Tory Islanders

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Tory Islanders

ETHNONYMS: Oilean Thoraighe, Torach, Tor Inis (archaic)


Identification. Tory Island is a small island off the coast of County Donegal in the extreme northwest of Ireland. Politically it is part of the Republic of Ireland (Eire).

Location. The island, roughly 5 kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers at its widest, is oriented in a west-east direction and is 14 kilometers from the nearest landfall on the mainland. The cliffs on the north side rise to as much as 120 meters and protect the southern slopes from the sea, making a little agriculture possible. The climate is mild and temperate, with temperatures never reaching much more than 21° C in summer, or much less than 2° C in winter. Annual precipitation (average 102 centimeters) is somewhat lower than on the mainland, but storms of up to gale force 9 are common and the channel is known for its rough crosstides. The official growing season starts on 17 March (Saint Patrick's day) and continues to early October.

Demography. The population of Tory (with a fairly even sex ratio) is approximately 300. An accurate estimate is hard to establish because migrant laboring leads to a high population in the summer and low in the winter. The first census (1841) showed 399 (191 males, 208 females), and that of 1961, 264 (146 males, 118 females). The population of Ireland declined by one-half over the same period. In both cases emigration is the major factor, but high fertility (Tory net reproduction rate =1.6) prevents further decline.

Linguistic Affiliation. The islanders speak as a first Language the northern dialect of Irish Gaelic, which has strong affinities with its daughter dialect, Scots Gaelic, as spoken in the highlands and islands of Scotland. Both are related to Welsh, Breton, and Cornish (extinct) as members of the once-widespread Celtic Branch of the Indo-European Language Family. Many islanders also speak English with varying degrees of fluency depending on degree of contact. English is taught as a second language in school, and some people are literate in both languages. Spoken Gaelic is now heavily loaded with English loanwords, but these are easily Gaelicized and assimilated.

History and Cultural Relations

The earliest remains on Tory are those of an Iron Age hill fort. The next earliest are a round tower and associated buildings thought to be part of the monastery founded there by Saint Columba (Columkille) in about a.d. 550. Later it was seized by the Norsemen around a.d. 700 to 800. Various annals show it was a key strategic location in the control of the northern coast and was often in contention. In 733 Dougall the Second, king of Scotland, seized it; because it had harbored refugees from the Armada, the English "devastated" it in 1595. In 1609 it was still in Irish hands, but by 1653 it had passed to an English Protestant. In 1832 a lighthouse and Lloyd's signal station were built. In 1903 the Congested Districts Board for Ireland purchased the island from Benjamin Joule, who had owned it since 1861. A gunboat sent to collect the local taxes in 1884 sank with all hands. In 1922 Tory became part of the Republic of Ireland along with County Donegal. The islanders are fiercely independent and wish to run their own affairs, but they are increasingly dependent on government subsidies. They have a favored status as native Gaelic speakers, and government policy subsidizes such enclaves.


Three settlements are named for their respective locations: West Town, Middle Town, and East Town. West/Middle Town, with 42 households, has the harbor, the church and church hall, the graveyard, the school, and the two shops. East Town, a little more than a kilometer away, has none of these. Each township's fields surround it in long strips. Beyond these are the peat bogs (largely exhausted) and the grazing land.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The subsistence economy of Tory is of the "crofter" type: basic agriculture on small plots averaging 2-3 acres planted with potatoes, barley, oats, and hay, supplemented by garden produce, poultry, some sheep, a few cattle, donkeys (for plowing), and inshore fishing from small coracles. Larger boats were built in the late nineteenth century, and a herring-curing station was opened by the Congested Districts Board. This fishing industry employed 100 men and boys and most of the women and girls. Kelp (an algae from which iodine is extracted) was gathered and dried. These industries declined and lobster is now the main cash crop, with winter migrant labor providing capital for the summer lobster season.

Industrial Arts. The islanders build their own boats from imported materials. Houses formerly were built from local stone and thatched, but more recently commercial concrete blocks are imported and roofs are slated. Farm implements were ingeniously constructed from driftwood and iron scavenged from wrecks. When sheep were plentiful, wool was carded and spun, and then knittedthere were no looms. Illicit whiskey (poteen) was distilled from barley. Today clothing, implements, etc. are bought from the mainland. Even so, the shore is still meticulously divided by lot each year so that the flotsam and jetsam can be harvested.

Trade. The major cash crop is fish, but it was hard to get fresh fish to market in time. The curing station solved this problem, but when the herring moved and the station was abandoned the islanders turned to inshore lobster fishing, with contracts from continental lobster trawlers, which also provide the pots.

Division of Labor. Traditionally the division of labor was strictly by gender: the men and boys fished and did the heavy agricultural and building work; the women and girls attended to the domestic chores, the children, the poultry, and the Gardens. The curing station provided the first female wage work. When migrant laboring began after World War II, it was the men who left the island. Recently the unmarried women have started leaving. The traditional division of labor still exists. A few specialists now exist in the shops and government positions.

Land Tenure. Traditional land tenure was on the "rundale" system, usually described as a group of blood kin holding land "in common." The mechanics of this are obscure, but the Tory system suggests the following: it is a system of usufruct in which all the heirs of the "owner" have a claim on the use of his or her land, but all do not pursue the claim. They leave one of their number to farm it. On the owner's death, the land would go to the immediate heirs, but in default of heirs it would revert to the next closest descendants of the original owner. The fragmentation associated with Systems of partible inheritance is avoided by the concept of the "land of the marriage." When a couple marries, it is provided with a basic amount of land from the patrimony of one or the other set of parents. A brother, for example, who marries a woman with land, is not supposed to claim land from his Siblings. The idea is that each household, not each person, should end up with much the same amount of land, and this ideal is surprisingly well realized. Official records show a Dominance of male "owners," but questioning about claims showed that 33 percent of land was in female hands. Women are less likely than men to press claims, but have equal rights to the use of the land.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is reckoned bilaterally and the main category of kin is the dann (pl. clanna ). These are all the descendants, over five to seven generations, of a known ancestor, and are known after him (for example, clann Eoghain, the descendants of Owen [Eugene]). Obviously, as with all cognatic descent groups, these clanna overlap. Four major groups dominate the genealogical scene and account for 80 percent of all living members. In the recitation of genealogy, these are given first in full, even where they overlap, and then the other 18 or so are "referred" to them. The ultimate ancestors date from the 1780s and seem to have been holders of land. The system of personal naming (kinship terms are very little used) parallels this descent system. Thus individuals are known by a first (baptismal) name and then the names of lineal ancestors, male and female. In Genealogical theory, all names should converge on the clann ancestor, and this means that a person will have as many sets of names as recognized ancestors. This is not realized, however, and people take the names of the clann to which they have the strongest allegiance, while recognizing that other "strings" are possible. For practical purposes an individual will use only a few of the names. The other major kinship category is muintir, an Ego-centered bilateral kindred including affines. This would be "kinship" as the majority of the islanders know it, precise genealogical knowledge belonging to specialists.

Marriage. Marriage is governed by the Catholic church and is therefore monogamous and without divorce. Because of the parental resistance to marriagethey regret the loss of a family memberand unless there is an illegitimate child (a not unusual occurrence) it is often late (average 29) and surreptitious. Marriage is rarely celebrated. A couple will drop their work, go to the church with the witnesses, and then come back and resume where they left off. Until recently Marriage was largely endogamous to the island, but now there are more out-marriages. Men, but rarely women, marry into the island from time to time.

Domestic Unit. The ideal household on Tory is nuclear, and some 50 percent of marriages achieve this ideal. But it often conflicts with another ideal of sibling solidarity. Because marriage is late, many siblings already have established households by the time at least one parent dies, and they do not want to leave these on marriage. Thus, it was (and is) the custom, for the couple to remain in their respective natal homes. This form of natalocal residence is not fixed, since couples move in and out of this state, but older marriage partners tend to stay thus separated, with the husband becoming a privileged "visitor." Children stay with the mother. Up to 40 percent of marriages involved natalocal residence in the past, and some 20 percent were still so as late as 1970. The husbands in these marriages farm their wives' land, and contribute to their upkeep.

Inheritance . After the land, the house is the most Important item of inheritance. Ideally the house should go with the land, but a compromise often occurs. Thus a son who marries a woman with a house will surrender the parental house to his sister(s); or a brother will take the house and his sister's husband will build on the land she inherited. A compromise is not always reached, however, and bitter disputes very often occur. Written wills are virtually unknown on Tory and old parents will usually make a disposition of property before death.

Socialization. Child rearing is very relaxed. Until nurses interfered, weaning was as late as three years, and children still suckle casually until that age. The relationship with the mother is very close and dependent. Nowadays children go to school at age five; in the past they would have gradually assumed adult responsibilities at a very early age. Young Children are mostly unsupervised and corporal punishment is used rarely.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. No social classes or other differentiations of status exist on the island. The professionals are Respected but they have no special privileges. The acknowledged "ancient" familiesDuggans, Doohans, and Rogershave some status, but no special benefits. The islanders are individualists but will work together for common aims. Hauling in boats is a community activity.

Political Organization. Official authority emanates from the parish, the county, and ultimately the Dublin government. This sits lightly on the islanders. The islanders vote in local and national elections, and since they hold a block of votes in a marginal constituency, they are able to command some patronage. Otherwise the island is self-governing. In the past there was a "king" (an Riogh ), a descendant of the old Brehon lawgivers, who arbitrated disputes and supervised the drawing of lots for the shore division.

Social Control. This is purely informal, with most discipline occuring within families. The curate will attempt to exert influence and will be listened to up to a point. The power of custom (beas ) is strong, and often quoted. The wise counsel of the old is the strongest force for social control.

Conflict. Conflict over inheritance is by far the most Serious form. Most conflict is individual or between families, and long-standing quarrels occasionally break out into open fighting. This is inevitably between unmarried male protagonists and is mitigated by the intervention of relatives who restrain the fighters, and mediators who attempt reconciliation.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The islanders are all practicing Roman Catholics, but church authority is weak. They are certainly devout and attend to all the religious observances. There is a pilgrimage (turus ) with stations of the cross completing a circuit of the island. The island is sacred to St. Columba and very proud of its association with the saint. There is a whole literature of prayers and cures and Several shrines. Only since about 1880 has there been a Permanent priest on the island, and the moral authority of the church has yet to take hold. The curates all deplore the casual attitude to illegitimacy and marriage, to little avail. The Islanders supplement their orthodox beliefs with rich lore Concerning legendary gods, ghosts, and fairies. In the absence of a priest, the oldest member of the Duggan family, which in legend welcomed Columba to the island, leads the flock in prayers at an ancient stone altar.

Arts. There are few plastic arts on the island. The main arts are singing, storytelling, and traditional Irish dancing. Much pride is taken in performance. The telling of stories varies from the classical myth cycles, told by the older men, to fairy and ghost stories, told by the old women, and anecdotes about island life and history, told by anyone. Many islanders are excellent musicians, playing the fiddle, accordion, banjo, and tin whistle.

Medicine. This is now officially administered by a resident nurse, but is supplemented by herbal cures, spells, midwifery, and prayers known to the old women. In the past this was the only medicine available.

Death and Afterlife. The islanders subscribe to the Official Catholic beliefs, but they supplement them with an active belief in ghosts, who are supposed to be souls in purgatory working out their time of penance. They are rarely harmful, but are an omen of death. A major festival is that of All Souls' Eve when a meal is left out overnight so that dead souls may feast on its essence. When an old person dies, the attitude is that a soul that has lived its allotted span is being taken to eternal life, and this is celebrated by a wake to console the relatives and to keep the newly dead spirit away from the house.

See alsoGaels (Irish)


Fox, Robin (1978). The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hamilton, J. N. (1974). The Irish of Tory Island. Studies in Irish Language and Literature, vol. 3. Belfast: Queen's University of Belfast.