Treacherous Beauty of Tory Island

Much of the action of Erin O’Quinn’s Captive Heart –now making its debut–centers on the wild, desolate island of Tory some nine miles off the northern shore of modern Donegal.

Tory island was the subject of a 2005 BBC spotlight by correspondent Kevin Connolly. He introduced it as “a rocky sliver of land stuck out in the wild Atlantic–just beyond the point where Ireland sits with County Donegal like a shoulder hunched up against the ocean winds.”

Tory is a heap of forbidding, jagged rocks on the perimeter, lashed by such turbulent currents that to this day, the island can be reached by ferry only seven months out of the year. Through the harsh winter, it is accessible only by helicopter. The high cliffs boast stretches of wild grasses and the world’s sparse remaining population of Corn Crakes, a small pheasant-like foraging bird. And the island itself–a crescent roughly three miles long and a mile wide–is torn incessantly by winds so high that flying insects do not even live there. Connolly observed that he never saw a tree there higher than a large bush–and that one was blessed by its location in a church yard!

Imagine this forbidding place, then, as the destination of a group of fifth-century travelers whose only transportation was currachs–light, wickerwork boats stretched with animal skin and buoyed by animal bladders.

Caylith’s group of intrepid men and women have made their way to Tory for a single high purpose–to rescue about a dozen women who are being held there in secret by what is supposedly a horde of Pictish slave-mongers and freebooters. The captors know well how to navigate the perilous shores of Tory, and their expertise as currach sailors is what has given them a safe haven from the retribution of the law of Éire.

I have usually tried to be historically accurate in my Dawn of Ireland series, but I depart a bit in the story of Captive Heart. The slaves seized by the raiders would have been considered legally held in these dark days just as St. Patrick began his ministry; and even for centuries after, men and women seized from foreign shores were considered by the Brehon Law to be the lowest on the rung of society.

In the novel, I have postulated that the current High King Leary has made it illegal for citizens of other countries and other formerly free people to be seized and held as slaves. It is the one piece of “fantasy” I have woven into the story, and for a good reason. I want the men and women of my novels to aspire, like all people should, to a life of freedom and happiness.

One may be astonished to learn that today, Tory Island is the haven of a group of Irish artists whose work is sought by dealers and private buyers throughout the world. Their population varies from about sixty to ninety, and they are allowed by special dispensation to elect a King of Tory every year from among their rank.

Apparently, even for a non-artist such as I, to stand high on Tory is to stand on the crest of the most beautiful interplay of sea and rock ever seen. The artists have an eternal paragon of beauty to interpret. As Connolly stated in his conclusion:

Tory is like a granite kaleidoscope where the shifting patterns of light in the seas and skies produce a curious ephemerality, as though the cliffs and beaches somehow change every time you look away.

Captive Heart, the conclusion of the Dawn of Ireland trilogy, is now available at  http://www.bookstrand.com/captive-heart

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5 thoughts on “Treacherous Beauty of Tory Island

  1. Dear Miriam and Rosemary,

    The island is also the home of celtic pre-Christian memorials as well as several ancient church buildings, crosses, etc. I cannot imagine the ingenuity and outright bravery it took for ancient people to navigate those rocks, scale those cliffs, establish churches and other memorials to their gods–when even today only ferries and helicopters dare approach. Thank you both for visiting and commenting.

    Slán, Erin

  2. Can you imagine standng on those cliffs, looking down at the churning Irish Sea? I think the ancient Gaels may have named that rock formation after an elephant–if only they had ever laid eyes on one! Many of the rock formations on Tory have been named after mythological characters, my favorite being Balor of the Evil Eye. One particularly jagged formation is called “Balor’s Teeth,” and I’ll probably publish it in a few weeks when I do a post on the northern coast of Donegal, known also for its spectacular lightning displays and mind-blowing storms. Thanks for tuning in, Michael. Slán, Erin

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