about.

A row has been ongoing about a new ferry service due to come into operation in April of this year to replace the existing 25-year-old Tormór ferry. Locals claim the new ferry, Queen of Aran, built in 1976 and refurbished in 2008, is a step down from the newer ferry they already have. "Nobody is happy about this. We're all on the same page. This is an older boat - we are anxious and it's a nervous time.

"When you've decided to build your house here and you're working around a timetable, you need to be able to plan. I'd love to meet the people who make these decisions about our lives and ask them to go down to that pier with three children to go to a doctor's appointment. I wouldn't be a great traveller at the best of times. I'm nervous about this," says Anna.

At his home at Teach an Ri, Patsy Dan Rodgers, the island's king, is not nervous about the ferry. He's apoplectic. He says the island needs a brand new purpose-built faster ferry service.

Patsy Dan is also angry that the various government departments and state agencies responsible for the Irish language and the islands have not done more to promote Tory as a destination for tourism or to help develop indigenous industry. Given the island's position in the north Atlantic and its dependence on tourism, he feels little has been done to promote it as a focal point along the Wild Atlantic Way.

He says the authorities need to look at the facts - three babies were christened on Tory before Christmas. People want to live there and rear their children there but the ferry debacle, he says, is making islanders angry.

As king of Tory, Patsy Dan, is the spokesman and cultural representative of the island. He holds the history of Tory close and is fiercely protective of the island's traditions and language. He apologises for his own use of language, saying English comes second to Irish when it comes to his vocabulary. But he's persuasive in his argument about islanders and their rich heritage and the importance of protecting their way of life.

He is also a great draw for visitors to Tory. He personally greets every visitor off the boat, and in the summer his paintings hang in the Dixon Gallery. He is schooled in the tradition of what he calls primitive painting or naïve painting like James Dixon, another Tory native, and renowned English landscape and portrait painter Derek Hill, who first came to Tory in 1956.

In winter, neither the gallery nor the hotel are open but you still get Patsy Dan. He regales us with the legend of how rats were banished from Tory and how clay from Tory will ward off rats. A born storyteller, his love of the island runs through his veins and right now he feels the island's way of life is being challenged by decision makers who don't understand just how central to their lives the ferry is.

Sense of community

"If we don't get the right ferry, then no disrespect to anyone, the whole community here is being put at powerful risk. We don't want to go backwards - we don't want to be an abandoned island. We have enough on our plate. Island communities have enough on their plates without dealing with authorities scaring the life out of us," he says.

Marjorie Uí Chearbhaill moved to Tory last July with her husband Donal and three children Pádraig (7), Caitlín (5) and Ann (2) when she became community development manager for Tory Island Co-op. It was a big move - they renovated a cottage that was in her husband's family and settled the children in school - but they love it.

"It's a beautiful place to bring up a family. The community is very close. I feel it's a safer place to bring up kids. I love the environment and the fact the number of pupils in the school is so small is great," says Marjorie. She says the family don't feel they are missing out on anything - they have internet and Sky TV on the island, they see family regularly and what they don't have by way of entertainment, the sense of community makes up for it.

"You do have to be prepared. You have to have everything stocked up. I would do a big shop every fortnight and bring it in on the boat. You always have your freezer stocked up. We have a service from Gweedore - we can order things and they will send it on the boat. If you ring in the morning, they will have it on the ferry in the afternoon. A friend who runs the butchers does the same for us," she says.

Like Anna in the primary school, Marjorie has brought a renewed energy to the island. While she may have grown up on the mainland, she's as passionate about Tory as someone who grew up there.

In her job, she looks after the helicopter service, the barge service to bring larger goods to the island, the group water scheme as well as local services like youth groups. She is hoping to start a naonraí in the coming weeks for the island's youngest inhabitants along with a mother-and-toddler group. She will also spearhead work on a feasibility study to do up the lighthouse on the island as a tourist attraction.

Ferry controversy

While island life is a dream come true for her and her husband Donal, who spent much of his childhood and teenage years on Tory, their future on the island is not something they take for granted.

"If the authorities insist on pushing this ferry on us, people will leave. The ferry we have at the moment is fine. But the one they're trying to give us is older. We are at a crossroads now. A ferry service is the only way we can get in or out," says Marjorie.

Donegal TD Joe McHugh, who is also the minister responsible for Gaeltacht and the islands, was due to meet locals on Tory last week to discuss the ferry issue. But bad weather meant it had to be put off. A spokesperson for the minister said he will meet the islanders as soon as possible.

At the club, the island's social hub, Fr Ó Gallchoir, the visiting doctor and the community nurse Francis Donnelly are waiting for the helicopter to take them back to the mainland. An impromptu music session begins when the second community nurse, Eamonn Mac Lughadha, tries out his new banjo with Daniel, who runs the club, on guitar accompaniment. The few who are gathered enjoy the music. It's spontaneous and unselfconscious and full of unbridled joy.

We look at the clock and it's almost 4pm - the boat will leave with or without us at 4. A message comes through to the club that Jimmy Sweeney, the skipper of the ferry, is looking for us. We rush to the boat dock where several locals see us off including Patsy Dan himself. Jimmy looks like he was about to set sail, leaving us on Tory. That would have been no hardship.

The locals wave us off. We arrive back in Bunbeg in darkness. The weather is changing. There will be no boat to Tory the next day or the day after.

Photos by Frank Mc Grath

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