Ireland's monarch of the isle

King Patsy has put Tory Island on the tourist map. Robert Nurden takes a tour

The king phoned to say he'd be about 20 minutes late, and would I mind waiting? An hour later Patsy-Dan Rodgers turned up, walking jauntily down the street, navy-blue cap at a rakish angle and a ring in his ear. He held out his hand in greeting. "Forgive me, I had so many powerful things to do this morning. But you are most heartily welcome to this blessed place."

The king phoned to say he'd be about 20 minutes late, and would I mind waiting? An hour later Patsy-Dan Rodgers turned up, walking jauntily down the street, navy-blue cap at a rakish angle and a ring in his ear. He held out his hand in greeting. "Forgive me, I had so many powerful things to do this morning. But you are most heartily welcome to this blessed place."

We were not acting out a modern version of Shakespeare's Tempest, but standing outside the only hotel on Tory Island, a wind and rain-lashed wedge of land three miles by one, a 50-minute ferry ride from Ireland's Donegal coast. Its Gaelic-speaking inhabitants number 175 and three years ago they gave their blessing to the appointment of the 58-year-old, larger-than-life Patsy as their king, a tradition that supposedly goes back to the sixth century.

With his continual cajoling of the mainland authorities to steer this forgotten outpost of the Gaelic world into the choppy waters of the 21st century, this fine accordion player and landscape painter has more to show for his efforts than most other monarchs around. When Donegal council tried to tempt the islanders to resettle on the mainland with the promise of smart new bungalows, Patsy led the resistance and stuck in his muddy hobnail boots.

He was helped in his bid to put his kingdom on the map by the island's association with the English painter Derek Hill. He stayed here every summer for 50 years and his little hut stands near the lighthouse and naval graveyard. It was the late Hill who spawned the island's school of primitive painters, three of whom still work – Patsy himself, nephew Rory and Anton Meenan.

Another prominent islander, James Dixon, was asked one day in 1956 as he watched Hill painting what he thought of his work. Dixon replied: "Not much. I can do better than that." Instead of expressing injured professional pride, Hill promised to send him paints and easel so he could get started. Dixon accepted, but told Hill that he didn't need any brushes because a horse's tail would be quite adequate, thank you. Dixon got working and was soon hailed as a fine painter. Now the primitive school of Toraígh, led by Meenan, is known from Japan to Paris.

You get to Tory by the Tor Mor ferry from Magheroarty. Way back, men negotiated these waters in a curragh, but the island was often cut off for weeks as the merciless currents made the sound impassable. Even Father Christmas sometimes has to fly in by helicopter.

The island has two communities – West Town, the capital, and East Town. These two clumps of white, yellow, green and red houses nestle on a south-facing, sloping plain, at the back of which gnarled cliffs plunge into the sea. St Columkille landed here in the 7th century, establishing the region's principal ecclesiastical centre. The monastery's round tower and distinctive T-shaped Tau Cross at the harbour's edge are still standing.

Anton's tour of the east of the island took in a Neolithic settlement (the fort of the evil Balor, the one-eyed giant and Celtic god of darkness), round which puffins, fulmars and gannets swooped. At the wishing stone, he showed us how to get three pebbles to land on a ledge hundreds of feet above the waves.

But Tory is more than just a Celtic backwater lost in the mists of time. As we walked back to West Town, we dodged cars, their exhausts hanging off, sans tax disc, and insurance too, probably. There's the little wind farm next to the community centre and the two schools, the primary with 15 pupils, the secondary with 21. Children used to bid tearful farewells to their families on the quayside before departing for boarding school for months.

To combat the unemployment problem caused by the decline of farming and fishing, a timber factory and airstrip are being planned. The idea is to increase the number of visitors from 10,000 to 25,000 a year.

Everyone you pass on the island's one tarmac road offers a cheery: "Nice day today," even though it's raining. They say the Gaelic spoken here is the purest form of the language. Certainly, the traditional story-telling, the music and the ceilidhs are performed through the winter months without a tourist in sight. For our visit, Patsy himself entertained us with some haunting accordion playing in the hotel bar, but we missed the dancing in the club. Well, it did start at 1.30am.

The wind had got up for our return to the mainland. "Ah, you'll be fine," said Patsy as he wrung our hands at the quayside. "It is a beautiful sight for the eye to see that you have enjoyed yourselves. But as I always say, there are more than 20 ways in which to drink porridge." We weren't quite sure what the king meant, but we weren't going to argue.

The Facts

Getting there

Robert Nurden flew from Stansted to Derry with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) which offers return fares from £10.

Three-day car hire through Avis (02871 811708) costs £91. A return fare on the ferry to Tory Island costs €22 (£15) (00 353 74 35061).

Being there

He stayed at the Ostan Thoraigh hotel (00 353 74 35920), the island's only hotel, open from April to October, offering bed and breakfast from €45 (£30) per person per night.

Further information

Donegal Tourist Office (00 353 74 21160).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week