In memory of Patsy Dan Rodgers, the King of Tory
This weekend Ireland said a sad farewell to the only remaining king in Ireland, the King of Tory, Patsy Dan Rodgers (Patsaí Dan Mag Ruaidhr). I’ll never forget his kindness each time I met him and especially when I was writing my book about Irish legends. He took me around, showed me many places and told me the fascinating legends of his great home of Tory Island. It was always clear to me how much he loved his island. He would greet visitors at the ferry port, or on the island. RIP Patsy. A visit to Tory will never be the same without your warm, welcoming handshake.
Read more about it here.
I met the King for the first time in 1999, and again in 2002. Below is an article I wrote about that second visit:
Return to Tory Island
by Ian Middleton
Our little boat was being thrown about on the ocean like a piece of flotsam. Anne and I stood at the front getting the soaking of our lives. Despite its size, the ferry negotiated these monstrous waves with considerable ease, and an hour after leaving we were pulling into the half-built pier on the remote and wind beaten Tory Island. We had both read in a book about a man who lives here who is known to all as the King of Tory, and had both figured it would be fun to travel to a remote island off the coast of Northern Donegal and meet a King. Although, as we stood on the pier soaking wet, the sky darkening with thick clouds and the rain slowly getting heavier, we began to have serious doubts about all this; especially as guesthouse after guesthouse was full with the workmen building the pier.
Three years later I found myself sailing into that same pier on that same boat. The only difference was the weather. The sun was blazing in the sky and illuminating Tory and its nice new pier. The crossing had been perfect, and this time I wasn’t wet. Nika, my travelling companion (and now my wife) had been told that the King greets the ladies with a kiss. Nika had never been kissed by a King before and was looking forward to the honour. Unfortunately though, he wasn’t there to meet the boat. The pier had been finished and was officially opened in July 2001. We made our way along the pier with a Belgian couple who planned to camp somewhere on the island.
‘Are you going to meet the King?’ I asked them.
‘Is he still alive then?’ asked the girl.
‘Of course he is,’ I replied.
‘Oh, it’s just that we heard he was very old.’
Tory island is just three miles long and half a mile wide. Its situation in the Tory Sound, a treacherous section of ocean, makes it extremely vulnerable to bad weather. Overall, it is best described as a bleak and inhospitable place. But looking at the sky this evening you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The island has a population of 170 people. As well as being King of the Island, Patsy Dan Rogers is also a prominent painter and musician, whose work has spread far beyond the confines of his island and the country to which it belongs.
We made our way to the Radharc Na Mara hostel and this time found it wasn’t full of workmen. Like all the B&Bs on the island, the hostel was simply a little house with no signs or anything to indicate that it was a hostel. Katherine, a short lady with bobbed red hair, ran the place and gave Nika and I a room with two beds, sofa, chair and fire for 12 Euro each.
Intending to take advantage of the nice sunny evening, we went out and hiked our way to the eastern side of the island, which is dominated with high cliffs that drop off at frighteningly steep angles to the sight of its jagged edges being pounded by the rough sea below. The abandoned caravan that had sat alone in the middle of this expanse of wilderness three years ago was now lying in the same spot flipped over and broken to pieces. An example of the stormy weather this island experiences during the winter.
The landscape was treeless and rocky with a sparse covering of vegetation. The area is reputed to be the nesting place for many species of bird, including puffins. We spotted one or two perched along the cliff edge. We followed the cliff line until we reached the end of the island and then returned to town for a meal in the café and then to the Club Soisialta (Social Club) for a drink and the hope that the King would pop in for a drink (after all, he was a very down to earth King and not above drinking with the peasants).
‘Has Patsy Dan been in at all?’ I asked the barman.
Seeing as I had already met him and written about him in my book, I felt worthy of being on a first name basis with the King.
‘He was in earlier, but left. I expect he’ll be back in later,’ he replied.
We took our drinks and sat at a table nearby. Soon after, the King walked in and after a chat with someone across the room, he came over to greet us and welcome us to Tory. Understandably he didn’t remember me at first (I’m still not sure he did after) but was pleased to see he was featured in my book. It was late by this time and he was very tired, but he put on glasses and studied the picture on the back, then turned to the chapter in which he was featured. He was very pleased to see what I had done and said he would get something written about it in one of the papers he was connected with.
As she hadn’t got her kiss at the boat, Nika took the opportunity here. We discussed the changes on the island. Tourism in Ireland was down considerably and nowhere had it hit more than Tory. The King was angry that no promotional literature had been circulated this year. Like everywhere in Ireland the weather had been worse than usual for the year. He was also concerned as to the whereabouts of the island’s puffins. He left us soon after and we agreed to meet the next day.
When on the island three years ago I had stayed with a lovely old lady called Mary, whose comfortable home and open fire had saved us from having to huddle in that abandoned caravan and possibly die of hypothermia. The next morning when I came out from making a phone call an old lady came by and started talking to me about the weather. The more I looked at her the more I felt sure it was her. So I asked, and found I was right.
‘You probably don’t remember me,’ I said, ‘but I stayed with you three years ago.’
‘Well, you do look familiar,’ she said.
‘I was with a girl with short reddish hair.’
‘Ah yes, I remember you now,’ she said.
Sadly, Mary’s husband had died not too long ago from a heart attack. His brother had died only two days before. I imagined that must have been a big problem for the islanders. There were no real medical facilities on the island, and being so isolated must make it difficult to get anyone to hospital on the mainland. The delay could well be fatal.
Mary still did the B&B from time to time, offering a much cheaper and homely alternative to the hotel next door, which charged 60 Euro per night.
‘Are you married?’ she asked.
‘No, not yet,’ I replied.
‘You should go and get yourself married,’ she said.
I told her I’d do my best. She was pleased to hear that she was featured in my book and I promised to bring her a copy before I left.
Nika and I walked to the western side of the island today, at the end of which sits a lighthouse. This side of the island is lower with only a little narrow country road that runs through the towns. Occasionally this splits off into a dirt track leading to a house or a row of houses. I was amused to see that at the edge of West Town this dirt track formed a little roundabout from which ran a couple of walking tracks. We took one to the lighthouse and then returned and had a bite to eat in the café. The night before Nika and been won over by the owner’s homemade soup and bread and was delighted to see there was more.
We took the same table by the window where Anne and I had sat all those years before. I distinctly remembered the view from this window. There had been nothing but an empty field of long clumps of grass bending with the wind. I had watched in the distance as a small fishing boat was making its way out to sea amid waves twice its size. This time though, there was a house in the way.
Tory island was growing. New buildings had popped up all over the place. During my first visit to the island, there had been two towns: East Town and West Town. When I returned to Mary with the book she wrote down her address for me. She explained that there were now effectively four towns: East Town, Middletown, New Town and West Town. I imagined that next time I return they’ll have local councils for them.
The weather today was back to its normal miserable self. I was glad. It’s horrible of me to say, I know, especially as the locals are so fed up with it, but this is how I remember Tory. In my eyes it’s what characterises the island: wind howling across the open landscape, dark clouds dominating the sky and rain lashing your face. It’s this stormy, unpredictable weather that has produced such vivid and diverse landscapes, inspiring people like Patsy Dan and the island’s most famous painter James Dixon to produce such incredible pieces of work.
We wandered up to join the King at his palace, not having seen him out and about all day. As we approached he came out front and greeted us with his usual warm welcome.
‘I was just off to the gallery to put in a couple of new paintings,’ he said, putting them down and suddenly realising that he was also carrying the remote control for the television. ‘Oh, I’ll be back in a minute,’ he said, and rushed off inside.
It seems even Kings suffer from absent-mindedness.
He returned shortly after and gave us a couple of posters of the island. We then chatted as we strolled off down towards the gallery. Halfway, he got into a conversation in Gaelic with some locals, and said he would meet us there.
The tiny gallery on the edge of Middletown houses an impressive display of paintings mostly by the King, James Dixon and Derek Hill. James Dixon is Tory’s most celebrated painter and died in 1970. The King had told us that they are currently working on a gallery at the other side of town that will be a shrine to him and his work. James never became a painter until later on in life when the English painter Derek Hill was visiting one day. After watching him paint James, then just a simple local fisherman, commented that he could do better. Derek, obviously amused by the man’s audacity, took him up on the challenge and set him up with the equipment he needed. He then watched in pure amazement as this man’s natural talent unravelled before his very eyes.
We got chatting to the owner of the gallery and he told us how years ago the island would be covered with tents this time of year. Backpackers and birdwatchers would flock here in the summer. Nowadays you rarely see anyone. It’s a blow for the islanders who in these changing times rely on tourism to some extent.
Suddenly I realised we had fifteen minutes to go before the ferry left. Once again I had to leave. When I left three years ago I had sworn that I would return and spend more than just one night. But time was running short for me. I had a lot to do on this promotional tour.
The King hadn’t made it to the gallery, and we began to think he wouldn’t see us off at the ferry. But at the very last minute he appeared, giving Nika another kiss and me a hearty handshake. For the next five minutes he waved enthusiastically at us both until he was just a dot on the pier, and we were heading out into what was possibly the roughest crossing yet. The way the skipper swept the boat in and out of these gigantic waves was testament to his skill and to the safety of this boat and the crossing. I stood at the back as the waves crashed over the edge and the boat rolled from side to side. It was the best roller coaster ride in the world. As I stood there enjoying the ride, I remembered something Mary had said to me: ‘Don’t leave it three years before you come back to see us again.’
I hoped I wouldn’t.