One of our daily walks from Breac.House takes us to a spot we have come to call Tory View - literally the spot heading toward Trá Mór beach where you get the first glimpse of Tory Island. Sitting 12 kilometers off the coast of Donegal, Tory is Ireland’s furthest offshore inhabited island. It is also a beautiful and mysterious place, stepped in tradition and history.
Currently with a permanent population of just 170, the Irish-speaking community live in arguably Ireland’s most beautiful and isolated location. Having visited many times ourselves, we often look over, watching the flashing lighthouse and imagining what is going on there at any point in the day. One quite unique aspect of Tory Island’s modern culture was the emergence of the Tory Island School of Painters, initially sparked by repeated visits by renowned artist Derek Hill from the 1950’s until his death in 2000. Local painters such as James Dixon have since become world renowned for their evocative, folk-art style. Other Tory Island artists include the late King of Tory Patsy Dan Rodgers, Ruairi Rodgers, Antoin Meenan and Johnny Dixon. In addition to their unique style of painting, these artists have created a body of work, which today provides a social history of this remote community from the 1950’s to the current day.
Perhaps our favourite painting from the school is James Dixon’s “West End Village”, which literally provides a birds-eye view of the village, capturing the architecture, ancient field layouts, steely-grey sea & clouds and raging Atlantic Ocean which permanently looms over everything and everybody. Dixon was the first of the Tory Island Painters, having famously looked at Derek Hill’s paintings and told him that he could do better himself. Dixon started painting at the age of 72 and used local materials such as house paint, shoe polish and brushes made from donkey hair. He was entirely self-taught and to look at his paintings is to look at how a man who spent all his life on this small island saw his life, his surroundings and his community. His paintings are not traditional, nostalgic landscapes idealising a since disappeared way of life. They are both slightly abstract and hyper-real – drawing you into a mysterious timeless scene. In theory, the scenes could be anywhere but the magic is that they could only be Tory.
On your next visit to Donegal, consider a visit to Tory Island for yourself- the ferry ride alone is an adventure in itself. When taking the boat from Magheroarty Pier, check out the ceramic table art, clearly inspired by Dixon. Even closer to us here in Dunfanaghy, you can also visit The Glebe Gallery in Churchill and see Derek Hill’s home and art collection, which includes James Dixon’s “West End Village” as part of the largest collection of Tory Island paintings.
Or just take a walk from Breac.House to Tory View and look across to the old man of Tory, wondering about the inspirational art which surrounds us and lurks in plain sight.