Tuesday 13 November 2018


When I was in school and starting my A-Levels my art teacher, Declan Forde, recommended I apply for a scholarship to Tory Island to spend some time with the local painters. To apply, I had to make a piece of art about the island. Having never been, I asked my father for some information about it and he pulled out an old RTÉ  documentary about Derek Hill on VHS. Hill was an English painter who frequented the Donegal island on long painting trips and encouraged the locals to take up painting themselves. With this newfound interest, I searched 2002 google for some images of Tory Island. I settled on painting from a striking photograph of the famous 'T' stone cross. If I recall correctly it was an acrylic painting on that strange canvas board stuff, slightly abstract and expressive but enough detail to know it was Tory Island. I submitted this for the scholarship and was successful.

Tory Island is perhaps the most remote island off the coast of Ireland that is still inhabited. Lying some 10 miles into the Atlantic Ocean and measuring approx 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, it is a desolate and barren island of great beauty and isolation. No trees grow on Tory, for the wind is too strong, and the great high cliffs make for outstanding vistas. Derek Hill was known to have said that every rock on Tory was worthy of painting, and when he first starting making work there in the late 1950's he was approached by James Dixon, a local fisherman. Dixon, of no formal training or understanding of art, argued he could do better. Hill gave him some paints and, thus, the Tory Island School was born. Dixon went on to influence a number of locals to take up painting, including Anton Meenan, Ruairí Rodgers, and Patsy Dan Rogers (King of the Island).

The school of art can be typified as naive or outsider paintings, with a focus on local happenings, landscapes or mythologies. The execution is often simplistic, with perspective and orientation not commonly found in the regular art canon. For example, important historical events are often painted to mimic a bird's eye view of the scene. Like many other artists before me, I was fascinated by the approach to the work, the use of text in the image, the different tools utilised in the mark-making process and the need to fill the entire composition with detail.

In the Summer of 2003, I made the journey out to Tory Island for a week of painting and playing music on this scholarship. I was accompanied on the ferry across by a few other eager teenagers and Jim Hunter of the University of Ulster. The King of the Island, Patsy Dan Rodgers, met us as we landed and welcomed us to his island. Over the following days, I spent some time learning about the local island, the legends and about the art community. Patsy Dan took me out to do some painting on the coast. He told stories about how he used to add little things to his compositions and didn't mind if it was 100% authentic so long as it suited the painting, which now seems like an obvious idea but had never occurred to me as a teenager. He was also willing to bend the rules, unafraid to use unorthodox materials such as boot polish in his paint for 'a blacker black'.

In the following years, I often returned to Tory in the summer, camping there with my friends for weeks at a time. No internet, no phones, just time to reflect, paint, write, play music or drink beer. When it was sunny it was the best thing ever. When it rained it was a different story. I got to know the locals pretty well, and always looked forward to getting back over. The last time I went was to play a gig with my rock band. There was a mini-festival on the island called 'Rock on the Rock' and somehow we got asked to come and play. I'm not totally sure our weird brand of blues & metal went down so well but we at least had fun. I haven't been back since.

I'd always wanted to own one of Patsy Dan's paintings, as they are both amazing little pieces of art, full of his idiosyncratic approach to painting and his outlook on the world, and also to remind me of those amazing summers on the island. My journey to obtaining on was not easy. Having not been able to get back to Tory Island for many many years, I looked to see if I could get some online, perhaps through Ross's auctioneers or somewhere else. I eventually found a website selling a painting, but after attempting to complete the purchase, nothing happened and it fell through. It wasn't until a year or so later that I stumbled across the website again, and noticed that the payment method was PayPal. I pressed 'buy' again but immediately cancelled the order. In doing this, I managed to see the email address associated with the online gallery selling the painting. I contacted them about buying some work, and after a few months, I actually got a reply.

It wasn't from anyone on the island but luckily enough it was from someone who had a direct contact with the King. I eventually received some photos of Patsy Dan's most recent work, which had been shown in Dungloe, and asked to have one of his paintings sent over to me in Wales. This took another few months but by the end, I finally received my very own Patsy Dan Rodger's painting of Tory Island, complete with boot polish black.

A few weeks ago, I, like many, was deeply saddened to hear of the passing away of Patsy Dan. He was a completely unique individual and I never underestimated how much he influenced my work as a young artist.

Bonus Content- short 1992 documentary about Tory Island painters with some amazing flute by Matt Molloy