Between a rock and a hard wave
It is not as if these men are escapists. They have bills to pay and inevitable family dramas. Half of them have become parents over the last few years. It's just that they have learned to prioritise what is important. Most of them have been lucky enough to surf in the world's dreamier locations - Bali, Hawaii, Australia, Tahiti - but they have known plenty of weeks and months of living hand to mouth as well. They lived in Ireland through the years when mad excess turned molten, but they were too busy with the waves to notice or care all that much. And now that the riches have all turned to dust, nothing much has changed for them. They never lost sight of what mattered to them.
Occasionally, Bill Keane will drive over to Riley's and peer over the edge of the cliff at the mayhem. There were years when Keane had the waves around Clare for himself and he is thrilled by the revolution that has occurred over the past decade. "That place is for the adrenalin junkies," he smiles.
"Those bodyboarders are like a different breed. They are out for a different thrill. Bodyboarding was kind of frowned on when I started surfing. There was this attitude that anyone could do it. So wrong. The things that Mickey and Dan do out there are bonkers. Not many can do it. And Fergal . . . he is the only guy in the country who can paddle into a wave in Riley's. They can all get towed in but paddling is different.
"I am mad to go there and look at what is going on but I am usually off somewhere else when there are good waves. It is way beyond my capabilities, so good luck to them."
If you want to see them up close at Riley's and have been told how to find the place, you have to be prepared to trek across a few fields that turn boggy in winter and walk through a herd of cattle that always look stunned with boredom. You have to jump a few watery ditches and climb a gate and then begin to walk across the long rocky ledge which is lethally slippery all year round but farcical in winter, when the surface freezes over. It is not the most inviting place to visit. Rock falls, from pebbles to boulders, happen regularly; the platform is strewn with smashed-up stone. About halfway across lie the dried-out hides of a horse and foal which fell from the headland a couple of years ago. The rock shelf has collapsed in the middle so you have to skip across a narrow ledge to get across to where the wave breaks. Most of them make that trek every time they come here, carrying their boards with them.
The wave at Riley's is glitteringly beautiful, and because it breaks so close to the reef it is exceptionally dangerous. Most of them have been scarred by it and still they trust that they will be all right there.
Cliffs of Insanity: A Winter on Ireland's Big Waves by Keith Duggan is published by Transworld