Tory Island or Toraigh in Irish, is an island 14.5 kilometres off the northwest coast of County Donegal. It is the most remote inhabited island in Ireland. The island is approximately five kilometres long and 2 kilometres wide, with a population of about 170 people. Its name means ‘place of steep rocky heights’.
This Irish-speaking island has been inhabited since the earliest times and is rich in archaeological and monastic sites from the Iron Age and early Christian periods.
According to Legend, Tory Island was the stronghold of the Fomorians. The Fomorian king, Balor of the evil eye, also lived here. When it was prophesied that Balor would be killed by his grandson, Balor imprisoned his daughter Eithne in a tower here to prevent her from ever meeting a man and having children. The place where Eithne’s tower stood, is now known as ‘Tor Mór’ which means ‘high tower’ and is the island’s highest point.
Other sites associated with Balor and the Fomorians are Dún Bhaloir or ‘Balor’s Fort’. It is located on the island’s eastern side, on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by 90-metre-high cliffs. The fort is accessible only by crossing a narrow isthmus that is defended by four earthen embankments.
An Eochair Mhór or the ‘Big Key’ is a long, steep-sided spur jutting from the east side of the peninsula and ending at ‘An Tor Mór’. The spur has prominent rocky pinnacles known as ‘Saighdiúirí Bhaloir’ or ‘Balor’s soldiers’. They give the spur a ‘toothed’ appearance, which inspired the name ‘The Big Key’.
Tory also has connections to St Colmcille who founded a Christian monastery on Tory in the 6th century. The monastery dominated life on the island until 1595, when it was plundered and destroyed by English troops, who were waging a war of suppression against local chieftains. The monastery’s bell tower or ‘An Cloigtheach’ is the largest structure to have survived the destruction of the monastery. The round tower was built in the 6th or 7th century and the ruins are still visible on the island.
Another interesting sight on Tory is ‘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 then defused and moved to its present location. Also, the first battleship the British lost during the First World War, the super-dreadnought HMS Audacious, was sunk off Tory Island on 27 October 1914 by a naval mine that had been laid by the armed German merchant-cruiser Berlin. The loss was kept an official secret in Britain until 14 November 1918 – three days after the end of the war. The sinking was witnessed and photographed by passengers on RMS Olympic, the sister ship of RMS Titanic.
Another record of a sea tragedy on the island is Móirsheisear or ‘Grave of the Seven’. Móirsheisear is the tomb of seven people, six men and one woman, who drowned when their boat capsized off the island’s northwest coast.
Other interesting features on the island include ‘The Wishing Stone’, ‘The Tau Cross’ and The Lighthouse.
The island is famous for its diverse bird species and is a designated “Important Bird Area”. It is a breeding site for corn crakes, a globally threatened species. Interestingly, because of its high winds, the island has no trees.