It is common for those driving down the west coast of Ireland to feel as if they have escaped into a remote and idyllic part of the world. To one side, a picture perfect view of powerful waves crashing into the seafront, on the other, lush forestry with a vivid green background stretching for miles. But that tranquil spell is often interrupted by unexpected splotches of colour, as drivers find blurs of red, green or white whizzing by atop cars carrying another common but somewhat strange sight: surf boards.
Ireland may not be known for a beach bum culture or infinite sunshine, but its stunning coasts and world-class waves have made the island a star in the world of surfing. Professional surfers from all over the world travel to Ireland to take on its challenging swells, and the country has hosted more than its share of surfing championships. This island rested at the edge of Europe, one of the first land masses to be pummelled by the turbulent Atlantic, has a growing community of surfers who appreciate what Ireland has to offer.
Due to its infamously intemperate weather, Ireland doesn’t hold a history as a major surfing destination. However, low pressure systems in the Atlantic stir up brutal winds which help to create huge swells. Without any landmass to impede them, these swells land along the Irish coast, resulting in waves that can reach up to 12m high. With over 3,000 km of crenulated coastline, plenty of reef, beach and point breaks fringing the coast and opportunities for beginners and seasoned pros alike, the sport is riding a wave of recent popularity – all set against the backdrop of spectacular Irish scenery.
Surfing enthusiasts have known about Ireland’s northwest coast for years, located in a pleasantly volatile stretch of the Atlantic, making it the first port of call for any horrible storms brewing out in the ocean. Its position, as well as its rocky, serrated coastline, full of reefs and point breaks, makes it an ideal place for the sort of surfer who is looking for a good wave over a warm beach. The rugged coastal regions in the west and north, along with the southern Irish shore, revel in the powerful impact of the waves of the mighty Atlantic as they make their way toward the more peaceful shorelines of Europe, providing exceptional conditions for surfers from around the world.
In the past couple of years, the unbroken Atlantic swells off the coast of Ireland have caught international attention and are now seen as challenging as the famous big wave breaks such as Jaws off Hawaii, Mavericks in northern California, and Teahupoo in Tahiti. The sport certainly doesn’t spring to mind when most people visualize Ireland; the country is more likely associated with acres of farm land, grazing sheep and lively pubs. But its beaches have become increasingly populated by visitors, with surfboards in hand, looking to challenge themselves with some of the finest waves on offer. On the Emerald Isle’s west coast, passion for pubs, music, and surf culture collides. Though the water may be cold, the pubs and locals are always warm, serving up specialties such as Guinness and oysters to the tune of traditional Irish music.
The zenith of this growing culture is found in Donegal, in the small, picturesque town of Bundoran. This centuries-old fishing village catches just about any swell that steamrolls through the North Atlantic and onto a smattering of beaches and reefs that suit different levels of surfers. Heat is not something usually associated with Ireland’s west coast and therein lies the attraction of Bundoran; it is a place for real surfers. Here, breaks, peaks and waves take priority over the desire for a perfect tan. The town has become the de facto epicentre of Ireland’s surf scene, boasting a celebrated beach culture, offering multiple surf schools, and hosting yearly festivals dedicated to the sport. When National Geographic included Bundoran in their list of the top 20 surfing locations of the world they wrote that Ireland “should be on the bucket list of every surfer,” adding that “Bundoran should be the start of any surfing adventure on the Emerald Isle.”
Ireland’s most renowned big wave surfer, Richie Fitzgerald, hails from Bundoran and has represented Ireland at both World and European Championships. For Richie, the west of Ireland represents the ideal location for those looking to catch some waves. “I think the west of Ireland is the real Ireland. We have a fabulous outdoors environment with stunning coastline, beaches, surf, mountains, lakes and rivers. It’s an outdoor adventure playground paradise.”
Although the waves have always been here, surfing in Ireland has exploded in popularity of late, with Fitzgerald estimating that there are approximately 200,000 surfers dotted all over the country. He attributes the growth in popularity down to a number of things: for a start, the economic boom of the mid-90s allowed people to buy the necessary equipment, while people that had journeyed to places such as Australia or on student visas to America experienced surfing for themselves while abroad and were keen to keep up the hobby on their return home. Richie has seen surfing’s popularity surge over the years and while he admits that all of the reasons mentioned above are contributing factors, he maintains that the most important reason for its massive appeal here is, and will always be, the quality of waves on offer. It is not just the Irish that are taking to the waves. Now that the word is out, Bundoran and the bordering towns, with their punishing appeal and enticing promise of huge, storm-tossed swells, have become international surfing destinations.
Bundoran may have encouraged the surfing trend, but other beaches are hugely popular with Irish and international surfers alike and the sport has sparked the conversion of numerous seaside spots, from quiet villages to resort towns bustling with surf boards and athletes. Strandhill, in County Sligo; Achill, in County Mayo, and Tramore, in County Waterford, all draw locals, foreign travellers and “weekend warriors” to the waves – and each spot is surrounded by spectacular scenery, with tourist towns, cosy pubs and ancient ruins all within comfortable driving distance. For those seeking a stronger challenge, Easkey, in County Sligo, harbours a desolate beauty and decidedly tougher waves.
Videos of the large waves off the coast of Ireland are appearing on YouTube with more regularity, taken by diehard surfers who have heard the whispers about Ireland from the dedicated surfing community. New Yorker Kurt Rist has been surfing for over 20 years and has travelled the world seeking out the best waves to ride. He first visited Ireland in 2009 to surf at Mullaghmore and was so taken by the waves on offer that the surf instructor now spends six months of the year in Ireland riding the west coast swell. He has surfed all over the word, including Hawaii, Peru and Indonesia, but always chooses to come back to Irish shores for the winter.
For Rist, surfing is a form of meditation. “Your mind is completely empty, you’re completely focused on the present and everything else in your life disappears,” he said. “That’s what’s really cool about big wave surfing, because of the danger involved the focus is next to nothing. When you do catch the wave, it’s exciting, thrilling, scary and so gratifying.”
When one thinks of surfing they immediately visualize golden sunsets over tropical locations, the palm trees of Hawaii or the warm seas and roaring waves of Australia and California. But the cold and choppy waters of the Irish Atlantic have slowly become the lasting image of modern surfing. Surfers, both local and foreign, are finding out that those who seek to test themselves against the toughest waves must journey to the magnificent coasts of Ireland to experience surfing in all its glory.