Life

King of Tory Patsy Dan Rodgers hopes book can put remote island on the map

As a new book is published in Irish and English about the last king of Ireland, Patsy Dan Rodgers, the monarch himself tells Gail Bell about his grá for and continuing struggles on behalf of his beloved Tory Island

Patsy Dan Rodgers pictured in Belfast at the launch of a book about him, Rí Thoraí – The King of Tory, earlier this month Picture: Ann McManus

RENOWNED artist, musician, and monarch – there aren't many Irish celebrities who can claim that particular hat-trick, but Tory Island's best known resident, Patsaí Dan Mag Ruaidhrí (Patsy Dan Rodgers) is rather unique in wearing the crown of the last king of Ireland.

The 'King of Tory', now aged 74, has just added another hue to his colourful palette, having become the subject of a new book detailing his life and love for the tiny, Gaeltacht area in the north Atlantic, nine miles off the Donegal coast.

Rí Thoraí – The King of Tory – was launched earlier this month by the Mhic Reachtain cultural society on Belfast's Antrim Road – and the star guest had quite a hike, by boat and road, to get there.

The Tory boat journey, or more specifically, the boat itself, is currently a rocky subject, but more of that later.

Written over a period of four years by Dr Art Hughes, reader at Ulster University, the book features verbatim accounts from Patsy Dan – elected King of Tory Island in 1993 – in his native Irish language, with English translations on each opposite page.

Indeed, the Irish dimension is the very basis of the book and one of the main reasons why the fluent Irish speaker and passionate proponent of the language, agreed to the project in the first place.

"I never thought a day would come in my life that there would be a book written about me," Patsy Dan, who was born in Dublin, says. "I have lived on Tory since the age of four and I am very proud of it; Art has done a powerful job."

Patsy Dan in the arms of his aunt Úna Mhór Ní Mhianáin on Tory, circa 1946

Charm oozes out of Patsy Dan's every pore and he is well practised in it, having personally welcomed more than 16,000 tourists who stepped on to Tory pier last year alone. You don't quite get a garland of flowers, Hawaiian-style, slipped around your neck, but the welcome (as Gaeilge) is still as warm, if not the weather.

As King of Tory, his duties are mainly ambassadorial, welcoming visitors when they arrive at the harbour and saying goodbye when they leave. There would, he adds with a chuckle, also be a few ceilis, accordian playing and evening story-telling sessions thrown in.

In relation to the book, Rí Thoraí covers all you might ever want to know about Tory Island, and its one main road, its little chapel, grocery store (which doubles as a post office), lighthouse, hotel, hostel and social club; its quaint customs (islanders still make St Brigid's crosses out of rushes) and its cursing stone; its kingship tradition dating back to the days of St Colm Cille in the sixth century; its fishing and rare birds; and, most of all, its dancing, music and art.

It does have two schools, but everything is scaled down, apart from the determination of the small community (population 150) to see the island thrive and attract sustainable industry, which Patsy Dan – married to Caitlin and a father-of-four, grandfather-of-two – says would entice younger islanders to stay and secure Tory for future generations.

View of Tory from the mainland by Patsy Dan

"No disrespect to anyone or any other island, but I have had a great love for Tory all my life and I want to see the island move forward, not backward," he says. "Other islands have good air services, other islands have speedy, frequent boat services; other islands get more support.

"We need a new boat so that more tourists will come and support us and buy our crafts and paintings. We have done all we can to attract visitors and day-trippers; we recently had a big island clean-up, moving several tonnes of rubbish, and we have flower pots now for the first time along the main road."

Fear of abandonment runs deep in his blood as he recalls a mass exodus of 130 people from the exposed island (it famously has no trees) in 1980; an evacuation which prompted very real jitters over the community's long-term survival.

"It was dreadful altogether and our hearts were breaking," he says. "We had some very rough winters, especially the storm in 1974, and people had become nervous as there was little development on the island and they were sick of the difficulties they faced.

"Then Donegal County Council, which didn't want the financial burden of developing Tory, saw an opportunity to try to resettle everyone on the mainland. They were black days but we still had our own milk and our own potatoes and we were able to share with each other."

Although what happened still rankles and feeds into his current determination to keep the island afloat, he finds sanctuary in his art and this July is set to mark a 50-year tradition of painting on the island.

As an original member of the island’s School of Art in the 1960s – its patron was the late English artist Derek Hill – Patsy and fellow artist James Dixon mounted their first combined exhibition at the New Gallery, Belfast, in 1968.

Today, his paintings of seascapes and scenes depicting the simple life are sold in the James Dixon Gallery on Tory Island and are also sought by fans across the world, thanks to past exhibitions in Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, Belfast and even Chicago where his work gleaned a new legion of fans.

And while this accordion-playing king has visited many countries – he lists Germany, France, Holland, Switzerland, in particular, and says, in his 'royal' role, none of the trips cost him "a penny" – his favourite place on Earth will always be Tory Island, despite very real concerns for its future.

Ag péinteáil – the artist at work

In addition to the boat problem, there is a need for work on ditches, drains and roads, he says, but, on the plus side, he is encouraged that the island hotel was reopened and especially delighted that five children have been born in the past two years.

"But we need to double the number of visitors coming to our lovely island and a proper boat with stabilisers will help get them here this summer," adds Patsy Dan, who received an honorary masters degree from Ulster University in 1977 and was back again last year to receive the Robert McAdam Prize for contribution to island life and the arts.

Last month he hit the headlines in a different way when he and more than 100 islanders took their protest about a planned April replacement of the existing ferry service to Leinster House in Dublin – playing a few raucous tunes at the gates for added impact.

But Patsy Dan Rodgers has no regrets: "This boat they are talking about using, a 42 year-old ferry, the MV Queen of Aran, is too slow and is not suitable for rough seas," he says. "This has been a bombshell and the whole community is up in arms. We are praying the decision will be reversed.

"I never thought I would be famous, but I take my role as king very seriously. I have a great love of people wherever they come from, but I would die for Tory Island. I'm like a solider born to fight and and I would fight and die for Tory Island."

:: Rí Thoraí – The King of Tory by AJ Hughes is published by Ben Madigan Press, Antrim Road, Belfast, and for purchase available from benmadiganpress.com

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