High and mighty in West Cork

High and mighty in West Cork
High Island on left with Low Island, Stack of Beans and Rabbit Island. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

If there wasn’t a low-lying island beside it then this precipitous island in West Cork wouldn’t be called High Island. So low is Low, just 5m tall, that anything near it just had to be named High, and this rocky edifice whose sheer black cliffs plunge into the sea, fitted the bill perfectly, coming in at a comparatively huge 45m, which sounds more impressive in imperial measurement, about 150ft.

High Island lies about 2km off Squince Harbour which is about halfway between the lengthy inlets of Glandore Harbour and Castlehaven Harbour in West Cork. Within sight are the towering cliffs of Toe Head. It is a difficult task to climb the island’s rocky and grassy slopes on the southern side as huge slabs of rock are tossed about like children’s building blocks.

Kayaker David Walsh has landed here too and describes the difficulty in his book Oileáin: “This splendid, steep, craggy island is not for the fainthearted. The easier scramble to the summit is from the eastern cove in proof of which I point to the blood on the rocks at the foot of the west cove which is mine.”

There are several other islands around here but they are too scattered to be considered an archipelago: Horse Island; Flea Island, Skiddy Island, Rabbit Island, and further towards Glandore, Adam Island, and Eve Island.

This is the nerve centre for the extraordinary frequency of whale and dolphin sightings in Ireland in the last decade or so.

Whether it’s global warming or some as-yet undetermined migratory pattern, the sightings of many species of whales and dolphins off the West Cork coast has been little short of phenomenal. Huge numbers of minke are regularly seen as well as fin and humpback whales. Also prevalent are risso’s dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, basking sharks, and, last month, killer whales.

The immediate waters around High and Low islands are the domain of the pinnipeds — seals (sea lions, and walruses are also included in the term). The Atlantic grey seals, would appear to control the waters hereabouts, popping up dramatically beside any approaching boat. HighIsland has several huge bull seals which seem to dare the kayaker to continue at their peril.

No one ever lived on High Island, it is reasonable to assume, but farmers in years gone by on the neighbouring Rabbit Island used to farm their animals out there. There is a reasonable acreage to support a few sheep. Cattle would find the steep slopes too difficult to climb. The only other sign of human action is in nomenclature:

There is a rock on the island called The Fear, because seen from a certain angle at sea, it resembles a stooped man in obsequious position as if cowering against a great force. Whether this was named for a natural force (the sea) or perhaps a domineering landlord is not known.

This is one of two High islands in the country. The other is in west Co Galway and which holds the ruins of a medieval monastery. No such ruins on this HighIsland, however, though not because of size. Several much smaller islands have their own monasteries such as Church Island and Illaunloughan in Co Kerry. Perhaps the more dramatic islands in that county were more appealing to the monks.

In Griffiths Valuation at the turn of the 20th century William Dinneen is listed as the owner of High Island but by 1917 his tenancy was renounced possibly due to the requirement of paying rates. Similarly, Low Island was ‘disowned’ by an O’Driscoll man also of Rabbit Island.

There is an abundance of bird species in the vicinity of High Island including the usual suspects: gannets, shags, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and shearwaters. The herring gull is one of the more predominant birds with nests all over the island. The crotchety creature was immortalised by Co Tipperary writer Seán Hickey:

    “You’re a striking fellow In grey blazer and pink kecks
    But not pleasant at all
    Too given to the rackety squabble
    And the hit and scarper
    You have blood on your bill.”

How to get there: corkwhalewatch.com (Union Hall); whalewatchwestcork.com (Baltimore); baltimoreseasafari.ie (Baltimore); westcorkpelagics.ie

Other: Oileáin, David Walsh, Pesda;

The Heron on the Weir, Sean Hickey and

Michael Bell (photography)

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