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Waxing nostalgic in search of surf along the coast of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way


    A surfer rides the waves off Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, in County Kerry. Over the years Ireland has gained a somewhat mythical reputation in the surf world as a wild and unspoiled place for exploration and crowd-free surf.

In the 1970s and 80s, California surfer and writer Kevin Naughton and photographer Craig Peterson traveled the globe “Endless Summer”-style searching for perfect waves.

When they arrived in Ireland, with its friendly locals and powerful, mostly empty waves, amid a landscape of stone walls and ruins, Naughton recalled, “there was a sense of disbelief,” an improbable feeling that perhaps of all places, on the often frigid island in the North Atlantic they had found what they were looking for.

“I’ve had more great solo days in Ireland than anywhere else,” Naughton said when I called him to research an Irish surfing trip.

Over the years Ireland has gained a somewhat mythical reputation in the surf world as a wild and unspoiled place for exploration and crowd-free surf. But you can’t jump on a flight and count on great waves, which explains why, along with the cold water, it has remained off the mainstream surf-travel circuit.

The prime Irish surf season is September through November when the water is warmest (relatively speaking, that is; it peaks in the low 60s) and storm swells stream out of the North Atlantic from hurricanes and early nor’easters coming off the eastern coast of the United States. Winter brings the coldest, biggest waves, with water temperatures dipping below 50 degrees, but it’s also the season that attracts big-wave experts from all corners of the globe.

It’s a capricious island, going from sun splashed and sparkling to dark and menacing in minutes. So the plan for a two-week trip in June was intentionally flexible, driven by weather and waves. The general idea was to drive from south to north along the Western coastal route known as the Wild Atlantic Way in a camper van, looking for surf.

My wife, Idoline, and I picked up a 24-foot Mercedes-Benz van at Shannon Airport, about two-thirds of the way down the west coast, and headed west in an unwelcoming drizzle.

To Inch Strand

The Irish call their beaches strands, and by midafternoon we’d made it to Inch Strand, in County Kerry, where we witnessed one typical Irish surf scene.

The end of the so-called Irish Troubles, the bloody conflict in Northern Ireland, and the advent of the Celtic Tiger, the great Irish economic boom, kicked off a surge of surfing around the turn of the century. Seaside beach holidays to the Irish coast began to include surf lessons, made easier and safer by soft foam surfboards and comfortable, warm wet suits. Big, well-organized surf schools, offering inexpensive (by American standards) lessons flourished.

Now, on any given day, hardy throngs of learners, most frequently in group classes, are braving the waves everywhere in Ireland. On this moody, cool day in June, with rain and sun in a full wrestling match, more than a dozen people splashed in the easy rollers at Inch when we pulled up, a scene we would see repeated at the long, wide beach at Rossnow­lagh, in Donegal, and Lahinch, in Clare.

The waves at Inch were ideal for first-timers but too gutless and small for our purposes. We moved on.

The colorful little commercial fishing and tourist town of Dingle is the surfing hub in the region. The Dingle peninsula itself has a jagged coastline of beaches and breaks within driving distance and with southern, western and northern exposures to catch any swell in the Atlantic.

Dingle town was hopping the Tuesday night we rolled in, with traditional Irish music at seemingly every drinking and eating establishment. At Lord Baker’s, which claims to be the oldest eatery in town, going back to the late 1800s, the proprietor, John Moriarty, regarded our surfing adventure with amusement.

“You’re not confusing Ireland for Hawaii, are you?”

A rumor of surf at Coumeenoole

“You might find something at Coumeenoole,” the owner of Dingle Surf, Ben Farr, told me when I stopped at his shop in the village for advice the next morning.

In a version of a story we’d hear often from expat surfers, Farr, a Briton, moved to Dingle 20 years ago. He came from his home in Cornwall to help his mother relocate. A few surfs later, he decided to stay. He took over a butcher shop and turned it into a surf shop and eventually opened a surf school. Business is thriving.

Coumeenoole is on the Dingle loop, 30 road miles around this western tip of Europe. It doesn’t get the billing of the Ring of Kerry, but the Ring of Dingle has all the history and breathtaking scenery, some half a million sheep and rumors of excellent surf. The road winds past thousands of years of Irish history, abandoned cottages and farms, hillsides divided into a patchwork of stone walls, late-Stone Age and Iron-Age forts, defensive ramparts and ditches.

Optimism was high as we rounded Slea Head and Coumeenoole came in to view, a white-sand cove amid the cliffs. The sun was high, and the wind was light. Not a surfer in sight, only a handful of beachgoers. A tiny wave peeled across a sandbar. It wasn’t much, but we parked, unloaded and stroked out into the water to catch a few. I could see how on a day with some real swell this place might deliver dream surf. But sparkly and pretty as it was, the waves were barely waist-high, and after a few rides we joined the nappers on the beach.

Looking at Aileen’s

One of Ireland’s reputations in the surf world is for big, menacing waves, among the most terrifying surf on Earth. Surfers from everywhere come to test themselves against the Irish monsters. “Slabs” as the locals call them — breaking so big, so hard and so fast that you have no choice but to ride inside the massive breaking “tubes,” the perilous interior pockets of a wave. “Slab hunters” make up a small, nervy subset in the surf world, and Ireland has its share.

One of these breaks, Aileen’s, pitches directly into the dramatic and moody Cliffs of Moher in Clare. Locals had eyed the spot for years before a group summoned up the courage in 2006, scrambled down a narrow cleft in the rocks and paddled out. John McCarthy, who runs a surf school in nearby Lahinch, was among them. He remembered a friend telling him the spot was so treacherous and complicated that it would become “a career.” Which it has been for a few surfers.

“Down there.” Irish surfer and filmmaker Kevin Smith, perched on a narrow promontory over the ocean, pointed at a spray of white water some 500 feet below at the northern end of the cliffs. A tiny track snaked down out of sight to a rocky sliver of shore. We had met Smith in nearby Doolin. “That’s the paddle out.”

There wasn’t anything rideable in sight, but I tried to imagine it, the half-hour walk and hike down to the boulders only to plunge into an ocean throwing waves the size of houses onto the cliffs.

Remarkably, no surfer has died at Aileen’s, although the local Coast Guard has been called in numerous times to retrieve stranded and injured surfers, both by boat and helicopter. In some cases, helicopter crews have had to lower cages to snatch surfers trapped between the violent sea and the cliff wall.

“The first time we scrambled down the cliff and paddled out I remember I was scared. It wasn’t really my thing,” Smith said. “But Fergal was really into it.”

Fergal, Kevin Smith’s brother, is one of Ireland’s most respected and talented wave riders. Aileen’s was a proving ground.

After a number of years traveling the globe surfing as a pro, he had an epiphany. He became a farmer and hasn’t stepped on a plane in more than five years, his brother said.

“We have all the waves we want right here,” Kevin Smith added.

I was beginning to wonder.

Spanish Point, Doolin, the Peak — all flat

On the way north we passed all the known breaks, Spanish Point and Doolin, in Clare, and, later, even the celebrated Peak, in Bundoran. All were flat. We also passed endless other possibilities, beaches and rock reefs that clearly, on another day, could be a surfer’s dream. In a van, with time, Naughton had been right: it is beyond belief that such an accessible, stunning coastline, so open to good surf, remains so unspoiled and un-surfed.

The surf wasn’t cooperating, but we found consolation in the camping, the history and the natural beauty.

Ireland, from its ruins and cliffs to its sky above, is a spellbinding interplay of lightness and dark, like the Irish story itself. In the village of Ballyshannon in County Donegal an inconspicuous plaque on an old wall in a sun-splashed flowery churchyard marks the burial ground for hundreds who died of disease and starvation during the Irish potato famine in the 1800s. The vestiges of British rule and Irish nobles, forts and castles, dot the landscape, along with stone dolmens, built thousands of years ago, but for what purpose and how remains a mystery.

We’d obtained a booklet of campsites, places with electric and water hookups, and toilets. But as it turned out we camped on remote headlands and beaches every night, for free and almost always alone. Much of western Ireland remains remarkably wild and, except for the height of summer, with a little effort you can find blessed solitude.

‘North Swell Tomorrow’

“There’s a north swell in tomorrow and Friday. North swell will light up an area called Easkey in County Sligo.”

We’d begun to despair before Dylan Stott’s text arrived. Surfing has, at its core, tension, tension that builds every time you go to the ocean and find it flat and bleak and pointless, tension that builds through waveless spells and ragged gales, until that magical convergence: swells from far away storms meeting just the right winds at the coast. And, then you, with perfect timing, meet all of that on a surfboard. The indescribable magic of these moments was more powerful before the predictability of online surf forecasting and surf resorts. But you’ll find it still, traveling an unfamiliar coast in a van.

A surfer originally from Southampton, N.Y., Stott showed up in Bundoran in 1999, inspired in part by the Irish surfing scenes in the cult surf film “Litmus: A Surfing Odyssey.” His luck was better than ours: The surf was on, big time. That’s all it took. Stott would make Ireland his home. He went to college in Dublin and in his spare time joined the ranks of a crew of local surfers, expats and Irish, whose exploits in giant Irish surf are the stuff of movies and magazine covers.

Eventually, he married and settled in Bundoran permanently in 2006 where he works as a writer and a teacher. He and his wife live feet from the ocean — facing the fearsome Pampa surf break — and amid what is quietly described by those who know as one of the most wave-rich coastlines (from Enniscrone in Sligo to Rossnowlagh in Donegal) on the planet.

Stott and I connected through the New York surfer grapevine. Following his breadcrumb trail of texts, I found a narrow lane through a clutch of barns and farmhouses to a cove. It was a near windless afternoon, with head-high waves breaking over a smooth limestone ledge. On my scale it was excellent. For Stott it was an average practice day, so he surfed his tiny board with the fins removed for an additional challenge.

In the lineup with us was only one other surfer, Paul O’Kane, an Australian who’d come to Ireland 20 years ago for his honeymoon and, like so many others, stayed. Starved for it, I stayed in for hours. A contingent of friendly locals rotated through. Ireland is so far north that when I quit it was close to 10 p.m., the sun still just above the horizon. We had dinner, slept right there and went at it again the next morning.

The swell lasted four more days. Between shifts in the wind and downpours we got our fill on that north coast. We moved our camp to near the ruins of the thousand-year-old Rosslea Castle on a grassy bluff overlooking the two main breaks at Easkey, our only company a family of Germans who’d ferried over in their own van.

In quaint little Easkey village we joined the locals at McGowan’s pub for a Guinness and ate nearby at Pudding Row, a hip little award-winning restaurant and bakery provisioned from local farms.

On the last morning, camping at a beach an hour from Shannon airport, I rose in the predawn to catch a few fading rollers. Alone, with my pick of fun, glassy waves, not another soul in sight, amid miles of beach and dunes, it felt like a throwback to another time when surfing was in its infancy. Surfing in Ireland can feel that way.

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