This piece is from issue one of Go Wild Magazine. You can buy the issue here.
When you think of the World’s top surfing destinations, you immediately conjure up images of tropical idylls with golden sands, stooping palm trees and perfectly barrelling aquamarine waters. Hawaii, South Africa, Australia and Indonesia boast some of the biggest waves on the planet, as well as some of the most talented surfers. However, the West coast of Ireland, with its relentless thrashing from the Atlantic Ocean, has quietly become home to some of the best waves north of the Equator, and as a result, has churned out a slew of super-skilled adrenalin junkies. From the wild waves of Donegal to the perfect peel of Aileens and the beach breaks of Brandon Bay, the west coast of Ireland really is a surfer’s paradise. Lia Stokes catches up with some of the country’s best surfers to find out why the Wild Atlantic Way is so special to the surfing community.
When you’re named after a favourite wave of your surfer parents, it’s something of an inevitability that you’ll take to the water. For Easkey Britton, co-founder of the non-profit Waves of Freedom and impact travel company Sustain the Stoke, her whole life has centred on the sea and surf – she feels she was born to it.
“I was born of the sea, in it from before I can remember and the daughter of pioneering surfer parents from the North West coast in Donegal. A naming can be a powerful thing – my parents named me after their favourite wave, Easkey Right, and it comes from the Irish for ‘fish’! I’ve always felt more at home in the sea,” she says.
Despite experiencing her first wipe-out at just four or five years of age, Easkey couldn’t deny her connection to the waves, especially on the west coast of Ireland. According to Britton, it’s the combination of the atmosphere and untouched seascapes, as well as the gritty realness of the connection to the environment that draws people in.
“I have a longing for home when I’m away and what keeps me coming back is the sense of place. I was in the water this week; there were migratory birds heading off for the summer, the sun was lighting up Benbulben on one side of the bay and Slieve League on the other side, my hands still hurting from the icy water, and a pod of dolphins came in through the line- up chasing the fish, or maybe the waves,” the Donegal woman recalls.
“It’s all the more stunning because you’ve had to weather a harsh and pretty brutal winter. It’s the beauty and the power of the elements that gives you such a magical feeling here.” For any aspiring surfers or those interested in taking the plunge for the first time, Britton’s advice would be to take your time; “Because the coast can be so unpredictable and our weather can change so quickly, if you’re new to surfing, it’s best to make a good connection with a local surf club or surf school and book yourself in for a lesson,” she suggests. “It really takes time to get to understand the sea and how it works. That kind of ocean knowledge really helps you better connect with what might seem like a strange environment to be in at first. Remember that it’s really about how you feel – even before you get on a board just jump in the sea and have a play in the waves.”
Born and raised in Donegal’s best surf town, Bundoran, Richie Fitzgerald’s life is immersed in the culture of the sport. As owner of a surf academy, as well as a shop – Surfworld, Fitzgerald lives and breathes surfing. The Donegal native counts himself lucky to have been surfing for over 30 years, despite some early traumas.
“My first surfing memory is with my siblings – freezing, scared, crying holding onto my older sister on the beach and in the water mid-winter with grossly inadequate equipment. With such a mad start, I’m surprised I went back for more,” Richie recalls. “I do come from a seaside family where we spent a lot of our youth, down on the beach and in summer swimming, spearfishing, building sand castles and generally being beach kids – so surfing was just a natural progression really.”
Fitzgerald has travelled widely and surfed some of the most esteemed waves in the World, but he insists the ‘Cold Water Eden’ that is the west coast of Ireland, is second to none. As an Ambassador for the Wild Atlantic Way, Richie’s passion for the west coast and its bountiful beauty is palpable and says his favourite thing about it is the ever-changing moods of the weather and ocean conditions that affect how the coastline looks. “It never looks that same two days or even two hours in a row, so it always feels new and exciting to me,” he says.
What is it though, that makes it such a special place for surfers? “We really have a unique position, sitting on the edge of the European continent. We’re open to the full force of the North Atlantic, which is one of the most swell-rich stretches of ocean on the planet,” Fitzgerald notes. “With a constant conveyer belt of wave- generating low pressures passing by and a perfectly serrated coastline bursting to the brim with world-class quality reefs, coves, points, headland, beaches and big wave surf spots, there is a surf spot for every level from complete beginners to traveling professionals.”
Hailing from Lahinch, the surf capital of Co. Clare, big wave surfer and surf coach Ollie O’Flaherty rode his first wave at the tender age of four after his uncle Alan Coyne, brought him out on his body board. Without any encouragement, Ollie took to his feet and rode the body board in to the shore. He was instantly hooked.
Ireland was just coming around to the notion of surfing at the time and his uncle was one of the early adopters of the sport here. With some of the best waves in the country on his doorstep, it was inevitable that Ollie would be bitten by the bug too.
Although weather conditions on the west coast of Ireland aren’t always conducive to spending a day on the water, O’Flaherty insists that no waves in the world compare to those dotted along the coastline. “Ireland, for me, has the best waves in the world. Our only problem is the weather can change in a moment and no forecast is definite,” he explains. “It kind of makes it all the sweeter when the epic days arrive though!”
According to the Clare native, it’s not just the waves that make it a desirable location for surfers. “I have been to many places in the world to surf, but nowhere have I seen waves like in Ireland. The west coast is special because it’s so raw and the energy here is like nowhere else I know – amazing scenery with incredible waves, but also cool towns like Lahinch dotted around the west coast with great vibes and music. You just can’t beat it,” Ollie notes.
Unsurprisingly, the local surf spots are amongst his favourite. “We have a variety of waves here like nowhere in the world, big wave slabs like Aileens, to the perfect fun reef-breaks of Liscannor Bay and Spanish Point.” Since his first foray into the world of surfing, Ollie has become one of the country’s best known big wave surfers and has received international recognition with nominations for Billabong’s XXL Big Wave Awards. But what does an internationally-acclaimed surfer do in his down time? “My favourite thing to do after an epic day of surf would be hit my local pub Kennys for food, a Guinness and some great music!”