From its craggy cliffs to its wind-beaten shores, Ireland has long exuded an aura of mystery and magic. Its culture and traditions have been forged from a unique mixture of warrior ballads, clan sagas, fairy tales, and bardic narratives. A magnificent combination of myth, legend, and historic fact embroiders the very fabric of Irish culture.
Tory Island is one of the few places left in Ireland where the myths and legends of the Irish people are still held close. It is an island drenched by the sea, drenched by the elements, and drenched with history and folklore. Nemedian settlers from Scythia in modern-day Turkey are believed to have been the first people to occupy Tory. The Formorians, a tribe of sea pirates from Cartage, invaded Tory and removed the Nemedians. Conan, the conquering Formorian king, built a tower, Túr Ri (tower of the king) giving Tory its name.
In the apocryphal history of Ireland, Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Fomorian king Balor of the Evil Eye, was a formidable ruler of Tory. A fearsome Cyclops who could kill a man dead with a single glance of his evil eye, Balor was a warlord to be reckoned with. It is said that as long as his eye remained open, no army could defeat him. And to ensure Balor’s success in battle, his men fixed ropes and pulleys to his eyelid to keep it from closing when he tired. No one could defeat Balor, no one except his own flesh and blood.
An ancient druidic prophecy foretold that Balor would be defeated by his own grandson. In an attempt to defy destiny, Balor imprisoned his only daughter Eithne in a crystal tower high atop Tór Mór, the island’s highest point. He forbade all men to approach her prison.
Three brothers of the Tuatha Dé Danann lived on the mainland opposite the island: Cian the chieftain, Mac Samhthann the sailor, and Gaibhadin Gabha the swordsmith. Gaibhadin owned a special cow that Balor desired for his own. Tempting fate, Balor raided the Danann settlement and stole the cow back to Tory. Pride sent Cian after Balor for revenge.
As fortune would have it, Cian caught a glimpse of the beautiful Eithne during the raid. He fell in love instantly. With the help of Birog the Druidess, Cian disguised himself as a woman to fool Balor so that he could be with Eithne. Nine months later, Eithne gave birth to triplets. Balor was enraged. When he discovered that Cian was the father, Balor hunted him down and cut off his head. He then wrapped his three grandsons in a cloth, secured it with a thorn, and tossed the bundle into the sea. Loch Deilg, Lake Thorn, on the east end of Tory is named after the event.
Balor’s eldest grandchild, Lúgh was saved by Birog the Druidess, however, and grew to be a man with a vengeful heart. As chance would have it, Lúgh happened upon Balor while he was visiting Gaibhadin’s forge. Balor was bragging about killing Cian and his sons. Not knowing that Balor was his grandfather, Lúgh drew a burning rod of iron from his brother’s furnace and drove it through the back of Balor’s head and out through his evil eye. Balor’s blood spilled over the land, turning the hills red.
Dún Bhaloir, Balor’s Fort, is located on Tory Island’s eastern side, and is the highest part of the island. The fort is only accessible by crossing a long, narrow isthmus, surrounded by 90-meter high cliffs.
The story of Balor of the Evil Eye is only one example of Tory Island’s rich collection of folklore. There are many more stories surrounding the various points of interest on the island.
Photo: Tory Island, Co Donegal, Captive Landscapes by Stephen Emerson