Emerald Isle

The Last Kingdom in Ireland

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales and Legendary Places in Ireland

Ancient home of a tyrant terror

Once upon a time there were many kingdoms in Ireland, and many kings, or perhaps they would have been better known as chieftains, but kings they were for all that. As time went by each of these kingdoms fell and were joined one into the other, but yet a single kingdom still remains in the farthest north and farthest west of the country, and this is the kingdom of Tory Island.

Its name means Túr Rí, “the king’s tower” in Irish, and although today it is home to only a couple of hundred people, it was once the heart of a powerful empire, terrible wars, and the scene of battles that shaped the country and the world to come!

The most ancient legends tell that the Nemedians, some of the first arrivals in Ireland, settled on Tory Island, but a fierce race of roving pirates called the Fomorians soon took it away from them! And it was here that Conand, lord of the Fomors, built his first tower in those far off times, before the knowledge of iron, bronze or even copper.

Not to take it lying down, the Nemedians soon took the island back, but a dark and evil king arose among the Fomors, and his name was Balor of the evil eye. His gaze alone could set his enemies on fire, and it was said that his fatal eye took twenty strong men to open! It was covered with seven water-soaked cloaks and as each was removed, more devastation was unleashed. Not only that but during his reign the Fomors themselves began to take on a bestial, demonic appearance, hence their name, Sea Demons.

There is a place on Tory Island today know as Dún Bhaloir, or Balor's castle, and it was from this aerie that he ruled Ireland. Looking eastwards, the impregnable fortress had sheer cliffs on three sides of it and was only accessible by a narrow and jagged causeway, with four earthen walls blocking off even that. Despite his dread sorcerous might however, one of his seers prophecised his doom – his lovely daughter Ethniu would have a son, and that son would some day slay him!

Eager as he was to avert that fate, he chained up his daughter on the highest point of the island, a place called Túr Mór in Old Irish, meaning The High Tower, which was made of crystal. After she got married and became pregnant he left strict orders that the child was to be cast from the top into the jagged rocks and hungry waters of the icy Atlantic far below the instant it was born.

But instead of one, there were three born, so he bound them up in a cloth and pinned it closed with a thorn, throwing them into the sea. Loch Deilg, Lake Thorn, on the east end of Tory is named after this infamous act. But one survived, saved by Birog the Druidess, and his name was Lugh of fable and legend.

One day Balor was visiting the blacksmith Gaibhadin, Lugh's uncle, and bold as he was he boasted of killing Cian, Lugh's father. Incensed and not knowing Balor was his own grandfather, Lugh pulled forth a red hot iron brand from the forge and stabbed it through the back of Balor's head and out from his evil eye, killing him stone dead! And Balor's blood turned the hills red.

After Balor's death the Fomorians ceased their piratical depredations and went back into the deep abysses of the ocean again, but still the islanders look upon dark clouds when storms threaten, and take their children indoors with a shiver, in case the Fomors might once again return!

The ancient neolithic dolmens which still dot the island are said to be the last remnants of their reign in all the land, except only for the jagged stone teeth called Balor's soldiers, or Saighdiúirí Bhaloir.

For such a small place, being only three miles long and half a mile wide, bare of trees and most vegetation, Tory island has had a turbulent history between that time and this. More pirates arrived with the Milesians and their raiding of the island and coastline about was only stopped by the arrival of Saint Colmcille, who told the islanders that if they would only convert to Christianity, he would ask God to run the pirates off. And so they did, and the pirates were duly washed away in a terrible storm. So bad were they that the name “Tory” became synonymous with piracy.

He built a church there in the sixth century and it stood for a thousand years before events on the main island of Ireland spilled over once again. At the start of the seventeenth century the Gaelic chieftains of Donegal fled to Tory island, but they were pursued by the armies of Queen Elizabeth, who destroyed them and the monastery, which had protected the islanders from Vikings and pirates for centuries, along with them.

Fifty years later the Cromwellians arrived, and the true persecution began, as farmers who had owned their land for generations were now forced to pay rent! The island played its part in rebellions and uprisings against the English down through the years, and its people have weathered many fierce storms, some cutting them off from the mainland entirely.

One of the last straws for the English before they were driven out of Ireland was the fate of the gunship, the HMS Wasp, which was sent to evict islanders who had refused or were unable to pay the steep rents demanded by the latest tyrants at the end of the nineteenth century.

Stories tell of an ill-favoured man called Heggarty who used the cursing or wishing stones to drag the mighty vessel onto the rocks, and so he did, with all of the bailiffs, taxmen and sailors on board, sinking it forever.

Today this small island welcomes visitors when it can, and are happy to share their unique culture and crafts, their songs and storytelling with tourists. They elect a king who, although he has no real power, is part of their time-honoured traditions, and who helps officiate at various festivals and ceremonies. It is an island of artist and creative people who spread the rich local culture wherever they travel, telling of the curative potency of blessed Tory clay and the curse of the red-haired woman on the fishermen of the island.

Tory Island is marked on the map below.


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