Locals on a tiny storm-ravaged island off the coast of Ireland have battled to survive over the centuries — but now hope that art will help save them.
The island of Tory, lashed by Atlantic swells off Ireland’s northwest coast, at one time appeared condemned to slow death, with plans drawn up to relocate its 142 residents and leave the ocean to do its worst.
But everything changed when an English artist named Derek Hill arrived one day and encouraged local fisherman to put paintbrushes, rather than nets, in their calloused hands.
“We used art as a weapon ... and the government started to put money. A priest came, then a secondary school, a ferry, power and a port,” said Antoin Meenan, 48.
He was speaking on a rare recent sunny Sunday when the unforgiving wind and rain whipping in from the Atlantic had subsided, and as Tory islanders gathered in their only hotel-pub-restaurant to celebrate the arrival of a new lifeboat.
Young girls were in their prettiest dresses. The boys had combed their hair. Pint glasses were filled with Guinness as a Gaelic tune floated from the accordion.
Outside, children played on bikes on the island’s only road while a group of teenagers chatted, leaning against a fishing boat that looked like it had not put to sea in a long time.
A curious group looked on as Ben, the pub landlord’s Labrador frolicked with a dolphin with whom he had made friends. On Tory, where storms can last for weeks, you make your own entertainment when you can.
Only a couple of dozen granite houses stand up to the constant wind on this 5km-long spit of peaty land. The mainland is about an hour away by ferry over choppy seas.
The Irish government in Dublin has tried to relocate people several times, notably in 1974 after Tory was cut off for nearly two months by storms.
But Patsy Dan Rodgers, 64 and Tory’s most famous resident, refused to budge.
“My family has been here for 3,400 years,” he says, his sailor’s cap pulled down over craggy features.
Patsy is the ri or “king” of Tory. But no-one on this fiercely independent Gaelic-speaking outcrop calls him “your majesty,” except perhaps after too much Guinness.
Instead, the title is a Gaelic tradition that dictates that the community must have a representative.
“Tory was an island which was left with nothing,” he recalls.
Until the “miracle” of Hill’s arrival in 1955, there was no ferry, no electricity and not even a priest, he said.
Tory’s painters were born when a local man named James Dixon looked over Hill’s shoulder when he was at his easel and said: “I think I could do better myself.”
Hill said: “You’re on!” And he set about encouraging his pupil, sending him artists’ materials. Dixon, though, drew the line at paint brushes, preferring instead to use the hair from his donkeys’ tails.
Dixon was quickly joined by other would-be artists, including Patsy.
Their naive art style depicts landscapes and daily life on the island: the lighthouse in the setting sun or Ben the dog playing with his dolphin friend.
Patsy saw in it his dream of saving his island, as their reputation spread beyond Ireland and their works were shown in galleries as far afield as Chicago.
“In Belfast, Dublin, Scotland, France I was given a platform to give an account on the plague, on the difficulty of the island ... that we wouldn’t survive without help,” he said.
But it is still a fragile prosperity.
The ramshackle building that hardly passes for a gallery for the islanders’ canvasses faces the sea. A lack of funding means it has no heating and the damp is taking its toll.
“I couldn’t make a living out of it (painting),” says Meenan, who was forced to give up his job as a salmon fisherman because of restrictions. “I’m on welfare but it’s no work.”
Patsy is also worried.
“It’s a miracle we’re still here if the teenagers are gone ...,” he says, his voice trailing off.
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