The First Surfers in Ireland: Pioneering XXL Slabs

Dylan Stott

by on

Updated 917d ago

In 1966 a Buddhist set himself on fire in a public square in protest outside the US consulate in Vietnam. France tests its nuclear weapons for the first time on the pristine South Pacific atoll Mururoa. Donovan (folk singer not the folk surfer) was number one on the American charts with Sunshine Superman.

In Ireland The Beatles topped the chart for most of the year right ahead of The Ludlows, The Kinks, Dermot O'Brien -and a little later in the year- Tom Jones. And a man named Kevin Cavey (the grandad of Irish surfing) from Kerry had already made a couple of his own surfboards out of plywood and insulation that didn't really work for sliding down breaking waves. 

He built another one out of a balsa wood kit after making the surfer pilgrimage to the North Shore of Hawaii, packing a solid one at Sunset Beach, and watched as C-124 military transport planes made their loop north before heading west to the strange and crooked front of the escalating war in Vietnam. He came back to Ireland and surfed the first proper wave with a finless balsa board from a kit in Dundalk, a place where you can go today on a big south west swell and find some really great longboard waves and imagine the time and how things happened 50-years-ago. 

Kevin Cavey, the grandad of Irish surfing.

In 1966, Ireland celebrated 50 years of political independence from England. Ian Hill, from Northern Ireland, probably paying less attention to politics than most that summer, was surfing the crisp green waves of Tullan Strand and quite possibly the reef in front of town in Bundoran. He first saw surfing demonstrated on the beaches in Bude, England, and scored a board there from Bob Herd of Bilbo Surfboards.

In the last few years of the 1960s the popularity of surfing grew. Surf Clubs were set up in Tramore, Lahinch, Rossnowlagh, Portrush and Cork. Neil Armstrong had just walked on the moon and organised groups seemed like the way to get things done those clubs eventually formed the ISA (Irish Surfing Association) and has been the governing body of surf contests and commerce in Ireland ever since. A NASA of sorts, for the Irish surf programme. 

In a the early seventies, the ISA hosted a contest in Lahinch. There were no waves for this contest and only the juniors could run, the day after the contest the nearby Spanish Point lit up. The images from this session, and a following surf safari up the west coast sparked the imagination of a surf world already gripped by the travel bug. This was the age of the early Irish surf exploration. It must have been wild times.

The Britton brothers, Grant Robinson - who still patrols the lineup at the peak today- and many others, including Kevin McCoskey and Ray McDaid, father of a young Gearoid (pronounced Garr-ohdge), explored the reefs within striking distance of trusted and consistent breaks like Rossnowlagh and The Peak. If you have explored the west coast of Ireland you can imagine being the first to chart out some of the more challenging waves. It must have been like walking on the moon. 

And here, should you have the time, is a look back at 40 years of progressive Irish surfng.

In the late 70s surfing moulded into a sport with the development of a world surf tour that would produce a world champion. As the 70s turned into the 80s, Bee Gees albums got dusty and MTV started playing U2 and Madonna videos. Surfing during this period turned from a fringe element subculture to a corporate supported sport.

Smirnoff Vodka was the main sponsor of the first international event in 1979, Guinness paid for the Eurosurf in '85. There was controversy. Many surfers in Ireland thought the ISA were allowing the direction of surfing to be taken out of the hands of the Irish surfers. The ISA has done a wonderful job organising the qualifications and industry standards for surf schools, coaching, and programmes for disadvantaged children. However, ever since the big contests of the 80s, there are those who view the ISA as a group that introduced unnecessary red tape to Irish surfing.

It was advances in wetsuit technology that boosted the the surge in Ireland's surfing popularity during the 90s. In Clare, the clear blue powerful waves are particularly intimidating, but a new group of chargers like Andy Burke, Preacher, Saul Harvey, Heber MacMahon, Peter Conroy and the McGrath brothers started taking new lines with the advances in neoprene and board design. It would be another decade before this crew knew the full potential of the heavy waves in Clare. In Bundoran it was still the contest surf scene that ruled the roost including guys like Richie Fitzgerald and Andy Hill (son of Ian Hill).

When Coolio was raking in the royalties from Gangster's Paradise and Thom Yorke was scraping his guitar to Creep, a man named Andrew Kidman got sick of watching videos of spoiled pros jump off mega yachts on their paper thin 6'1''s. Surfing had gone square in the 90s and Andrew Kidman sought to smash the corners. Kidman put together a surf movie without any tailslides by twenty-something pros. And instead shows an older and more mature, more intellectual vision of surfing.

Tom Curren, Wayne Lynch and Derrick Hynd all give insight to the loss of soul as they see it. And right in the middle of all that is Joel Fitzgerald's mind expanding trip to Ireland. The music, the waves, the soundbites, all made it to Australia and America with a perfectly intact message. Kidman's Litmus struck a blow to the cookie cutter clone surfers, and the world's interest in watching it, and inspired countless numbers to get to Ireland and expand their soul.

I was one of those many, whose first surf trip was to Ireland. I was inspired by Kidman and when I came to Ireland in 1999, I'm sure I was one of those future hipsters. Eager to find something new in surfing, surfboards and life. I didn't want to live in Hawaii any more, one of my reasons was a simple one that at the time it seemed like everyone in the surf world did, except my old friends, who were leaving due to increasing crowds.

During the next decade and a half, while I was flying back and forth from Ireland to America trying to figure out what kind of life I would lead, tow surfing was gaining popularity. After the concept was introduced to Ireland the exploration and innovation of surfing along the west coast of Ireland increased in leaps and bounds. Waves like Aileens and Mullaghmore were seriously tackled first with skis, as at the turn of the century the idea of paddling some of these newly found heavy waves in Ireland existed only in the minds of the daringly imaginative. 

While the new Irish tow crew started zipping each other into waves at the newly discovered Aileens and the newly surfed Mullaghmore, a small crew of mostly bodyboarders were writing their own kind of history. Mickey Smith, from Cornwall, had fallen in love with the Clare coast after surf trips there in the 90's. Mickey liked to take long walks.

One day Mickey's predilection for walks turned into destiny, and for a couple years, on the really good days Mickey, with his crew of Irish and Cornish bodyboarders that included Seamus "Shambles" McGoldrick, Shane "Mehand" Meehan, the Gillespie brothers, Skajarowski brothers and standup surfers Fergal Smith, Hugh Galloway, and Tom Lowe. These are the people who, without any fuss or fanfare, rode some of the heaviest waves in the world, purposefully withdrawn from the media, waiting until just the right moment to spring some of the images collected over the years.  

By the time Riley's made its first appearance in the mid naughties, there was a small tow-surf scene in full swing. Guys like Paul O'Kane and Mikey Hamilton, who had honed their jetski skills outside of Ireland, now regularly made trips down to the Cliffs of Moher to surf the giant wave located at the bottom, they also drove north and west, finding new waves that were too big or far away for a standard paddle-from-shore surf.

Some younger guys like Richie Fitzgerald, Gabe Davies, Neil and Easky Britton - representing the second generation of the surfing Britton clan - soon joined them. During this time big wave surfing took on a new meaning. Training and safety equipment became a standard thing and the big wave surfers started looking more like astronauts with body armour, flotation and helmets. With the help of the media, the push for big wave images, and the increasing potential for generating income teaching people how, surfing became the fasted growing sport in Ireland. 

In 2007 Waveriders was released on the big screen and quickly became one of the best selling documentaries ever made. The film made historical connections of how surfing in Ireland rose in popularity through a Hawaiian born, Irish descended swimmer, lifeguard and surfer George Freeth as well as featured (what everyone thought) was the best and biggest waves in Ireland at the time.

But in 2008 the hardcore crew from Clare answered back with a film they made for a tiny fraction of the Waveriders budget. This film, The Powers of Three shows a small team of vikings, Tom Lowe, Fergal Smith and Mickey Smith surfing and filming in even bigger and scarier slabbing surf.

They showed that with a small team of experts they can get world class images. If Waveriders was an army, a broadsword of athletes, filmers, directors, production managers, key grips and the like, The Powers of Three was a small strike force of elites, a scalpel, specially trained and equipped to get in, get images and get back out again. 

Fergal Smith became one of the most recognised athletes in Europe. He spent so much time travelling on jetskis, planes as a surf pro that he was put off them. Gave them up. Wanted to stop burning petrol as much as he wanted to start eating organic food that he grows himself. He now lives a sustainable existence, as much as possible and still be involved in society. 

But Fergal, Tom and Mickey had more to say to the surfing world. Soon after those two documentaries were made, big wave surfing in Ireland underwent another revolution. Tow assisted surfing suffered, if not death, a serious illness. Aileens was declared, via the unwritten rules of the small surfing community in Ireland, off limits to tow surfers. Tom, Fergal, Shambles, Tom Gillespie turned their attention to Mullaghmore and surfed several sessions that blurred what was left of the boundary between tow assist and paddle surfing. 

Now the biggest and scariest waves in Ireland are populated by both Irish and international athletes, pros and talented amateurs, standup and prone. Surfers and bodyboarders share these spots in harmony, which is unusual, as the limited resource of grade A surf breaks are competed and fought over in many other parts of the world. It's from the world-travelling pros that the locals hear over and over just how lucky we are in Ireland, there is none of the typical drama at the premier surf spots. Surfers in Ireland get along with each other. 

Opening day this year at Mully, we've come a long way.

While it is getting rare to see tow surfers in Ireland even at the biggest spots on the biggest days, you will still see jetskis. These skis are operated by members of the Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club. A self-funded, self-rescue organisation that has already saved several lives. The goal of the organisation is to get surfers out of bad spots. Away from the impact of successive waves, away from deadly cliffs and rocks, as well as provide a platform for first response, first aid, transportation into land and communication with other rescue organisation such as Irish Coast Guard and RNLI. 

Surfers such as Peter Conroy have pioneered safety in heavy Irish waves.

In 2016, at least 50-years after the first imaginative people slid along breaking waves in Ireland riding planks of wood - Ireland is one of the most beautiful, dramatic, consistent, uncrowded, and friendliest, if not the best places in the world to be a surfer. All of those who have lived or visited Ireland and explored the vastness of the west coast know this.

And, 50-years after the first surfers slid down the unspoiled waves of Ireland there is still a lot left to be explored, potential for the waves we know to get better, and bigger, and the potential for average surfers, in this crowded world, to find a good reefs or sandbars that they can call their own for an hour or two.

Cover shot, Mullaghmore by Christian McLeod