Ireland’s tiny Tory Island isn’t home to much. There are 150 inhabitants, one road, one church, one grocery store (which doubles as a post office), one lighthouse, one hotel, one hostel, one social club and – despite the 1800 Acts of Union that unified the kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain – one king.
His name is Patsy Dan Rodgers, he’s 71 years old and he has lived on the 5km-long and 1km-wide County Donegal island since he was four. He became king in 1993, though not – as you might expect – by inheritance. Instead, as per the island’s custom, he was elected.
It’s a tradition that, according to Rodgers, dates back to the 6th Century, when Saint Columba (Colm Cille, in Irish) disembarked on Tory in order to spread Christianity. “He came to the island, and it was all pagans,” said Rodgers. “The islanders agreed to meet him, and Saint Colm Cille had a conversation with a man called Duggan.”
Duggan, Rodgers continued, expressed to the saint his fears about the pirates who were descending onto the island and destroying its houses. Saint Columba gave Duggan the honour of being the king of Tory, adding that the island would survive the peril if Duggan challenged the pirates. When Saint Columba’s prediction turned out to be real, the pagans converted to Christianity and erected a monastery in the saint’s memory. (Destroyed in 1595, the monastery’s surviving bell-tower remains one of Tory’s symbols today).
Columba also gave Duggan a present: a pot of clay with magical properties (it kept away rats and protected fisherman while at sea). The holy clay – which has left the island without rats since then – is still believed to be magic and can be handled exclusively by the oldest family member of the Duggan clan.
“From that day to this day, the islanders are very serious” about the tradition of the king, Rodgers said.
Today, the king undertakes duties such as ambassadorial obligations on the mainland and abroad; welcoming visitors when they arrive at the harbour and saying goodbye to them when they leave; and entertaining tourists at night by playing the accordion or telling them stories about his home land.
As well as king, Rodgers is also a painter. Together with Tory’s other artists, he keeps alive the island’s 50-year-old tradition of primitive painting, which was started by English painter Derek Hill when he first visited Tory in 1956. Rodgers’ main subject is the island itself: sun-kissed in the summer and flagellated by violent Atlantic storms in the winter.
It isn’t just the king’s paintings that are influenced by Tory. His temper also seems to have been shaped by the same extreme sceneries as his artwork. Like the sea roughened by a hurricane, Rodgers can be indomitable, particularly when speaking about the island’s future or how people look to him as a leader. But when the blizzard calms down, he speaks gently again.
“People think I am higher up than I am,” Rodgers said, “that I have powers to do things for the island and if something goes wrong, I should be able to fix it. I try to do my best, but I don’t feel I should really be looked at like that.”
Although the kingship is the most famous of Tory’s traditions, the island’s legends date back even further than the 6th Century, and they strongly tie in with some of Ireland’s most important mythology. King Balor – a one-eyed giant and lord of the supernatural race of Fomorians – is said to have lived in Dún Bhaloir (Balor's Fort), a promontory stronghold on Tory’s east coast that dates from the Iron Age. In the tower of Tor Mór – the island’s highest point – Balor allegedly kept his daughter Eithne in prison, fearing the prophecy that said he would be killed by his grandson, the warrior of the light, Lugh. The fort, naturally defended on three sides by 90m-high cliffs and on the land side by four massive banks, is believed to date back to 700 BC, while the first archaeological evidence of human occupation on the island dates from around 2500 BC.
Legends aside, the landscape surrounding Balor’s Fort is breath-taking. At the end of the only road that leads to the island’s east side – through East Town, one of Tory’s only two settlements – the path turns into a small track, and then passes over a natural land-bridge that connects the two sides of the island. After a wire fence, the walk proceeds uphill toward the fort’s ruins.
Even if it’s hard to identify the fort – there’s little of it left and there isn’t any sign – the scenery is well worth the effort. Dramatic and steep cliffs; waves that shatter against Tory’s northern, rocky face; sharp ridges that scare hikers at first glance – it’s easy to understand why this side of the island has inspired all sort of legends. When walking around the stone field that dominates the cliffs, pay extra care to the cliffs’ edges; one strong wind could send you off course.
The landscape is totally different on the island’s western side, where storms and winds have sanded away all its rough edges, leaving nothing on the ground except for small bushes.
“It is very hard to live here in the winter,” said Eilis Rodgers, the daughter of former Tory king Patrick Rodgers (unrelated to the current king). “One year, in the night, a big wave threw a plastic tank against my house and it destroyed a window. I remember I heard a big crack, but no one was hurt.”
In 1974, because of massive Atlantic storms, Tory Island was cut off from the mainland for almost two months. The Irish government tried to resettle the islanders in Donegal.
“From the 11th of January 1974 – seven weeks and three days”, remembered the king, “At that time, we had three shops and we were able to divide with one another. I wouldn’t say we would not help one another now, but it’s completely different now.”
“They [the government] offered every family of the island a house on the mainland and they encouraged 130 people. That was very, very sad,” Rodgers continued. “It was a war with us but we fought, and here we are today, still on the island.”
Of the 150 people who live on Tory Island year-round, there are 21 children, eight of whom were born in the last four years. However, both the survival of the community and its peculiar “royal” tradition are now in danger.
“I am not sure I want to be king until I die,” Rodgers confessed. “For the benefit of the island I hope there will be somebody else, but it depends on who is more active on the island. I wish I could decide who can be the next king, but it’s not the case."
Tourism is the main source of income for the islanders. But extreme weather conditions and – according to Rodgers – access challenges are negatively affecting Tory’s survival.
“I would love for this island to be powerful for friends and visitors that travel so long,” Rodgers said. “I want them to be able to buy handcrafts or paintings, or have a good meal, or find a good place to stay.”
“But to double the number of visitors, the ferry has to be replaced,” Rodgers continued. “Other islands with roughly the same population of Tory have two ferries and they can board double as many people. Other islands are so strong, and we have the same culture and language. We seem to be lost along the road, and that’s not fair at all.”