Sometimes you dream about something for so long that there isn’t any chance that, when that thing finally happens, it can live up to your expectations.
This isn’t one of those times.
I’ve been dreaming about going to Ireland since I was a kid, and over the past few years as surfing has become such a huge part of my life, it became a part of my mental trip to Ireland. Telling people this almost always results in a furrowed brow and the question, “Is there good surf in Ireland?”
To say that Ireland is ignored by the surf community would be an inaccurate statement; to say that it’s an often ignored blip on your North American surfer’s radar is probably a reasonable assessment. Every so often we’ll see a great clip or photo from the Emerald Isle, but my guess is that if you polled 100 American surfers for their top 5 surf destinations, Ireland would infrequently appear in that list. It doesn’t exude the image of warm, tropical waters and bikini-clad beachgoers that most people associate with surf travel.
This is an advantage for those of us that do elect to take some time out of our travels to suit up and get in the water. Here’s a few numbers to crunch, brought to us by our friends at Wikipedia: Ireland has a coastline of about 1700 miles, probably over half of which is exposed to the swells churned out by the Atlantic, so let’s say 850 surfable miles (significantly more of the coast is probably surfable, but we’ll work with this figure). California also has a coastline about 850 miles. Ireland and Northern Ireland have a combined population of about 8 million, so if a quarter of the population surfs, that’s about 2 million surfers sharing those 850 beautiful coastal miles. That’s probably an overestimate, but again, round numbers are nice.
By contrast, California has a population of 38 million. If a quarter of those people surf, that’s 9.5 million people sharing the same amount of coastline. San Diego County and Orange County have a combined 6 million people, and everyone and their brother surfs.
Ireland is a place where the surroundings have a massive effect on how every moment feels. It’s a land of cobwebbed-castles, hearty meals and heavy drinks, and long, winding roads that often leave you alone for miles. And yes, it is a country of almost inexplicable greenness, especially to people coming from the brittle brown of summer in southern California. Ireland is old, but in a way that feels worn, wise, and rich, rather than decrepit. There is a moderate sense of incredulousness at any given time that what is around you could be real.
The coastline is no exception to this laundry list of adjectives. It is rocky and riddled with nooks and crannies, a weaving line that cuts aimlessly through the Atlantic in stark contrast to the relative straightness of the American west coast. Looking at the map or Google earth, a surfer is left to realize the untapped potential of point breaks that must be dotted along where the ocean meets the land. The beaches are vast, sometimes hundreds of yards long, and often greatly affect by the drastic changes in tide. Almost our entire trip, we had warm, sunny days (we were told the string of weather we had was of unparalleled luck compared to the last few years) and those beaches were often sandy white and with brilliant azure water that could have almost been mistaken for a Caribbean travel brochure.
This wasn’t, explicitly, a surf trip, so surfing had to be worked in when the schedule allowed it, rather than dictated by the availability or quality of the waves. When we landed in Dublin, hurricane Cristobal was sending groundswell to the other coast, promising surf in the 7-11 foot range in some places. Every morning, instead of my normal Surfline check, I opened MagicSeaweed and browsed reports from various places in county Donegal, my intended destination, and the rest of Ireland. Much of the trip we were traveling in the wake of good surf, missing a chance at the long walls of Inch beach by a matter of hours.
As we drove north along the west coast, winding atop the cliffs and across low coastal valleys, familiar sights began to appear but with a distinctly European twist. Instead of pickup trucks with longboards rested across the tailgate or short boards visible tucked into the back seats of cars, tiny European cars with board bags strapped to the roof began to pass by in the opposite directions. It’s almost comical to see a Nissan Micra with a 10 foot board bag strapped to the roof, it looks a bit like a vehicle ready to do a pole vault.
By all accounts, surfing is growing at a rapid pace in Ireland. There was a wealth of knowledge available online about where to surf and rent equipment (we didn’t have the space or money for me to drag gear from California over for just a day or two of surfing). Dozens of surf schools dotted seaside towns, and on the busiest of days it looked much like a scene straight from summer in La Jolla shores. It’s a much more community-centric affair; I saw an experienced surfer wrap up his session and head over to help the groms charging on softtops get into waves.
The day I surfed was one of the grayer days on the trip. The sun flirted with the idea of coming out from behind the clouds all morning, but decided to remain hidden for the most part. We drove up the coast from Sligo towards Donegal, stopping at the iconic Mullaghmore Head. A good number of the photos and video we’ve seen come out of Ireland over the last few years has been from this heavy, imposing spot. At low tide, the rocks burst out of the sea in a raw, intimidating pose. On the right swell at higher tide, though, this spot is a serious test of surfing acumen and flat-out guts.
Apparently, this is what Mullaghmore looked like just days before we passed through...
From Mullaghmore we drove to Bundoran just inside county Donegal to pick up equipment at a local surf shop. I was a little grumpy after checking out the Peak, an a-frame over reef right in Bundoran that, at the low tide that day, was basically 18” of water dribbling over the rocks. Patty at the shop assured me, as I picked up a 5/3 wetsuit, booties, and a bright yellow rental board, that Tullan Strand, a beach break a few minutes drive north of the Peak, was working and would definitely provide the opportunity to grab at least a couple of decent waves in the waist-to-chest high range. I was not just pacified but excited to pull up and discover that there were more than just a couple of waves rolling through that day, and I quickly pulled on the suit and headed down from the cliff.
From the cliff I could see that there were waves and a small crowd putting the waves to good use, but it wasn’t until I got down and started to cross the long, flat beach I really got an honest impression of the place. Tullan Strand is a bit like a mirror image of the OB Jetty, my regular spot, but with all of the grandeur and gusto of the Irish coastline. A solid lefthander sits in the shadow of a rock outcropping with wedgey windswell peaks popping up for the next hundred yards or so extending away from main break. On the paddle out, I watched several members of the crew sitting on the lefthander smash the wave to bits, a couple taking to the air on some of the better sections. I opted to sit on the peak one off the main left which gave me a fair vantage point of the best action as well as a decent shot at both rights and lefts myself.
To say it wasn’t my best session would be pretty truthful. At 5’10”, the board was longer than pretty much any of the surfboards I surf regularly, and I found my back foot too far out of position to turn more than a few times. A 5/3 is more wetsuit rubber than I’ve ever needed to wear, and coming from spending the last few months in trunks, I felt slow, heavy, stiff, and fairly disjointed both paddling and standing up on the waves, which had a steep enough takeoff that I took a couple of face plants from being too slow on the uptake. I’m sure the extra pints of Guinness I’d been knocking back for the previous ten days hadn’t helped either.
That said: it was an incredible session. The lineup was filled with smiles and more than a couple languages, identifying people from around the continent who had come to the island in search of surf. The view was incredible; I’m sure people in central California or the Pacific Northwest could relate to the rawness of the ocean meeting that kind of coastline, but it felt foreign to what I’ve grown accustomed to. There’s something mildly intoxicating about paddling out in a place that shares almost nothing with your own routine but feeling at home in the waves.
Despite lugging a few extra pounds of beer belly and wetsuit around, I managed to grab a decent number of waves over an hour or so, including a shoulder-high right whose first section I teed up for the kind of solid forehand snap that leaves you with a shit-eating grin when you stick it. I did eventually start to get a little tingle-y in the toes; the water was somewhere around the 58 degree mark, and with a slightly-too big wetsuit I was starting to feel the chill in my lower legs. It wasn’t anything that a pint of Guinness and a hot sandwich for lunch couldn’t fix, and I ended the day with a full belly but hungry for more of that same magic that made this session so incredible.
I’ve already started scheming on a return visit, properly equipped to chase waves up and down the coast. Until then, in a variation of an old Irish blessing, may the wind be always offshore.
A giant, massive thank you to my fiancee/traveling companion, who not only made time in our schedule so that I could surf, who not only sat around patiently while I went surfing, but took a good chunk of the photos that you see on this story. Talk about a fuckin' keeper.