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).

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