Tory Island’s Tales of Myth and Magic

A picture of the cliffs on Tory Island

By Róisín McNally


At some point in history, there was a person very much like yourself living in this area. Like you, they got up for work every day, cleaned their homes, spent time with their family and shared many laughs, stories and drinks with their friends, and suffice to say that bar the few comforts of the modern world, you engaged with the area in the same way that they did. They might have even had a pet, 

 But imagine this; you and this person are out for a walk along the hill above Tramore Beach, enjoying the sunshine and sharing a few laughs when in the distance, out to see, you spot a familiar shape. You have both seen and heard of this place, and you point and say “There, that island is a wonder to see. The people are lovely, the craic is ninety and it’s unlike anywhere else in the world.” 

But your companion from the past would likely hear this and disagree because, to them, that is not a place you would ever want to go. “There? Why would you ever want to go there? That place is where terrifying creatures live, ruled by a giant with an evil eye, and an army set on destroying the world and plunging it into darkness!”  

You argue about your opinions on Tory Island for a while, but at the end of it you come to an agreement. At some point in both your lives, Tory Island had a well-known King though one was definitely a lot nicer than the other. 

The island in question is one we’re all familiar with in this area – Tory Island, at one point in history our ancestors believed that it was where the embodiment of evil (and later the nation’s greatest saviour) dwelled amongst the ancient stones and shoreline. Of course, if you were to meet the natives of Tory Island today you would be inclined to disagree, but in our ancient oral traditions and medieval texts, it was believed that the enemies of the old God’s of Ireland once made this place their fort, under the rule of a great King known as Balor or the Evil Eye. 


Irish Ordnance Survey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the Lebor Gabhála Éireann, a medieval manuscript which recounts the origin myth of Ireland, the nation has always been here. It stood strong amongst the stormy waves of the Atlantic and through miles of mist as a beacon of hope for the first people to land here. First the people of Cessair, then Partholón and Nemed, then the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann, until finally the Milesians. Each of these ancient tribes represents different aspects of our culture and mythology –  from the origins of our farming tradition to laws and even the arrival of the magic that we still speak of in our stories – but as these tribes came to the shoreline, the island of Tory was already occupied by their fierce enemies – the Fomor. 

The Fomor, or the Fomorians, are an ancient evil race of beings that came from the sea. Monsters and creatures dragged themselves out of the depths of the brine to the rocky shorelines and made their home an island off the coast of Donegal for generations. There’s little to suggest where these creatures came from, more that they have always been there and in great battle with the forces of Good that lived on the mainland. They don’t come into the mythical cycle until the arrival of Nemed, but they exist as the counterparts of the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann. 

The Tuatha Dé Danann existed as the old Gods of Ireland that ruled these lands. Gods like the Dagda, Nuada and the Morrígan watched over the mortals and achieved great feats of strength and power, while the Fomorians watched from the shores of Tory, waiting and watching for their moment to strike. This came when in the first battle of Maigh Tuireadh, a great battle between the Gods, Nuada, the King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, lost his arm. According to the ancient laws, a king could not rule if he had any sort of physical deformity, so he had to give up his rule to Bres the Beautiful, a hald -Fomorian Prince with ties to the Tuatha Dé. 

It’s important to note that while the Tuatha Dé and the Fomor were enemies, there were still intermarriages between them so many times we see overlap in the stories between characters. Bres is one example. He became king but changed the law so that it was the Tuatha Dé who had to offer their hospitality and wealth to the Fomor. 

He was encouraged by the King of the Fomor – Balor of the Evil Eye. Balor was the most feared and ferocious of creatures on the island. Not just because of his armies or his size, but of the third eye on his forehead, which took several grown men to pull open. This eye, if you gazed upon it, would strike you dead where you stood. Frightening enough, but not as frightening as what he did to ensure his power. According to the legend, Balor had a beautiful daughter named Eithniu and like many beautiful daughters in Irish mythology, she came with a prophecy. A druid came to Balor and prophesied that a child of his daughter would be his downfall, much like we see in the Greek story of Perseus. Balor, upon hearing this, had his daughter locked away in a tower on the island, forbidden to speak with any men in the hopes of preventing the prophecy. However, fate is set in the stars, and that came in the form of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann. 

Cian was a warrior with a sacred cow that was stolen by Fomor soldiers when he slept. He snuck away to Tory to try and retrieve the cow again, sneaking about the fort of Balor until he somehow managed to come across a trail of lady’s servants who caught him. These women quickly ushered him away into the tower where he met Eithniu and in typical fashion, they fell in love and lay with each other. Cian escaped back to the mainland, but he left Eithniu pregnant with triplets and after nine months, she gave birth. 

It’s said that Balor heard her cries from the labour pains across the island, and in a rage returned to her tower where he found she gave birth to three sons. He ripped the babies from her and sent them with his servant to be drowned. He took the babies to the cliffs in the middle of the night and threw them into the sea. Two drowned, but one survived, saved by a woman named Biróg and raised by a woman named Taitliu who brought him to the mainland and raised him as her own. She never shied away from his heritage, the stories of his grandfather or his mother, and trained him to be a great warrior. This baby became Lugh Lamfhada, or Lugh of the Longhand, so named for his great skill in battle. 


Dun Balair Fort, the highest point on Tory Island
Colin Park / Dun Balair Fort, the highest point on Tory Island

Like Bres, Lugh was half Fomor and half Tuatha Dé, but he represented good and light. The time came for a great battle when Nuada was given a new arm of silver (thus his name Nuada Airgetlam) and wanted to reclaim his title as King. Lugh took up arms on the side of the Tuatha Dé, who welcomed him with open arms. This great battle is said to have taken place only down the road in Glenveagh, in the deep valley of the Poison Glen. The armies of the Tuatha Dé and the Fomor clashed, with Balor at the frontlines taking out hoards of men with his Evil Eye. He comes across a young man. In the ancient texts, it is said Lugh had a slingshot but more likely he branded a mighty spear. Balor came face-to-face with the grandson he cast out to sea to die, and had to watch as the prophecy came true when Lugh fired his spear directly into his evil eye, killing him instantly and taking ten men with him as he crashed down to the earth.  In fact, it is said the Poison Glen got its name from Balor’s blood, spilling into the earth from where poisonous grew. 

Lugh won the battle for them, and the Tuatha Dé ruled again, and Dunlewey got its name – Dún Lúiche, the Fort of Lugh. If you visit Dunlewey you may be in the shadow of Balor himself, as it is said that his body was too big to return to Tory so he had to be buried in Errigal Mountain. Perhaps if you and your new historical friend made your way there, they might point out some of those discoloured rocks facing the Glen, and they’ll tell you all about the dead King of Tory buried beneath it. 

But let’s get back on track and take the road back to Tory Island. This island, quietly fighting against the waves and winds, is rich with ancient lore and legends that seep deep within the soil. Stories flowed from the ancient people from here, carried in on the mainland, and people gazing out to it from the shore saw it once in fear, but now in wonder. In wonder that it was a great fort of an evil King and the glorious Hero, and you can still see these sites today if you manage the trip across on the boat. Head to the east of the island and you will see Dún Balor, where it’s said the tyrant held great feasts and plans for battle, or head to the lighthouse and consider how tall the tower Eithniu was kept in was. Better yet, ask the locals to tell you some of their stories, grab a coffee and look out to the water and think of Lugh surviving in those waters. Maybe if you’re lucky, you might spot a Selkie bobbing along the waves, or an old God sailing through the mist because if you’re going to see something ancient or magical, chances are it will be on Tory. 

This article appeared in the 2023 edition of The Creeslough View Magazine