September 28th 2005


According to the 12th century annals Leabhar Gabhála Éireann (The Book of Invasions of Ireland) Tory Island off the coast of Co. Donegal was first occupied by Nemedian settlers from Scythia in modern Turkey . The Nemedians were eventually ousted by the Fomorians (sea pirates, in the manner of the later Danes) from Carthage in modern-day Tunisia .

Balor: an artists impression

A Fomorian King, Conan, built a tower, Túr Rí, (tower of the king) from which Tory is said to take it’s name. He was deposed by vengeful Nemedians but the island was soon back in Fomorian hands upon which the legendary Balor seized power. Harrying the coast from their Tory island retreat the countryside eventually fell to the hands of the Fomorians following the First Battle of Moyturrra in Co. Sligo.

My correspondent, Paul Burns, of Tallahassee, Florida, however, puts the case that the Fomorian stronghold was not on Tory Island at all, but elsewhere:

“One of the most ancient legends of Sligo concerns a battle on the eastern shore of Lough Arrow between the seafaring Fomorians and magical Tuatha De Danaan.

But where did these people live?

In 1927 Sligo historian Henry Morris wrote an article entitled, “Where Was Tor Inis, the Island Fortress of the Fomorians?” Morris said the early accounts described it as being off the coast of Ulster and disagreed with accounts that placed it on Tory Island off the coast of Co. Donegal .

He said that early accounts described a Nemedian attack on the Fomorian stronghold as having been “by land and by sea”. Tory Island — some eight miles from the mainland — could hardly have been attacked by land. Also, locals always refer to Tory Island as “Torach,” meaning cliffs, while the Tor in Tor Inis referred to tower(s).

Dernish Island, Co. Sligo (Milk Harbour in foreground)

Morris said Dernish Island off Sligo fits all clues, “Dernish” being a corruption of “Tor Inis.” Legend said many of the attacking Nemedians were drowned by the rising tide (again, not possible in the case of Tory Island ). The waters around Dernish are, however, tidal. Local lore, said the author, says “the fairies had a big battle on Dernish Island .” And as for a tower, there was a ruin on Dernish’s high point called Cnoc a Duin—until about 1880 when a farmer used the stones for a structure.

The 2005/2006 issue of “The Corran Herald” contains an article by the late Dr. Patrick Heraughty entitled “ Milk Harbour and its Vicinity,” concerning the small tidal harbour opposite Dernish Island . Dr. Heraughty said that the people known as Fomorians generally lived on offshore islands, and having subjugated the nearby mainland they imposed the tax known as the ‘three thirds’ on the inhabitants. The tax was for one-third of the crops, one-third of the milk, and one-third of the children. ["And it was a hard tax they put on them, a third part of their corn they asked, and a third part of their milk, and a third part of their children, so that there was not smoke rising from a roof in Ireland but was under tribute to them. And Bres made no stand against them, but let them get their way...": Gods and Fighting Men" Lady Gregory] While the crops and children were delivered annually, the milk had to be delivered daily. Heraughty’s claim is that the milk was left at a place called Port na Bainne now known as Milk Harbour . The collectors were the Fomorians who lived on Dernish Island opposite.

Henry Morris and Dr. Heraughty were in agreement that the Fomorians (if they ever existed) were based on Dernish rather than Tory Island . Unfortunately, Henry Morris passed away in 1945 and Dr. Heraughty in 2005, so neither gentleman is available for further discussion. Dr. Heraughty’s article in “The Corran Herald” is not footnoted, so the source of his information went with him.”


Balor na Súile Nimhe (Balor of the Evil Eye), the warrior champion of the Fomorians, could kill with a single look from the one eye situated in the middle of his forehead. O’Donovan, the noted historian and antiquarian, had this to say in 1836 while working on the Ordnance Survey:

“I am informed that there was a Caiseal at Mullaghmore in the Parish of Ahamlish at the seashore, called Dún Balra where Balor resided for some time. It is said by the people there that he was perfectly skilled in the Magic Art, that he always kept a cover on his eye, which he took off whenever he intended to do an injury by his look”.

Mullaghmore is about three miles by sea from Dernish so perhaps this piece of evidence strengthens the case that the Fomorians did indeed have a strong permanent presence in North Sligo. On the other hand Dún Balor on the northern tip of Tory could easily have been attacked by land — from the southern part of the island, in which case a sortie “by land and by sea” does not really discount the case for Tory. It is interesting to speculate, but we may never know for sure.

'Balor's Teeth' on Tory Island, Co. Donegal (Balor's stronghold is said to have been on the cliffs in the background)

According to the proponents of the belief that the Fomorians lived at Tory, Balor was killed at Gabhaidín’s blacksmith forge in Dunlewey, Co, Donegal. His grandson Lúgh, ‘drew a glowing rod from the furnace and plunged it into the back of Balor’s head and out through his basilisk eye. The slopes ran red with Balor’s blood. Gleann Nimhe (the Poisoned Glen) near Dunlewey got its name from the vile liquid that spewed from his eye.”

Another version of how Balor met his end is that Lúgh presented himself to the court of Nuada, king of the Túatha de Danaan, following which they joined forces to crush the forces of the Fomorians at the Second Battle of Moyturra, Co. Sligo. One of the three gods of craftsmanship, Gobniú, the smith, fashioned a lightning weapon. During the battle Lúgh hurled the magical spear through Balors baleful eye, “the blood from which burst forth to form Lochán na Súil ( Lake of the Eye) near Moyturra in the parish of Kilmactranny.”

The lake so violently conceived, but peaceful and tranquil now, can still be seen to this day.

Copyright: all rights reserved to the authors, Joe Mc Gowan and Paul Burns


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