It’s been a while since I’ve written about the Banner. I used to write words about the place, never telling where we were, of course. We surfed all the spots, new-ish at the time, but already well documented. We strayed off the path a couple of times, usually only to meet monstrous, converging swells heaving over some dry reef.
Lots of stone walls “down there.” Lots of cows and boggy farms ending suddenly at some cliff. Tons of swell, and unlike “up here” where we are tucked elegantly into a bay, the energy does not have to bend in from anywhere, it hits directly.
Spot guide: UK + Ireland
It’s big all the time, but a prevailing south west wind tears everything to shreds, so you have to wait for a big high pressure to sit on Ireland and turn that wind around. And in the winter, that means cold, Siberian air, that gets colder as it tumbles down whatever cliff is in front of the wave you are surfing.
It takes a lot of energy, a lot of warm clothes, food and preparation to go surfing down there, and it makes it more difficult to see the locals, chirpy and light, in their cotton jackets and skate shoes, run up and down slippery cliffs like goats and burrow into giant barrels like badgers.
Peter Conroy says that down there, you have to make friends with the rocks. I guess I never have. Up here we face due north, so with the light the way it is, we never really see the reef underneath our waves. Down there, facing west, the water pierces the water and you can see every mean little corner of the reef.
We went to a corner of the Banner one time on a real rare wind. Ended up getting waves all alone with a fantastic photographer and put an article out in the most prestigious surf mag out there.
I guess in the back of my head I knew it was wrong… against the rules, rather. But I justified our publication because we felt so alone at the end of the world. And that this particular publication is rare in Ireland, at the time, and expensive. Maybe nobody would even notice.
It was wrong. I knew it. I did it anyway.
A couple months after this article was published. My phone rang. I was in a pub that was known for hushed conversations about local happenings. And within a minute I was loudly defending my writing that article.
“What were you thinking?” he said, “We’ve been surfing that place for 20-years.”
“I’m sorry,” I said in my loud Yank accent, disturbing subdued conversations, “but I’m not the only one involved here, besides, like, consider the source, this isn’t some rag. And, the story is that the place doesn’t actually exist, like Elysium.”
“C’mere to me. Cut the mythological shite! I don’t care if it’s on Mars and you’re writing for GQ,” he said. “It’s not cool and you know it.” He was upset and the pub was now so quiet everyone could hear him on the phone. I felt like a skummer. I was getting scolded by some guy “down there.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again “but look, no one is toing to see it, I mean how many people even subscribe to T___________?”
“Six,” he says without hesitation, “including the Dublin Library.”
I laughed a little. “So of those five people, and the occasional library browser, are any of them going to put together the puzzle pieces and actually go out and find that wave?”
There was a pause, but only a little one. “No.” He said, “But that’s not the point and you know it.”
He was right, I did know it. And what I needed now was to express humility.
“Don’t you think,” he was building up a head of steam now and I wanted to leave the pub, but at that point the only conversation happening was mine, and now everyone seemed sort of interested? If you could call it that. “Don’t you think that if we wanted an article written about that place we would have written one?”
I had to bite my tongue. I wanted to say if you could write like me, you would. You would have written that article.
“You just shouldn’t have put in that photo,” he said. I knew the one. He was right, I shouldn’t of.
“You can’t write about down here anymore,” he said. “You’re barred.”
“You are welcome to come you just can’t write.” He hung up. The bar was immediately back into their hushed conversations.
With my literary sentencing complete, I ordered a pint and Patricia served it up and told me that she liked me all the same, even with the writing.
A short while later I got a visitor from New York. An nice but eager fellow. I was working and this fella goes down there with a friend of mine. Before they go I pull them aside.
“Just guys, do me a favour, before you send any shots of down there, run it by me ok. Please? I’ve experience with just what is Kosher.”
“Will do,” they salute, and off they fly.
Two days later, this fella's photos pop up online, along with a whole article devoted to what makes Aileen’s break. Swell size, direction, tide – everything. Just exposed the code.
My last conversation with this fella was awkward, as by then I had gotten a very polite email from Fergal Smith, asking me why, basically, I had let this monster loose.
“How much did you make?” I asked this fella.
“A hundred bucks,” he said.
It wasn’t a proud day for us New Yorkers in Ireland. But time passes, and the guy on the phone in the pub and the fella who took pictures and sold them too cheap (and too soon) and me, are all friends now. Aren’t we?
I missed a lot of swells down there over the years, and this one here was not the exception. All the times I have been down there have been the day-of-the-year kind of thing. One time, we were on our way down when I got a call from Shambles.
“You what?” I shout over the rumble of the van? “You broke your finger?”
He kept shouting “finger” over and over till I realised he was shouting “femur.” That kind of thing puts you off.
I’m living vicariously through the eyes of Megan Gayda on this one because I know the cold and slippery cliffs. I know rocks fall from the top if those cliffs, right where you jump off into a quagmire that immediately tries to take you, for the rest of your session, to a place you do not want to be. She has a great eye and her photos tell a story.
I was depending on Dez, who has taken up residence on the farm, to come back with a full report.
“Did you get one?” I asked?
“A smaller one at the end.” He said, it was really heavy and really hard.” I was going to ask him more questions but he had a story.
“I was sitting a little behind the boil and Russ (Bierke) was sitting on it when a set came in. What we didn’t see was that first wave of the set was a big double up. We duck-dived under the first one and came up square in the lip of the second bit. We both got held under for two, and when I came up his board was still tomb-stoning, right next to me. So I started pulling up on his board. We were both ok.”
“Wow.” I said, patting myself on the back a little for staying up here, where it’s safe.
“Even Bromley thought it was too heavy.”
I spoke to Beirke when I saw him up here. On one of the last couple days of a good-to-epic run of swell. Russ broke his board late in the day and had to make a big circle swim. Said he swam way wide and still nearly got sucked past the only place to get out.
When there is no safety ski down there, as up here. It’s the ocean and you.
The photographers too. Megan and everyone else are every bit as intrepid as the wave riders. The most capable cold water people on the planet, swimming against a rip that takes you to the beast all day for the shots.
I heard Nathan Florence got the best wave of his life and left Ireland with happy tears on his face.
So please enjoy these photos vicariously, and with warm toes. It is a special place at the end of the world, and I’m glad I ended my literary exile, and Banner, I’ll be back soon. I hope the rocks down there forgive me for my old trespasses, for which I am truly sorry, as I did it for the money and the fame.