Tory Island and It’s History

This week’s Sheephaven History looks to one of the most inconic shapes in our landscape – Tory Island. Inis Toraigh or Tory is an island located off the coast of Donegal and, while small, is steeped in history with a rich tradition of music and mythology, as well as being a bastion of Ireland’s language and culture.  

For centuries, the island has stood as beacon in the Atlantic as it keeps a lookout on the continuing history of Ireland from ancient times right up to the present day. The Island has witnessed turbulent times from invasions to Wars and to Famines, and yet its people have remained steadfast against it all. The Islanders are fiercely proud of their island and its way of life, and visitors have traveled to the island in their thousands every year to immerse themselves in the language and Tory culture. Up until a few years ago, visitors were even greeted as they landed at the pier by the late King of Tory himself, Patsy Dan Rodgers. The rich tradition of Irish Kingship dates back millennium, and this made Tory one of the final places in Ireland with a King. 

Battles and warfare are as part of Tory’s narrative as the waves surrounding it, with many important parts taking place in its waters in both the History and Pseudohistory of Ireland. In the Lebor Gabhála Érenn or Book of Invasions, a medieval text which accounts for the mythical origins and history of ancient Ireland, Tory was the home of the Fomorian Stronghold, the enemies of the occupants of the mainland. According to legend, the third invaders of Ireland, the Nemedians, battled the Fomorians at the Conand’s Tower on the island, Conand being a Fomorian King. The later King of the Fomorians, Balor of the Evil Eye, locked his daughter Eithlinn in a tower on the island called Tor Mór in an attempt to prevent a prophecy that his death would come from her children.    

In more recent history, great battles and sieges took place around the island. In 1608, the Siege of Tory Island took place during O’Doherty’s Rebellion when surviving rebels from the rebellion made their last stand against the Crown on Tory Island. In 1798, the Battle of Tory Island (also known as the Battle of Donegal or the Battle of Lough Swilly) took place on October 12th between the French and British Squadrons during the Irish Rebellion. This was led by Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen and it was after this final Battle that Wolfe Tone was later captured by the British. In 1884, the HMS Wasp was on a mission to collect rents on the Island when it struck the rocks at Tory Lighthouse and was lost. Coincidentally, the Navy launched another HMS Wasp in 1886 but it disappeared at Sea a year later and was never heard from again. They may have wisely decided to not name another HMS Wasp after this. In 1914, on October 27th, the first British battleship of WWI was lost. This super-dreadnought ship, the HMS Audacious, was sunk off the island when it hit a minefield laid by a German merchant-cruiser. Officially, this loss was not publicisided until three days after WWI officially ended in 1918. The passengers of the RMS Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic, witnessed and photographed its sinking. This is only one of many other ships that would have sunk around Tory in the two World Wars, and it is sus[ected that there are over three hundred wrecks in the vicinity of the island with the loss of thousands of lives. 

In more recent years, the Tory Islanders have faced battles which threatened their way of life and the island’s very existence. In the 1970s, the future of Tory came under threat when the authorities tried to depopulate the island but the islanders fought the campaign to save their island. Despite the fact that half the population left the island, those who stayed oversaw great developments on the island such as the Ferry Service, New Pier and the building of a New Secondary School.  Tory has been a thriving hub of life for the past 5,000 years filled with music, stories and tradition, and today not much has changed. Tory is a thriving and close-knit community that everyone should visit and if you do, be sure to take in the stunning views, the lifestyle and maybe practice some Irish while you’re there!  https://www.toryferry.com/about

Begging in Dunfanaghy

In the 19th century, alongside the tragedy that was the Great Famine, the people of Ireland were already familiar with their crops failing and imminent starvation. Prior to the introduction of the Poor Laws and the building of the Workhouses, there was no place for the poor to go for relief, and it would be years before the introduction of the old age pension. Due to these circumstances, our great grandparents would have been familiar with ‘beggars’ walking along the byways and boreens of county Donegal. 

Prior to the opening of the Workhouses and Asylums, there were few places for people to go for help. In 1836, a report from the Commissioners of Inquiry regarding the conditions of the poorer classes in Ireland was published. This report gives us an insight into what life was like for the poor in Ireland several years before the Famine, and includes a section on the Parish of Clondehorkey which includes the town of Dunfanaghy entitled “Vagrancy – as a Mode of Relief”. It says:

 “It is impossible to ascertain the number of vagrants here; there was, however, an apparent increase of vagrancy last year, most particularly which Mr. Harper, a farmer, attributed it to the failure of the crops. From April to August is the period of the year at which vagrancy is most common; their own stock of potatoes being exhausted; the poor people are obliged to have recourse to mendicancy.  The majority of traveling beggars (who generally consist of old people), and women with tribes of children, go to strange parishes to seek alms; shame prevents them from remaining in their own parishes.  When employment is scarce, the labourer’s wife starts on a begging tour and leaves the husband to support themselves as well as he can. It is a common practise with the cottier tenants (having set their potatoes) to wander about the country seeking alms. There are also many beggars who had been farm servants; but very few tradesmen, as they show the greatest reluctance to beg and suffer the greatest privation before they do so. There have been no instances of small farmers in this neighborhood having transferred their property to their children, in order to adopt a vagrant life.” 

Destitution is generally the primary cause, but laziness often induces mendicancy.  It depends on the season, the supply of food in the country, and the tale he tells of the state of the family behind him, whether a sturdy beggar can obtain much more food than he consumes; but in most cases they obtain more food than they can obtain themselves.

Those who can afford to do so, generally increase the quantity they give in proportion to the number in the group, though every poor giver can only give a trifle in either case; they seldom separate in order that different members of the same family should apply for alms to the same individuals, they find it more in their interest to remain in in groups so as to excite pity.  Among discriminating persons there is always a difference made in favour of the infirm; nevertheless, the able bodied may get more in the day from visiting more places; and their having children to take about aften prevents beggars from getting so much as they otherwise could, as they cannot travel so much as when unencumbered.

The plea of those persons who seem to be able to work always is that they cannot get the work.”

There are some instances of beggars encouraging the appearance of rags, dirt, and lameness, in order to excite sympathy, some, who state they were shipwrecked sailors, are in the habit of producing forged certificates. 

A Mr Hugh O’Donnell, speaking of the poor in the area, is quoted in saying: “they are forced to beg and it is only when they and their children are half starved, that they do beg”. The poor of Dunfanaghy were not of the dissolute habits and were never known to have been concerned in any outrages on persons or property. “I have seen” Hugh continues, “ a poor woman with only one child dividing her meal with another who had five children”.

Mr. Harper, the farmer referenced in the report, relates the following from his own account of witnessing beggars: “I knew one case where a woman having only one child of her own appeared with four and she admitted afterwards to me that she had borrowed them”.  A local man named Mr Stewart states that he frequently saw the same children coming with different individuals to his father’s house.

Our own Wee Hannah Herrity, whose story you can hear in our exhibition, took to begging towards the end of her life. She was not ashamed for begging, as she recognised that for many people this was their only means of survival during these harsh times. 

Alm = Something (such as money or food) given freely to relieve the poor distributing alms to the needy.

The Owencarrow Disaster

This week marks the 97th anniversary of the Owencarrow Viaduct disaster when the Derry to Burtonport Train was blown off the Viaduct during a storm, resulting in the loss of four lives. 

On this day, 97 years ago, the ill-fated train had left Derry Station earlier in the evening. By the time it had reached the Owencarrow Valley, winds were gusting to 120 miles per hour.   These winds derailed the train carriages off the viaduct causing it to partially collapse. The roof of a carriage was ripped off, throwing four people to their deaths.  The four killed were: Philip Boyle and his wife Sarah from Aranmore Island, Una Mulligan from Falcarragh and Neil Duggan from Meenbunowen. Five other people were seriously injured and locals showed great courage in tending to the dead and injured when word of the tragedy reached Creeslough. 

The company opened its first railway line 1863, extending as far as Letterkenny in 1883.  In 1903, the building of the Burtonport extension was a great engineering challenge with little machinery or electric power used. As well as serving the towns, the main purpose of building the railway was to serve the bustling fishing industry at Burtonport. It was built with one hundred percent manpower and horsepower with dynamite being used to blast the huge cuttings. One of their main challenges was to build a bridge across the Owencarrow river and bog.  To achieve this a temporary steam-driven pile driver was used to push oak trees from Derryfad and Umerfad into the bottomless bog and swamp, Fleeces from sheep were also driven down and then rocks and concrete.  This was their platform before the piers were constructed with granite blocks that had been cut and numbered and hoisted into place with a block and tackle. This was a great engineering feat and many locals were involved in its construction and the quality of their workmanship is still there for all to see today in the remains of the viaduct that they constructed over 100 years ago.

During the War of Independence and the Civil War the Train and the track were attacked many times as they were used by the British Forces to transport personnel, munitions and supplies to their troops in West Donegal.

The accident on the Owencarrow Viaduct was the worst disaster to befall the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway but it was by no means the only incident to happen to the railway during its time of operation on the line. On Christmas morning in 1922, another trip from Derry had almost led to loss of life in the locality.

A train left Derry that morning and made its way through a storm towards Burtonport. Nearing Dunfanaghy Road station where the line crossed an embankment, the coach next to the engine was lifted completely off the tracks by the wind and the couplings snapped. The coach toppled over and crashed down the steep embankment. The only occupant was a boy who was able to crawl out of the wreckage. The second coach which contained five or six passengers was toppled over also but was held from tumbling down the embankment by a wall. Luckily, none of the passengers was injured.

On 7 February 1923, the 8.30 a.m train was making its way from Burtonport and near the 6814-milepost at Cruckakeehan, between Kincasslagh Road and Crolly. As it was about to enter the cutting beside Owen Sharkey’s house, a gust of wind lifted two carriages and a bogey wagon off the line and dropped them sideways down the bank. Only the engine, driven by James Deeney, and the third brake van were left on the line.

The frightened passengers gathered together in the brake van before being taken into Sharkey’s house where they were comforted and given tea. Deeney took the engine and travelled to Crolly for help. When he returned, the brake van was also off the line. In the weeks that followed the wreckage was set on fire and destroyed.

There were also numerous accidents with livestock on the line and on the morning of 10th September 1922 during the Civil War, a party of irregulars tore up the railway line at Loughagher between Creeslough and Dunfanaghy. The Ganger was threatened and told not to repair the line but it was repaired and trains were soon running again.

The railway played a big part in the success of the Fishing industry in places like Downings and Burtonport with the big Scottish boats landing their catches there at these piers before transporting their catches by train to their markets. The train also transported tattie hokkers on their way to work in Scotland and those traveling to and from the hiring fairs in East Donegal and further afield.

Last July a new memorial was erected at the site by the Creeslough Development Association and the memorial was unveiled by the late Kathleen Doyle representing the families of those who died and whose grandfather was killed in the tragedy. Hundreds of people traveled from all over Donegal and beyond to see the memorial unveiled. 

The disaster is also commemorated in the nearby Log Cabin Bar and in recent years the disaster has been brought to the fore in a song “The Owencarrow” written by Creeslough man Ben McFadden and recorded by local singer Ailish McBride.

Today the pillars of the old railway viaduct stand high above the tranquil flowing Owencarrow river which elies the fact that it was on this spot that the worst tragedy in the history of the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway occurred on a stormy night in 1925.

The Second Battle of Moytura

For 2022, we want to start sharing more posts to do with our cultural heritage and our Mythology, so we’re starting up Mythology Monday with our Heritage Officer, Róisín. Even if it’s a condensed version, it’s so important that we’re able to share these stories and this week we’re starting with one very close to home, the Battle of Maigh Tuireadh.

In an Ireland times gone by, a great battle took place to restore the honour of the old Gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Tuatha were made up of Gods and Heroes that nurtured the earth and the mortals, gods like Brighid, the Dagda and Dian Cecht. For years they had been oppressed by the Fomorians under their king, Bres, but enough was enough. They raised their armies to fight their oppressors and reclaim Ireland.

They fought ferociously against the Fomorian armies, the Dagda lifting his great club, Nuada slicing with his sword, the Claomh Solais, and the Morrígú crying out their battle cry but the Fomorians pressed on. Their leader, Balor, struck down their men with his Evil Eye, a cursed third eye which killed any man in its line. However, when things seemed lost, Lugh Lamfhada rose. Lugh, son of Eithne and Grandson of Balor, stood with the Tuatha and faced his Grandfather. Balor laughed, as all Lugh had before him was a slingshot – such a weapon could not defeat him! But Lugh was not deterred. He swung his arm and fired a stone towards Balor’s head. The stone ripped through his evil eye and Balor and the Fomorians fell.

The Tuatha were victorious, and Lugh took his ranks amongst them. Prosperity returned to Ireland and the Fomorians retreated back to the sea and their fort at Tory Island.

Suggest other myths you’d like to see next week! The reason why this is so close to home? Some versions of the myth say this battle took place in the Poisoned Glen in Dunlewey! In fact, it’s said Balor is buried in the side of Errigal.

Horn Head – A Lookout on History

On Saturday Evening on the first day of 2022, the Wild Atlantic Way Point at Horn Head and the two Look-Out Towers on the Horn itself, one dating from Napoleonic Times and the other from WWII, were quiet after the storms of the night before, except for the heather and the sheep and wildlife around them. The Information point overlooks the Horn at Horn Head and the Skate Bay and is a very popular visitor point along the Wild Atlantic Way. Passing the Horn at that time was the Aqua Transporter, operated by the Mowi Fish Farm group and a regular on the route from the Fish Farms on the Mulroy Bay. Looking out on this scene I could not help but wonder about the many different types of boats who have passed ‘The Horn’ as it is known locally. From the Stone Age up, when stone age man set up homes in the caves of Horn Head, there is also evidence in local place names that the Vikings would have passed by and the Normans and the Wherrymen who rowed and sailed their boats from east Anglia to Donegal. The English invaders would also have passed by as well as the Pirates who used to operate off the coast of Ireland and used the Donegal coast as one of their bases.  In the 1800’s the Scottish Fleets used to come and this was to lead to disaster for one group of Scotsmen who were lost in a storm and which was to lead to the Scotswomen’s Curse on Sheephaven.  Over a century later the crew of the Grimsby Trawler Malaga which sank in Sheephaven Bay with the loss of fourteen lives.   The Napoleonic Watchtower was built in 1805 kept watch over the area and was used as a lookout to keep an eye out for invading armies or passing ships and played a vital role in keeping our country safe. During World War 1 there was a gun battle between a Submarine and an armed Trawler just off the Horn which resulted in the loss of both ships. With the outbreak of World War Two a new Lookout Tower was built to watch for any German or British invasions and the watchkeepers recorded many events some of which including the flotilla coming back from the attack on the Bismarck were momentous events in history.  They would also have witnessed the bloody battle of the Atlantic which was to see the loss of hundreds of ships and lives. 

Over the years also for many taking the emigrant ship Horn Head and nearby Tory Island would have been the last land that they would have seen in Ireland on their way to a life in the New World. Some would have bought their ticket in Nixon’s Post Office in Dunfanaghy and then made the hazardous journey by small boat off to jump on a moving transatlantic liner as it passed off Tory to make their way to a new life and many would never see their Donegal homes again.  Often an American Wake or ‘Convoy’ as it was known locally would be held for the departing emigrant.  These would be all night affairs lasting until those leaving would go to catch the boat.    These lookouts have also seen the development of fishing and fishing boats in the local areas from the days of Curraghs, to sail and steam to the more modern fishing boats that we see now and would have seen the fishing industry go from boom to bust and back again.  Nowadays Horn Head and its viewing point is famous the world over in holiday pictures but I wonder if many of these visitors realize that the headland has stood there through occupation, wars, famines and recessions as it keeps a watch on the surrounding area and that it is truly a lookout on history. 

Yule, Newgrange and The Irish Winter Solstice

Ireland has been celebrating the different markers of the year for millian and over time these different festival have evolved to adapt to our changing Climates. Samhain has evolved into Halloween, Ombolc has evolved to St. Bridget’s Day and even the festivals of Lughnasa are believed to have evolved into the village fairs we see across the country. The Winter Solstice is a quieter festival date that marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, but it may be one of the most important dates in the ancient Irish calendar based on our archeology. 

The Winter Solstice or Yule, known as “An Grianstad” in Irish, is a mid-season festival on December 21st that marks the Winter Equinox – the shortest time of the year in which we only have around 9 hours of sunlight. Our ancestors would have recorded this time as having some great significant meaning, from what we can see through archeology, specifically at Newgrange which dates back as far as the Neolithic Period – around 5,000 years ago! 

Newgrange is one of the oldest buildings in the world, and is the second largest of the mounds of Brú na Bóinne, the largest being Knowth. It is approximately 80m in diameter with a 19m long passage tomb running through the mound with a corbelled ceiling which has kept the interior of Newgrange water-tight for millenia. Upon its rediscovery in the early 20th century, bones and cremated remains were found on the flat stones in the chambers of the passage tomb, along with intricate designs and grooves carved into the stone of triskles and spirals that to this day historians are still unsure of their significant meaning. Some believe that Newgrange, and it’s surrounding mounds in Brú na Bóinne, were the burial sites for important figures in society, such as Kings or Bards, and that the Winter Solstice marked a point in the calendar when the first light born after the longest night carried the spirits of the dead, but this is only speculation. 

The entryway of the passage tomb, guarded by an intricate carved kerbstone and a lightbox above the doorway, is perfectly aligned so that at dawn from the 19th to 22nd of December the rising sun [pierces through the lightbox perfectly illuminates the long inner-chamber for 17 minutes. 

There is so much we can learn through monuments like Newgrange on how our ancestors celebrated different markings of the year, and what they may have meant, and even looking at things we still do today says a lot about how our folklore and culture has evolved. Today, the Winter Solstice is synonymous with dark, cold evenings shared with loved ones and roaring fires, and I’m sure not much has managed to change in the past 5.000 years.

The Wreck of The Algores

The top of the mast of the wreck of the Algores is still visible in Dunfanaghy Bar.  The Algores was a cargo boat owned and operated by Samuel Grey, owner of the Grey Line Shipping Company in Belfast. In 1925 she left Clare bound for Anterpt in Belgium with a load of flagstones. Unfortunately neither the ship nor its cargo reached their destination. 

Whilst steaming down the Tory Sound, the Algores sprung a leak. The crew proceeded round the tip of Hornhead where they anchored the Algores on the sinking sands of the Dunfanaghy Bar for repairs before Captain Jones and his crew of nine abandoned the Algores to her fate. The boat quickly became stuck in the sinking sands of the Bar and over the years she began to sink into them, becoming a total wreck. The events were summed up by a local Balladeer who wrote “Whilst coming round the Tory Sound, the boat she sprang a leak and now she lies in Dunfanaghy Bar a total wreck”.  

The wreck of the Algores, coupled with another wreck, the Honora Evelyn, and the silting stands, marked the end of Dunfanaghy as a major trading destination as ships were unable to safely pass through the wreckages. Local fishermen take great care not to hit ‘The Old Boat’ when crossing the Bar. At the time of the sinking, locals risked life and limb but managed to salvage items from the wreck as she remained intact for a long time. In fact, locals on Horn Head at the time described hearing the eerie sound of the cargo doors on her and the Honora Evelyn flapping open and closed during storms. 

Among the items salvaged was the Captain’s Table which went on to be cut in two and graced two houses in Horn Head. Even the Captain’s Chamber Pot was salvaged.  Flagstones from the ship were used as flooring in local houses and then in later years there was more salvage work done on  lifting some of  the  remaining Flagstones which are highly prized in modern houses.