It’s a bone-chilling Irish morning and I awake to the dim energy of the sun trying to rise — injecting a pinkish hue into the end of my slumber. My 19th century bedroom chamber is dark and cold, but it’s time to get ready for my date with the Queen of Aran. I layer up for the journey ahead of me — two sets of long underwear, sweaters, hat, gloves, wool socks, puffy parka and raincoat. A quick bite and then I’m out the door.
The narrow roads of rural County Donegal hug dense shrubbery and a thick fog creates the feeling that I’m driving through a mystic portal into another world. Thoughts of my ancestors, who lived in these parts of the wild countryside, weave through my drowsy mind. The tiny rental car hugs the road as a ridge opens the view to rolling hills sewn together by a patchwork of rock walls. What would normally be layers of emerald texture appear a monochromatic dark green — not yet illuminated by the lazy Winter sunrise.
I meander the back roads toward Falcarah (fall-CAR-ah), the main town in the area, and pass by sleeping storefronts donning quintessential Irish-village facades. Down yonder… switchbacks descend a dramatic slope to Magheraroarty (ma-HA-ro-ti,) a tiny port hugging the angry North Atlantic Ocean.
The air is salty and fresh and out of the corner of my eye, I see her — the Queen of Aran — fighting through the rolling waves to the safe harbor. The hard-working vessel appears to be a fishing boat turned ferry with blue accents over clean white paint. She arrives at the desolate dock and a few people hop off and unload several boxes. Without fanfare I’m motioned to board the vessel and jump on.
In numerous visits to the Emerald Isle I’ve never made the voyage to Tory (Thoraí) — which means “bandit” in Middle Irish — until today. The icy waters between Magheraroarty and Tory are known for rough seas. Cancellations are common, especially in Winter, so travel to this remote outpost requires a lot of flexibility with time. The conditions today are rough, but passable. I’m the only passenger on the boat and just as quickly as she docked the lines are thrown back and we return to ocean currents.
The tik tok of the metradtone-like rocking is strangely relaxing and I wonder if or when I’ll buy a ticket for my passage. As we approach the first blip of an islet off the coast, Inishbofin, sunlight begins to grace the peaks of the deep waves, flowing as they have for ages. These same waves brought my ancestors and countless other Irish and Scottish immigrants to America and places beyond.
Family folklore included colorful stories of my great-grandfather fishing in these waters, sometimes visiting Tory, where Irish is spoken. In fact, the rugged outpost nine miles from land is considered its own sovereign kingdom. Until his death in 2018, the beloved king was Patsy Dan Rogers, who served as an ambassador to the mystical island known for art, music and a flourishing Irish culture.
A man suited up head-to-toe in survivor gear opens the doorway to the rolling cabin and sits in the seat across the aisle from me. He introduces himself as Kevin and serves as crew, ticket agent and my personal host. He’s quintessentially handsome in that Irish way, with kind eyes and a charm in his smile that feels welcoming. He is “born and raised” on Tory and our conversation seems steeped in ancestral pride that feels connected to my own Irish roots.
After about 45 minutes of washing machine tumbling, the Queen of Aran calms down and we chug through the harbor to an even simpler wharf. A bag of mail and some cargo are unloaded, along with the only passenger for this journey. I wave goodbye to the friendly crew and set out for my day on the rocky, treeless island.
The history of the Tory feels mystical and involves a number of seafaring battles along with a monastery founded around the 6th century — the bell tower is all that’s left today. One of only two Tau Crosses (T-shaped) in Ireland still remains here, believed to be from the 12th century.
In Summer, this island would be hopping with art galleries, traditional live music and a cozy pub or two offering typical Irish fare, but in the dead of Winter things are very buttoned up. It feels like townspeople are peering through their curtains as I walk down the main street — wondering what a tourist would be doing on a frigid December morning.
Kevin told me it’s almost impossible to get lost on the three-mile-long patch of land, and this makes sense walking toward the lighthouse. During the day I experience the sun working hard to shine through patchy clouds while intermittent droplets of rain and wind slice horizontally across wide open spaces. The grazing sheep barely pay attention to me, even as I work like a drunken sailor through the mushy peat potholes along the trail.
At the edge of a rocky cliff I glance down to a gathering of seals, relaxing on a pebbly beach. I think of Selkie folklore and now understand more than ever how this magical land could foster shape shifting between human and seal — islanders are so tightly dependent upon nature here. The baby mammals rush to the protection of the kelp beds in the churning seawater around the rocks and the seal mother makes eye contact — a powerful connection as if I’m allowed to see into her human-turned-animal soul.
After a few hours it’s time to augment my picnic brought from home, and I stumble upon the only business open — a general store, feed and seed, post office kind of place. A few of the 119 year-round locals wander in and out, greeting each other in their local language. Pringles seem to make their way anywhere in the world, and I grab a cylinder and some water and wander through the crowded aisles, passing fertilizer, shovels and other sundries for sale.
The woman is in no hurry to serve me and finally wanders to the cashier, speaking Irish, and I wish the native tongue was passed down to me. She is very friendly and immediately identifies my American accent. Of course she knows people living in the USA. In this case, she shares a story about visiting her niece who lives in California and I work hard to explain where Washington State sits in proximity. I buy, write and mail a few postcards — they will arrive at their destinations in about a week.
My final hour on Tory Island is spent sitting on a bench atop a dramatic plateau, gazing toward the highest point on the island, Tor Mór, as the sea foams around the rocks stacked below. My version of a Celtic picnic, including soda bread and local cheeses, is made even more blissful by the wafting scent of burning peat. I take in the moment, understanding this is why I travel and I am thankful for the serenity that comes with Winter in Ireland. A flock of sheep surrounds me, foraging for food on some bleak pancakes of slate, and all at once it’s time to start walking back to the dock to reluctantly leave this magic kingdom.
A few more passengers board the return ferry and we churn our way back toward the mainland in even rougher seas. It’s only 3PM and the sun is ready for bedtime, but not before a panoramic view of Horn Head comes into the horizon. This place seems to gracefully balance the life of the pulsing sea with a diverse coastline of harsh rocks juxtaposed with pristine sandy beaches. All the while, swirling clouds frolic in the Northern sky above.
My great-grandfather, William Gallagher, was born and raised on this wild, rocky peninsula of land, jutting due North of Dunfanaghy (Dun-FAN-a-hee) — abundant with rock and peat but not much else. Legend has it on the day he sailed for America, his cronies created a huge bonfire on the cliff’s edge of Horn Head to send him off to Ellis Island. I’m taken with the view as I imagine what it must’ve been like to see the wild beauty of this magical land for the last time.
May the memory of all our Irish ancestors be honored this week of St. Patrick’s Day celebration. In particular my cousin Tommy Gallagher of Fanmore — may he rest in peace.
Erin go Bragh!
Melissa Junker says
Amazing! I would love to visit Ireland someday.
It’s a magical place indeed! Thanks for reading Melissa.