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Catching a wave off the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Photo by: Mickey Smith

An Irish Surf Odyssey

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Catching a wave off the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Photo by: Mickey Smith

So salty that Easkey was named after her parents’ favorite surf break off the West Coast of Ireland.  The name derives from the Irish word for fish (iasc), making it particularly apt for a surfing champion.

Within a few years, Kevin Cavey and the Britton brothers were competing in European surfing competitions.  This brought Ireland to the attention of the international surfing community and in 1972, it was chosen as the host country for the European Surfing Championship. Unfortunately, the surf was disappointing on the day of the championship.  The waves were small.  The swells were calm.  There was no challenge.  It wasn’t until the day after that surfers got the opportunity to experience the thrills of surfing Irish style.

“It was epic,” says Mike Wingfield, a member of the English Surf Squad of the time.  “It was overhead, glassy and perfect.  Nobody could get out of the water.”

That year could be seen as a turning point in Irish surfing.  Ireland was now a feature on the international surfing map.  However, the number of surfers remained low – a mere two to three thousand people – until the boom of recent years.

Ian Johnson has surfed every day for decades.  Until five or six years ago, he was usually alone on the ocean.  “Now, I can’t even get parking close to the

The Irish Surfing Association claims that at least 70,000 people have surfed in Ireland once or more.  It’s this jump that prompted Ken O’Sullivan to make his documentary.

It’s also what pushed the most enthusiastic surfers to conquer Aileen’s.  Traditional surfing spots were becoming crowded.  They had to discover new frontiers.

John McCarthy, another Irish surfing champion, was the first to surf Aileen’s, along with Dave Blunt.  They were part of a group that developed a new technique whereby a jet ski pulls the surfer who is on a specially adapted board.  The speed of the jet ski allows the surfer to get ahead of the swell.  He then lets go of the tow rope and slides across the wave.

Saul Harvey, a local surfer, initially thought Aileen’s surfers were mad.  “You look at the huge cliffs and the powerful wave and you think they haven’t a hope,” he says.

He has since been won over and even surfed the wave himself.  He describes it as like “standing in an elevator when all of a sudden, the floor drops from underneath you.”

Aileen’s wave is but one example of the many challenges Ireland has to offer surfers.  As John McCarthy, the first to surf Aileen’s, says, “the best thing about traveling is coming back to Ireland with the skills to surf better waves and realizing that the waves in Ireland are some of the best in the world”.

Surfers are now visiting Ireland from other countries, surfers such as the seven-time world champion Kelly Slater who has spent time here conquering our waves.  And surfers such as the people interviewed for this documentary, whose lives are dictated by weather charts, ocean swells and the next wave.

“Our only problem is the Irish weather,” says Ian Johnson.  “It’s diabolical.  It doesn’t stay the same for ten minutes.”

In typically optimistic surfer fashion, he can also see the positive side of this.  “Ireland is small and its weather is variable so you can usually travel to find the perfect offshore waves,” he says.  “Bundoran, Lahinch and Kerry can be three completely different worlds.”

No matter what the weather, Irish surfers will always surf.  In fact, the worse the weather, the more of them take to the waves.  In 2006, thousands traveled to the West Coast to catch the frenzied waves that resulted from Hurricane Gordon wreaking havoc over the Atlantic.

This is what Irish surfing is all about.  As Mickey Smith says, “Friendships, experiences and the opportunities to push myself and my surfing. I’ll always be grateful to the Emerald Isle for that.”

Or perhaps it’s how pioneer Kevin Cavey explains it.  “You’re tingling with the forces of nature when you emerge from the sea.  Surfing brings us back to our roots.  That’s why it’s catching on.”

With enthusiasts such as the characters captured in this film, Irish surfing looks set to grow and grow.  “Our secret is finally out,” says director Ken O’Sullivan. For more information, visit www.seafever.ie. For DVD information visit www.SeaFeverMovie.com  

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