a month spent Surfing the west coast of ireland; fireplaces, cold water and precious moments
It had always been on the cards really, even if we hadn’t admitted to ourselves yet. We had always known that some part of our surf journey was going to bring us to Ireland. The west coast of Ireland is where I spent my all my childhood summers and is where, 15 years ago, I first touched a surfboard. It was already part of my long, extremely slow and undulating surf story, now it was to become part of Ben’s as well.
Leaving Portugal was extremely hard. So hard in fact that I have not been able to write about it until now, months later. We were leaving behind the frameworks for a fantastic life. Hell, not just the framework. We were leaving behind a beautiful country, routines we had spent months developing, surf like we had never experienced and most importantly, beautiful friends with whom we had shared so much.
What lay ahead was going to be different, of that we were sure, but everything else was relatively unknown. We headed for Co. Mayo in the west of Ireland, the county with the largest coastline and somehow the least tapped on the tourist map. This is a land I know well, the rugged scenery unchanging, a timelessness that speaks of mystical eons gone by. I love this land. Coming here feels like home, despite never having been such. When it is bright this place sparkles, the sea glistens like a Caribbean island, the green is luscious and vibrant, the sheep are polished white specks on endless stretches of hillside. When it is rough and wild you feel nature’s power, unforgiving and dangerous. The sea turns slate grey frothing with white, the wind carries everything away, the sheep huddle in ditches for shelter.
Ireland is the cliché you always think it will be. People are inordinately friendly, and as we pull up to the beach for our first surf we are greeted with smiles and nods from the locals. The spot is a beach break, with some strong currents that run parallel to the shore but most surprising to me, the waves are small. Small, but oh so cold. Shockingly cold.
I did not think Portugal was particularly warm, but as I dive underneath the first wave in Ireland my brain lights up with pain as an ice cream headache screams into being. It is almost disorientating the first time, it is so utterly unexpected. Surf hoods and 5mm furry lined booties are promptly bought.
Learning to surf in Ireland takes a level of perseverance that is probably comparable to the Scandinavian surfers of Norway and Iceland. There may be no snow, but the beating wind is a constant threat to the wave quality and I cannot begin to imagine how cold winter surfing must be. We were there a month in late spring, where we were treated to exceptionally bright weather, even if the temperatures rarely rose above 15 degrees centigrade. At least three times a week we were able to go surfing, and with our improved equipment we could handle sessions that stretched close to the two hour mark.
Wind was always the biggest threat to the surfing, and while we did paddle out on the windier days, we found ourselves being blown all sorts of ways while out. I do not think I could have surfed Ireland without the time and confidence building that took place in Portugal. The lineup sometimes consisted of the two of us and maybe one other person. We had the choice of waves, but being in the blustery open Atlantic virtually alone requires some nerves of steel.
Then we made a friend. Suddenly the surfing felt easier, more relaxed.
The lineup in Ireland is what you think it will be – locals sharing their waves, an atmosphere of fun. People do not rely on good conditions to go out, you take what you get or you would never go. This means that when it is good, it feels even more exhilarating, but when it is average, or blown out, or messy, every wave you catch is a bonus. There is no pressure to perform here; people are, as they say, having the craic. It’s nice.
Life here is simple in the best of ways. This is a place for souls to heal, for breathing clean air and contemplating fireplaces. It is a place to slow down, sometimes uncomfortably and take in what is happening around you. People here have intimate connections with their land and innate abilities to have fun. I understand why people come and never leave. The wholesomeness of everything is intoxicating.
Having to read the surf forecasts again, to run surf checks and learn what conditions suited the spot best was an added element to the Irish surfing. Going out on our own gave us a huge level of autonomy from which we learned immensely. A lot of surfing in my experience comes down to confidence, and succeeding in doing it alone boosted ours.
There are of course spots in Ireland that are more consistent, that have bigger waves or more high performance waves. They are also busier, although I suppose it would depend what your measure of busy is. Yet surfing the relatively unknown beaches of the Wild Atlantic Way must be one of the most exhilarating ways to pass a holiday, or indeed a life. You are not guaranteed good weather, no matter the season. You are not guaranteed good waves, and you can be sure the water will be cold. Somehow, despite some of the fundementals of surfing being tempermental at best, a surf holiday here is unlikely to be something you ever forget. The vastness of the landscape and the warmth of the people leave an imprint. And the water will quite literally, take your breath away.