Tory Island lies about nine miles from the nearest point of Donegal. Its length is about three miles, and its breadth one. Its superficial contents are 1,200 acres, 200 of which are considered arable. The Commissioners of Irish Lights erected a lighthouse here in 1832, which is of great service to mariners, and has greatly diminished shipwrecks. It is visible in clear weather at a distance of 17 nautical miles, the lantern standing 122 feet above the level of the sea at high water. Before the erection of the lighthouse the inhabitants derived considerable profit from acting as pilots, and also from the timber thrown on shore.
The only place on the Island where a few shrubs flourish is a hollow formed by the subsidence of the surface into a cavern beneath. Its Celtic designation is Lagrehy, or “The Ram’s Hollow.” There are two villages on the Island, East Town and West Town, the latter being the principal, and containing the round tower and the ecclesiastical ruins, The building materials are fragments of red granite, and the covering of the houses is thatch, kept down by ropes of straw and by stones. As limestone is not found on the Island, the mortar, both ancient and modern, has been obtained by burning sea shells, chiefly those of the limpet, and the limpet is also used in large quantities as food and bait.
To a cursory observer, says an old writer who lived for a considerable time on the Island, and to whom I am indebted for information, the present dwellings have as much appearance of antiquity as the older buildings, and it is difficult to distinguish ancient from modern walls. In one place artificial caves are shown, said to have been formed during the war with France to conceal the people from the French, but more probably from English press-gangs, or, more likely still, they were used by smugglers before an excise steamer put an end to their traffic.
The most profitable business some seventy years ago was the manufacture of kelp from seaweed, and in 1845 the market was as much agitated on its small scale by the arrival of a few purchasers as some of the great marts where the wealth of nations is exchanged. The prosperity of this trade arises from the large proportion of iodine this kelp produces, which gives it a comparatively high value. Persons of every age and sex were employed collecting seaweed, or carrying it off the beach on the small island horses, in panniers having a movable bottom which drops down on removing a pin; but I understand that this industry has in more modern days almost disappeared, and the population which in the census of 1841 numbered nearly 400, has since that time considerably decreased.
There is neither resident magistrate, doctor, nor clergyman on the Island, but a schoolmaster resides there under the auspices of the National Board. The people for the most part belong to the Roman Catholic Church. A clergyman from Cross Roads, on the opposite coast of Donegal, visits them periodically, or, in a case of urgency, a “curragh” is sent over to bring him. In his absence prayers are read on Sunday by one of the islanders at what is called St. John the Baptist’s altar, near the round tower, and baptism is administered in cases of necessity.
It is said that when occasion requires more than usual deliberation on the part of the people, they elect a king. On one occasion when the august ceremony took place, it was for the purpose of considering whether geese should be allowed to be kept on the Island, as complaints had been made that they injured the crops. A legislative decree was the result, banishing all geese for the future.
The “curragh” which is used by the islanders is one of the most primitive of boats, and from its buoyancy one of the safest when used by those accustomed to its management. The canoe formed from the hollow trunk of a tree may have preceded its use, but the raw hide of a newly-slain animal properly extended presented a readier means of constructing a boat, and became to the early inhabitants of the British Isles what the birch-tree bark is to the American Indians. Caesar, Pliny, Claudian, Gildas, all refer to the “curragh.” In these boats, according to Gildas, the Irish made their irruptions into Britain about 431 A.D. on the coast of the opposite mainland. The curraghs have generally sharp bows and square sterns, but those of a moderate size, intended to pass with safety through the long swell of the Atlantic, are square, or nearly so, at both extremities.
An old cutter’s man stated that off the Shannon they often pull six oars, and that few boats can come up with them. He agreed in considering them the safest of all boats in the hands of men accustomed to their management. During all his experience in the Sound of Tory he never knew of one being lost, though they venture out in all waters. They are rowed with short oars or paddle’s, the smaller ones having two pairs—one man pulling a pair. They are what fishermen call club oars. Cattle are transferred across the Sound in these boats, and they are so light that a man easily carries one on his back.
Dr. Donovan, in a note on the battle of Moira, tells us that Tory Island is one of the earliest places mentioned in the Bardic History of Ireland, and is first referred to as the stronghold of the Fomorians or African pirates who made many descents on the coast of Ireland at a period so far back in the night of time that it is now impossible to bring chronology to bear upon it. Tory was also one of the strongholds of the Scandinavians who ravaged the coasts of the British Isles and partially settled there. West Town in Tory Island is a quarry of remains of religious edifices.
It is generally understood that St. Columba introduced Christianity into this remote island and built a monastery there. The legend says, Columba, being admonished by an angel to cross into Tory, set sail with several other holy men for the Island, that there arose a dissension among them with respect to the individual who should consecrate the Island, and thereby acquire a right to it in the future, each renouncing from humility and a love of poverty the office of consecration and right of territory. They all agreed with St. Columba that the best way to settle it was by lot, and they determined by his direction to throw their staves in the direction of the Island, with the understanding that he whose staff reached nearest to it should perform the office of consecration and acquire authority over Tory. Each threw his staff, but that of Columb-kille at the moment of issuing from his hand assumed the form of a dart, and was borne to the Island by supernatural agency.
The saint immediately called before him Alidus, son of the chief of the Island, who refused to permit its consecration or the erection of any building. St. Columba then requested him to grant as much land as his outspread coat would cover. Alidus readily consented, conceiving the loss very trivial, but he had soon reason to change his mind, for the saint’s cloak, when spread on the ground, dilated and stretched so much by its divine energy as to include within its border the entire island. Alidus was roused to frenzy by this circumstance, and incited or hunted upon the holy man a savage, ferocious dog, unchained for the purpose, which the saint immediately destroyed by making the sign of the Cross. The religious feelings of Alidus were awakened by this miracle, says the legend. He threw himself at the saint’s feet, asking pardon, and resigned to him the entire Island.
No further opposition being made, St. Columba consecrated Tory, built a magnificent church, which he placed under the control of Eranus, one of his disciples. Among other things he commanded that no dog should ever again be introduced into the Island. The ruins of the fine church he built are to be seen on the Island to this day.