The Irish coastline is one of the most prolific and beautiful surfing backdrops in the northern hemisphere, if not the world.
Ireland. I don’t like going anywhere twice and the Emerald Isle has pulled me back five times now. It’s the crazy history around every corner. The spectacular beauty built on constant changes in the weather and a landscape that morphs into something altogether different around every bend. It’s the people, as warm as they were twenty years ago, before the euro and the marketing and the intense levels of tourism. And yes, it’s the surf. Even though it’s as fickle as it is perfect.
So, the ancient outpost of Europe drew me back once again in the beginning of April and this time, surf was not on the agenda. I was with my wife and our two teenage kids and we had an itinerary lined up through the week that required a lot of driving (left side of the road-holy shit!). I had surfed every one of my four trips prior with varying degrees of waves, so felt okay that I was letting this one go.
We landed in Belfast early in the morning, got in the car and pointed west towards Bundoran where we’d stay for two nights. Both my wife and I loved the town for different reasons—me for the waves, she for the views of the ocean and the easy access to the northwest. Have to say too that The Fitzgerald Hotel has become our sort of home away from home when we find ourselves in the town. Jerry and John do a grand job and I like to think we’re staying with friends more than anything.
We were all tired from the flight. I was fighting a sinus infection and a torn something or other in my chest. And the kids were hungry and restless. But we made our way across the country and were just a few miles outside of Bundoran, when I said, as a joke, “please don’t let there be waves, please don’t let there be waves.” The kids laughed. My wife laughed. I laughed. Then we wove through town and in view of The Peak-the perfect A-frame reefbreak that most of the town could see from their windows-and everyone stopped laughing. The Peak was on like Donkey Kong--double-overhead, peeling in both directions and clean. The wind was offshore, but howling at over forty miles an hour. I knew that if I could swing it, I’d get waves once the wind settled itself.
My wife looked at me and said, “You’re sick. Your chest is f’d. You’re not really thinking…”
I looked at her with as serious a look as I could muster and said, “I’ve got to do it.” It was the best Ireland surf I’d ever seen. “Besides,” I said, “I’m on meds for the sinus infection and I won’t be surfing the rest of the week, so I’ll give my chest a rest then.”
Not one of my best moments as a step-father. You generally want to reiterate rest to your children when illness or injury strikes, but there was no way around the fact that I was surfing. My wife knew it. The kids knew it. I knew it.
“You’re unbelievable.” Wifey said.
“Which is why you love me.”
“Where are you even going to get a board and wetsuit? Richie?” She asked.
Richie Fitzgerald is Irish surfing. While guys came before him, his pro-level abilities, amiable demeanor and big wave chops put a spotlight on Irish surfing that hadn’t existed before. In essence, he paved the way for the younger guys like Tom Lowe and Fergal Smith. He operates Surfworld, one of Ireland’s first surf shops, having opened way back in 1990. It’s located right on the main drag in Bundoran and has evolved into the source for everything a surfer needs.
Here's some Footage of Richie Fitzgerald surfing Mullaghmore
As usual, Richie greeted me with his warm smile and that cheery lilt in every Irishman’s voice. We chatted about the waves, the forecast and a bit about what he’d been up to. And within half an hour, I had a nice board under one arm, a good wetsuit draped over the other, a hood, booties, gloves and a keen understanding of spots. As I started to walk out the door, he said with another smile, “Oh, I see on the computer just now that the wind is supposed to die off shortly. Have fun and get your big wave pants on.”
An hour later, the wind died, the skies cleared and several guys paddled out to The Peak to be the first to tackle the escalating surf. I slid into the damp wetsuit, booties, gloves and hood in our room, which overlooked the break, kissed the wife, waved to the kids and trotted across the street into the water.
And then I paddled and paddled and paddled. The tide was high, so the normally exposed flat reef that cuts the paddle down to nothing was covered over in water, so it was a long, arduous back workout to the break. Once I got out there, I found a tight take-off spot, a few locals who had the place wired and couldn’t have been nicer and a few crotchety Europeans who kept their heads down. Hours into a trip that was supposed to be all about the road and the family, I found myself sitting in a beautiful line-up with double overhead waves that were producing long lefts and shorter, fatter rights. I didn’t surf my best on the borrowed equipment, but I couldn’t have cared less. I lasted a few hours, grabbing a few fun ones here and there, while dodging the bomber sets that usually caught everyone on the inside. The swell was getting noticeably bigger by the end of my session and, as Richie predicted, a few sets started to close out the lefts in what is a deep bay.
On Richie’s suggestion, I got up early the next morning and surfed alone at a perfect rocky right point that was shallower than my dog’s bowl. It took a few sets for me to figure out the right take-off spot, but then things got mechanical. I’d triangulate my take-off spot, trust it when the sets came in and then wait for the best wave of each set. As I drove off the bottom, the wave would find the tapered rocky bottom and line up all the down the point.
Ireland has some incredible surf spots. Here is an amazing set from the session.
A left fired off in lonely perfection across the bay, while another sped off around the bend at the top of the right I was surfing. Two ancient Viking towers stood guard on the shoreline of my private pointbreak, bookending the ruins of a manor house ensconced by a high rock wall. The sweet smell of burning peat blew across the farmer’s field I had traversed on the way to the ocean as the early morning sun lit the mountain range that stretched far behind the town. The only company I had were the cormorants diving for fish and the sheep on distant hillsides. It was silence, peace and unadulterated fun.
I snagged a slew of waves over a couple of hours and then figured I should get back to the family to start our road tripping. So, I grabbed my best wave in, picked my way back across the rocks, took one last look at the lineup and made my way directly back to Surfworld to return the gear.
It was the best initial twenty-four hours I’d had on any of my Ireland trips and I couldn’t imagine things getting better. Within an hour, I had scarfed down a huge traditional Irish breakfast (eggs, sausage, bacon, toast and a tomato), showered and was in the car, driving on the wrong side of the road and whipping clockwise through traffic circles (think about that for a second). By the end of our trip, we had travelled through much of Donegal, up into Malin Head and down the Antrim Coast. The swell poured in for three days and unbelievable lineups revealed themselves as reefbreaks, beachies and pointbreaks all along the stretches that faced the open Atlantic. Waves that are definitely on my radar for the future. Wow.
Ireland’s Sirens continue to call me and I’ll be back sooner rather than later. Its ancient stories, laced with endless waves and that Irish welcome, make me want to continually go back to make my own.
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|The Fitzgerald Hotel
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