This month’s Off the Shelf selection is a work of historical fiction. The history behind the book came from an article which appeared in History Ireland, titled “The Wreck of HMS Wasp, 1884,” by Tom Sigafoos. The wreck occurred at the foot of the Tory Island lighthouse on September 22, 1884.
Tory Island is a small, inhabited island nine miles off the northwest coast of county Donegal. HMS Wasp, a gunboat of the Royal Navy, ran onto rocks, broke apart and sank. Forty-six crewmen and four officers perished. When the ship keeled over, five men scrambled up the mast to safety on land.
The ship was headed to Moville to assist the sheriff and deputies to forcibly evacuate Inishtrahull Island (north of Malin Head). At the time of the wreck, the ship was running under sail with an inexperienced young officer at the wheel. The engine-room fires had been banked so there was insufficient boiler pressure to maneuver off the rocks. A formal court martial dismissed the event as “navigational error” and the records of the inquiry disappeared.
Sigafoos’s fictional account centers on Tory Island and a teenage boy named Ruairi (Rory) Mullan, whose family has lived on Tory Island all their lives. Handicapped with only one eye due to an incident with a hawk who scratched out the other eye, Ruairi was destined to become King of Tory Island before his mishap.
He is being raised by a psychic aunt. A smorgasbord of other main characters include a diminutive school teacher, an alcoholic priest, a fractious light house crew and a slew of men on board the naval vessel.
The title of the book refers to a rock believed by the seanchaí (storyteller) to possess supernatural powers to influence events in the lives of the Tory islanders. The author does a wonderful job of interweaving the characters he created and the tragedy of the HMS Wasp. There exists a monument on Tory Island commemorating the sinking of the Wasp. I rate this historical fiction work a TOP SHELF read.
*Terrence J Kenneally is an attorney who owns Kenneally & Associates Law Firm in Rocky River, Ohio. He obtained his master’s degree in Irish Studies from John Carroll University and has taught Irish History and Literature.