Dylan Stott looks into a curious, and worrying, phenomenon spreading across South Donegal, the disappearance of the grom.
On the small days over the reefs there is no tribe of heckling groms. No punk kids stuffing older surfers. Is this a problem? Is it a concern that the youngest surfer from town is no longer a teenager? Where are the school kids? How come the small perfect days aren’t infested with half-pint shredders? Is it wrong not to have to tell squeaky little kids to stay out of the way? Is it bad that we, in this not entirely unpopulated area of South Donegal, don’t have to deal with the worry of groms following us out to waves of serious consequence? Yes it is.
The fact is, we need those groms. We need them to remind ourselves of what we once were. You were not always the mature ocean warrior you are now. You were once a grom. You got hassled by the older guys and head high waves once scared the crap out of you. Out of paternal love, the older surfers saw something in you that reminded them of a younger self. You’re hassled and guided and set on a path. A long way down that path you will dream of this youth. Without groms we grow old too quickly. Groms show our well-used minds and bodies new life and new ways to grow. We need groms to help us clean up the ocean. Who else is more likely to care than a surfer? Who else is more likely to stay in their job-dry county, which ranks amongst the poorest in Ireland?
In South Donegal, we have a severe grom shortage. In other coastal locations in the western world we would be dealing with a town teeming with surf rats. Lineups would be clogged with mini-tikes, all competing to out-air each other.
In South Donegal, we have a severe grom shortage. In other coastal locations in the western world we would be dealing with a town teeming with surf rats. Lineups would be clogged with mini-tikes, all competing to out-air each other. I’ve been to Cali. I lived in Hawaii. Even in New York there are tons of little guys with long bleach blond hair sporting all the brand names and talking like Jeff Spicoli. If I lived in another coastal town this might be an article calling for a cull.
When I was in high school I often came in late with wet hair, sandy feet and a dripping nose. There was a crew of surfers in school, and their acceptance of me made school better – the boys would put a quarter in my hand at lunch to go to the pay phone in the hallway and call the local shop’s report. Some of my teachers surfed. When I wasn’t in class they knew exactly where I was.
When I was a grom, we were far from wealthy, but pops bought me a board and suit and got me to the beach when he could. If nobody could drive me, I’d bike it. Six miles. Older guys would see me with a board and pick me up. In the water the same guys would paddle over to me, yell at me, snake me. Then they’d buy me a sandwich or a slice of pizza. I learned about pecking order. I could get around most costs, and that most important element, something I didn’t even know I needed, was already there – surf culture.
Now I’m a school teacher, filling for local schools in the south of Donegal. The surf within a six-mile radius of this school is usually really good. In New York, we would have killed for just one of the many quality waves in the area. Here, they mostly go unsurfed. The crowd at the main reef break in town is both growing in size and getting older (as more East Coast city surfers are infiltrating the lineup), but there are no local kids climbing the ladder to the more challenging reef breaks. If you see teenagers they tend to be from other countries on a surf trip. The last of the Bundoran kids go out and murder it in the waves, but they’re not really kids anymore. Conor and Cian, the youngest shredders from Bundoran, are twenty now. They surf the heaviest reefs in the area. You could hardly call them groms. Easky Britton has a PhD. Nicole and Mikey Morgan now live in Australia. That leaves a huge hole in the population of local surfers under the age of eighteen.
The students in my classrooms are not dreaming of landing that air in front of all their friends. They are not doodling absurd waves in their books. They are dreaming of the football pitch, the stage with fans, the pages of magazines, or just a well-paid job.
The students in my classrooms are not dreaming of landing that air in front of all their friends. They are not doodling absurd waves in their books. They are dreaming of the football pitch, the stage with fans, the pages of magazines, or just a well-paid job. Most of them have surfed. Most know that there is surf in the area. But very few younger teenagers know how wave-choked this area is. Waves I could only dream of as a fifteen-year-old, waves that you draw on your schoolbooks – are right down the road.
I was lucky at their age, as I am now. As were most of you, as are most of you - lucky enough not only to live within striking distance of some rideable waves, but also to have had the structure of surf culture to make you want to do it again and again. Saoirse McDeevitt, a student at Coláiste Cholmcille Secondary School in Ballyshannon, says, “it is hard to get lifts to and from the beach. I wish I could go surfing everyday. My parents do triathlons so they swim in the sea, but they have zero interest in surfing.
You and I were lucky. We had older brothers, older friends and parents who surfed. Your parents were your first and most likely your biggest sponsors. Surfing friends and family help to ground the electricity that is a grom’s energy. If you surf well, as a grom you most likely have had a solid structure of heroes to look up to and guide you.
Maybe you think surfing doesn’t need any social structure. Ever stood alone on some lonely part of the coast and watched a big and heavy wave – knowing full well that if you surfed it your session would go unsupported and unseen by peers of any sort? Whether you go it alone or walk away, you are aware of the necessity of a support structure in surfing. In the absence of structure, it is rare that a grom has the motivation to make the giant leap from standing up on a foamy on the beachbreaks, going straight - to sitting in the lineup over the reefs with the big boys on a short board.
Leo Brennan, third year at Coláiste Cholmcille, clarifies: “I live near the sea, but I wouldn’t spend or save money to go buy a surfboard. I think there is more publicity towards things like GAA and soccer and rugby. You don’t walk through the streets or turn on the TV and see an advertisement for the best surfer of the largest surf competition. There is nothing putting the thought of surfing in your mind or inspiring you. If teenagers surfed with other teenagers their own age it would push them and give them confidence to surf. There also needs to be more local surf competitions for more publicity and bring some competitiveness to the sport, which is attractive to teenagers.”
The way Irish teenagers think about learning to surf is different than the way I did. The process of learning to surf here is more like getting qualified to go skydiving.
Down the coast a bit, in Summerhill College, there is a defined teen-age community of surfers. Gearoid Mcdaid is a student there, Irish National Champ. Conor Flanagan, has inspired a whole new crew of bodyboarders there. Having a living, breathing hero going to your school is culture enough. It gives the kids in the years below something tangible to look and live up to. Without anybody to look up to in surfing, kids in the Bundoran will keep their attention focused on past activities that have brought fame to local people. This is a music and G.A.A. (Gaelic Athletic Association) town. Rock’n’Roll specifically. Rory Gallagher was born here. Guitar legends Johnny Gallagher and John Kane still play local pubs. Kids here are born into families that spend their nights playing and singing songs. The level of musical talent in this area is akin to the level of surf talent on the North Shore. The leap from being a talented local to a professional is not that big. Nearly half of my students aspire to be professional musicians.
G.A.A is a prominent and proud organisation. Similar to Little League Baseball in America, it is hyper-competitive. Irish dance is also popular here – and fiercely competitive for early teens. Football is only slightly less popular here than in Dublin. Jodie Fox says, “I don’t surf because although I would love to surf, the camps during summer around Bundoran are far too dear so I can’t learn. I already have a wetsuit and transport, but the lessons are far too much right now. I will learn sometime. I love the water and the sea and can’t wait to learn.”
The way Irish teenagers think about learning to surf is different than the way I did. The process of learning to surf here is more like getting qualified to go skydiving. You need to have a certain number of lessons with an instructor before you go off and do it on your own. In Ireland, people don’t really rock up to the beach and give it a go. That would be like stuffing a parachute into a backpack and jumping out of the plane. Getting swept out to sea in the north of Ireland often has the same effect as hitting the ground at terminal velocity. The way the way I learned to surf—the here’s my board have at it way my dad introduced me to—would in Ireland, be considered insanely cavalier.
On this exposed coast the conditions change so rapidly you have to have years of experience just to not to get in trouble. There are 15ft+ tides. Every year several inexperienced swimmers and fishermen are lost on this stretch of coast. If the process of learning to surf did not have the rigid structure the surf schools currently employ, some of those lost every year would be beginner surfers. Safe as learning through lessons may be, this is essentially what people from warm climates do when they go skiing. They go once a year or so and they get lessons until they are good enough to go down the intermediate slopes on their own. But no matter how many lessons you get, you’ll still left in the dust by local mountain kids who have been hiking and skiing with their friends from an early age.
Shannon O’Donnel of Coláiste Cholmcille says this: “lack of money and equipment would not be an issue for me. Luckily my parents are very supportive of everything I pursue. I have always been meaning to try surfing, but the lack of people that surf in my area has been the main factor in why I haven’t started. If I started surfing on my own then I most likely would not get as much out of it as I would have if I had my friends by my side. However, I could have made a complete new bunch of friends if I just started on my own. That really makes me question whether I should start surfing now."
There is a group of kids with interest – that have the potential to skip classes on the offshore days and doodle senseless barrels in library books during maths. What they are lacking is the surf culture that is present in other parts in the world. That culture needs to be created. We need those kids. We need them to keep the spark of surfing going. Help keep the oceans clean, help keep marinas and hotel complexes from ruining the coastline. We need them for entertainment – who among you hasn’t giggled at the sight of a trembling grom with dinner-plate eyes out in waves too big for them. Who hasn’t laughed as a grom missed a duckdive or bailed a takeoff.
lack of money and equipment would not be an issue for me. Luckily my parents are very supportive of everything I pursue. I have always been meaning to try surfing, but the lack of people that surf in my area has been the main factor in why I haven’t started.Shannon O’Donnel, Coláiste Cholmcille Secondary School
But most of all we just need them. We need the kids to stay. Ireland is losing its young people. The talent and brains are leaving to better paid jobs around the world. If they surf, the waves might just be enough to keep them here.
There are other towns like this in Ireland and scattered around the world. This town, while having a strong and ancient culture for music and sports, is struggling with this relatively new sport of surfing, and this is after it caught on with the generation that grew up in the eighties and nineties. They grew up and there are none to replace them. With the regulated surf lesson system that teaches kids how to do it, more kids than ever have been surfing, yet there are fewer groms in the lineups. I’m all in favour of the safety of this regulated surf lesson system, but it is increasingly apparent that it is a system designed after a skiing lesson. You’ll rarely see a ski lesson teach mountaineering, after all, you don’t need to know about the mountain to sit on a chair going up and slide on a trail going down. You don’t need to learn about the ocean to slide down a wave. The next generation of surfers in South Donegal are in place and ready to go. But they are very busy. They don’t have access to great gear. They just need a little more support. A scaffold. Like we had. If you help you’ll smile like I do when some young super grom rises through the ranks of your local. You’ll realise how powerfully important is the stoke of a grom.
Words by Dylan Stott