Between a rock and a hard wave
Inch, Strandhill, Bundoran . . . Ireland's popular surf spots are well known. But where do serious adrenalin junkies go? In an extract from his new book,
KEITH DUGGANjoins a crew in Co Clare whose lives revolve around pursuing wild waves
YOU COULD hear the Lambeg crash of the wave before you saw them, lost in it. This was on a dazzling September afternoon at a patch of lunar coast in Co Clare, bashed by big emerald barrels of water.
You would never find the place without precise directions. It isn't a million miles from Doonbeg village but you have to make a sharp turn at such-and-such's unpainted bungalow and skip the first side road and look out for the school, and the narrow lane you eventually end up on promises to lead to nothing but a dead end. And in a way, it does: it brings you to land's end but the upward slope of the road obscures the sea until the very last second. When they are surfing there, you will find vans and cars not so much parked as ditched in the unkempt hedgerows, and not until you climb over the barbed-wire fencing and stand on the grassy bank will the wave show itself. It is so loud and spectacular and breaks so shockingly close to the vast rocky platform that it seems like a bit of a joke that nobody knew about it for so long.
The wave and the place have become known as Riley's. It was discovered in the last five years and only then because of the persistence of a roving Cornishman named Mickey Smith. He was out there among them on this day, although from the cliff's edge it was difficult to make out who was who. From the headland, you could see them in the water - black shadows on surfboards circling the wave.
"It won't be 'big' big, just good fun," Fergal Smith had promised on the phone the day before. The Mayo man is only 24 and has, over the last few years, opened a portal to big-wave surfing in Ireland and been the chief subject of the ethereally beautiful photographs which Mickey Smith takes of people surfing waves. The best of these images have never been seen; others appear in surf publications, and every so often one might show up in an Irish newspaper or magazine, but always, always they catch the eye because of their jaw-dropping clarity and beauty. And perhaps also because the child in everyone instinctively wants to know what that must be like: to glide through the canopy of an ocean wave. It looks like what it is: a form of magic. Smith's photographs are so detailed that you can see the expression on the faces of Fergal Smith or Tom Lowe or Tom Gillespie during those few seconds when they are in the heart of the wave. Sometimes they appear to be in a trance.
They are all hooked on this. A bunch of them, Cornish and Irish lads, fell into a kind of loose confederacy based on their mutual love of surfing waves and, in particular, the pure-ice big waves sculpted by Irish winters. They all live sufficiently close to the key waves in Clare - Aileen's, Riley's, Bumbaloids - to enable them to move from their kitchen sinks to the Atlantic in less than half an hour. They study online weather charts the way novices read scriptures and, given half a chance, they can switch into meteorological geek mode. Any idea that you might have about surfing, formed maybe from the dreamy classics of the Beach Boys or the zanier moments in Point Break or floral-scented travel articles about Hawaii, can be torn up when it comes to this group.
To begin with, it is not as if they go to the cinema or the pub together or hang out in any conventional sense. They are only a group because they congregate around the same patch of ocean whenever the swell dictates and because they were all present around the time when Aileen's, the wave beneath the Cliffs of Moher, was first surfed, in the autumn of 2006.