High Island or Ardoilean is an island located approximately 3 kms off the west coast of Connemara, close to Claddaghduff and Inishbofin. The island extends to approximately 32 hectares (80 acres) of mostly island grazing with the benefit of two natural fresh water lakes and some of the most stunning scenery in the west of Ireland. The island measures 1.2 kms by 0.4 kms and rises to a maximum height of 63.3 meters above sea level.
There is an abundance of birdlife on the island with many types of gulls, fulmars, Manx shearwaters, petrels and oyster catchers and even a pair of peregrine falcons breeding each spring. In the autumn, barnacle geese arrive from mainland Europe and winter on the island.
The history of High Island is steeped in archeological facts and it is believed that some of the ruins and artefacts date back to 300 BC and with evidence from pollen samples dating occupation back after 1,000 BC. What is known is that some of the flooring found in the church directly correlates to an early Iron Age settlement between 300 BC and 20AD.
The foundation of the monastery on High Island is credited to Saint Féichín who is believed to have died in 665 during the yellow plague. It is believed that the monastery was originally constructed in the seventh century and there were between 50 and 70 people living on the island.
The monastery is located in a sheltered valley to the South Western edge of the island and located directly to the North of the larger of the two fresh water lakes. This undoubtedly was an attributing factor when looking at the location of the monastery all of those years ago. To the East and West the lands are elevated giving shelter from the winter winds and most violent sea storms.
Currently the remains of the monastery consist of the church and altar itself and a completely intact beehive hut located directly to the east of the church. There are the collapsed remains of three similar beehive huts to the West of the monastic enclosure. The church wall enclosure is, in majority intact with several openings or entrances and the main entrance being to the South East.
Directly to the South of the church is a large round granite boulder, commonly known as a granite globe. It appears that the stone has obviously been shaped and worked smooth so it`s perfectly spherical. There are similar stones found at other sites including Inishmurray in Sligo, Ballyvourney in Co. Cork and Arran in Scotland which could be used as cursing stones.
Approximately 100 meters south of the monastery there are the remains of an old water mill which has been the subject of investigation by Colin Rynne. He states that this is the earliest known example of an Irish monastic mill and also the earliest survival of its type in Europe.
In the late 18th Century, the Island was owned by the Martin Family, being one of the great tribes of Galway and in 1794, Richard Martin (better known as Humanity Dick) leased the island to John Bodkin. Circa 1820 there was a period of copper mining on the island but this only lasted a couple of years. The mine shaft is still open and visible, being located close to the south landing area. The miners at this time built 2 stone huts near to the shaft opening and to date the remains of the larger building are still largely intact and measure 17 meters by 6 meters.
Between 1969 and 1998, the island was owned by Irish poet Richard Murphy a resident of Inishbofin. In his personal memoirs published by Granta in The Kick (2002), Murphy remembers the opportunity when the previous owner considered selling the island: `I got excited at the thought of buying this inaccessible holy island, restoring the beehive cells and oratory of its derelict hermitage and preserving the place from destruction`. Several of Richards poems, took direct influence from his visits and trips to the island he so admired and cherished.
Between 1995 and 2002 a number of archeologists under the direction of Georgina Scally started a detailed excavation of the monastery and the associated buildings. At the same time and since then the National Monument Service have carried out detailed and extensive conservation works of the buildings and ruins. The excavation revealed that there were several different building episodes within the monastic enclosure between the eighth and thirteenth century at which stage the settlement appears to have gone into decline. There were also 11 graves discovered of which 6 had burials and these, it is believed date back to between the eleventh and thirteenth century. Amongst other things found over the island were almost 50 cross slabs (ornately decorated slabs, many with decorative crosses inscribed), many of which were decorated very ornately.
The island is now a Special Protection Area under the EU Bird Directive of special conservation interest for the Barnacle Goose, Fulmar and Arctic Tern.
The monastery is a national monument (No.52) and owned by the Department of Environment Heritage and Local Government (DEHLG), and is therefore excluded from the sale). Because of this the OPW have an obligation to maintain the monastery and surrounding artefacts and require access to the island.
Close to the southern landing area there is a more modern day building measuring 7 meters by 14 meters with a rain water collection areas at the rear of timber construction with a galvanized roof. There is a septic tank on site which would lead to the potential for a building to be constructed subject to the necessary planning constraints.