The Islands of Ireland: Island of serendipity

SOME islands are synonymous with writers: JM Synge with Inis Meáin; The Great Blasket with Tomás Ó Criomhthain.

High Island in Co Galway can only have one such associate — the poet Richard Murphy. Murphy’s inspiration and passion for the island was expressed in the ultimate fashion. He bought it. He brings not just a poet’s eye to this remote island. He brings a seafarer’s, a historian’s, an environmentalist’s. His High Island imparts an intimate knowledge of the winds and seas and rocks which surround the island.

He was born in Mayo but brought up in Sri Lanka. His father served in the British colonial service. Perhaps living in Sri Lanka he was aware of the former former name of the island and later in life happened upon High Island as a chance discovery. Before Ceylon it was Serendip, hence serendipity. Idle speculation.

Murphy has a firm footing in the contemporary Irish canon.

In the title poem of High Island he writes: “A shoulder of rock sticks high up out of the sea/A fisherman’s mark for lobster and blue-shark …An older calm/ The kiss of rock and grass/ Pink thrift and white sea campion/ Flowers in the dead place.”

The island is situated in the furthest reaches of Connemara beyond Clifden and the Aughrus Peninsula. It lies just south of the stunning Inishboffin and the deserted Inishshark. It has nearer neighbours — the birdwatching base at Cruagh and the low-lying mishmash of Friar Island.

High Island (Ard Oileán) is only high in the sense that it is higher than its neighbours. At 52m, it is relatively small. However, if height is regarded as being a relative height, then of course it is High Island.

The landing is difficult. On such islands experienced boatmen know the best places to drop their passengers and in this case a narrow inlet on the south side is deemed the best place to land. This approach still necessitates a fairly tough climb over rocks before the island opens out to a grassy hill.

This is a major nesting site for Manx shearwaters and storm petrels. An ornithological study by UCC in 2014 examined the flight pattern of these two seabird species. It found that tracking of 12 chick-rearing Manx shearwater at High Island and also the Great Blasket in Co Kerry demonstrated foraging trips of up to 3,400km to the mid-Atlantic. This was four times greater than previous estimates.

And yet again we find a monastery here. Having ascended the hill on the eastern side, careful not to disturb any birds’ nests, it looks like any other never-inhabited island. Appearances can be deceptive however, as nestled under an outcrop on the west of the island is the ruins of a monastery founded by St Feichin in the seventh century. Resembling a village, the settlement once supported 50 to 70 people.

There are several beehive cells, a church and over 50 cross slabs, several of them decorated. Dúchas has reconstructed several of the buildings which gives it a more contemporary feel and does detract from the mystical aspect.

The complex has a mill system with reservoir, millpond and millraces. The 1837 Ordnance Survey map indicates penitential stations, the mill and Brian Boru’s Well (reputedly visited St Gormgal there). There is also an old copper mine dating from the 19th century.

The monastery has huge significance as illustrated by Jenny White Marshall and Grellan D Rourke in High Island: An Irish Monastery in the Atlantic. Excavations of probably the earliest wall indicated that the monastery was superimposed on an earlier settlement and not an original site itself as were most other monastic sites.

Richard Murphy bought the island in 1969 when he heard it had been put up for sale. It is again in private ownership after Murphy sold it in 1998.

How to get there: High Island is in private ownership

  • Other: High Island by Richard Murphy, Harper and Row; High Island: An Irish Monastery in the Atlantic, Jenny White Marshall, Grellan D Rourke High Island (Ardoileán), Co Galway. Excavation of an Early Medieval Monastery, Georgina Scally

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