The waters and the wild
SURFING:Keith Duggan weaves a tale of hope, friendship and community
Cliffs of Insanity By Keith Duggan, Transworld Ireland, 272pp. £14.99
I GREW UP and learned to surf on the northwest coast of Ireland at a time when surfing was still mostly considered a lunatic pursuit, and it was certainly not something you could make a living at. But change was in the air. Wetsuits improved for colder climates, and information technology and advanced surf forecasting created new possibilities. By riding heavy waves a few brazen souls began to show the world Ireland’s potential as a surfing destination. Lifestyles began to change in Ireland’s golden era of ridiculous wealth. People had more time to enjoy themselves, take breaks and head to the beaches and seaside towns where surf schools were rapidly springing up. It was no longer a pursuit reserved for lunatics; surfing had joined the mainstream.
Keith Duggan’s book is further evidence of the growing popularity of surfing in Ireland, but it wasn’t always so. There was a time, captured in the writings of the maritime historian and political activist John de Courcy Ireland, when Ireland had turned her back on the sea, yet even then a few brave souls with boards under their arms were heading into the unforgiving Atlantic surf.
Duggan, a sportswriter for this newspaper, chronicles the history and evolution of Irish surfing very engagingly. As with the old Irish art of storytelling, Duggan gives voice to the characters he meets so that we can experience surfing in Ireland through their eyes. These surfers live on the fringe, inhabiting that space between the rock and a hard wave, where the sea meets the shore, hurling its power and might at the land, carving its story into the rock. The identity of these surfers is also shaped by the waves they ride. They are driven by a passion to pursue a challenging vocation, one that is raw and unglamorous, set against the icy waters of the Atlantic.
The waves, too, are given an identity by the surfers who ride them; given names and characteristics, each with its tastes and needs. Ireland’s noted position on the world stage of big-wave surfing is driven by the performances of a small but dedicated band of surfers pioneering waves previously thought untouchable.
The book explores the relationships between the members of one such tight-knit group of surfers, mainly based in Co Clare, whose lives are shaped by the wildness of the Atlantic. The setting for much of the action is the Cliffs of Moher, those 200m “cliffs of insanity”, and the otherworldly surf break Aileen’s, or Aill na Searrach, at their foot.
The story is largely centred on two main characters who have done much to progress Irish surfing: Fergal Smith, a young Mayo man whose talent and passion for big-wave riding have earned him an international reputation, and Mickey Smith, a dedicated waterman from Cornwall who discovered Aileen’s and whose stunning surf photography of Ireland’s seascape has captured the energy of the sea in a way not seen before. Ultimately, Duggan weaves a story of hope for an island nation on its knees. The story is set in a time when Ireland’s youth are abandoning their windswept homeland in the North Atlantic, swapping it for far-flung places like Australia, the sunshine and “surf capital” of the world. This band of surfers remain steadfast, however, and the story weaves around their pursuits in their wild Atlantic playground.
Duggan does not glamorise and is quick to point out that this “playground” can quickly become a battleground. The book is full of close calls and bone-crunching injuries, battling bitterly cold elements and near drownings. Everyone has their scars, and all it takes is a moment’s hesitation between the inhalation and the exhalation. As one of the surfers, Tom Doidge-Harrison, notes, “you have this moment of glory followed by pain quite rapidly. That’s how it goes, isn’t it?”
All too often surfing is portrayed as the stereotype of lazy days spent in the sunshine, cruising tropical waves in a showy display of masculine prowess. This book holds up a mirror to the reality of surfing and the sea in Ireland, highlighting the way the ocean can take as well as give. All those connected to the sea know it as a source of such pleasure and also unimaginable sadness.
Duggan presents a rare and intimate window into a little-understood world. The ocean and the art of wave riding run so deep in our veins that when you ask a surfer to describe what it feels like we struggle to put it into words. Surfers are caught in the moment of it all; it is an intense feeling, a sensation, not some abstract concept or notion.
Duggan is uniquely positioned as an “outsider” looking in, and he captures what it is that drives these surfing souls, describing it as “an elemental pull”. It is as if surfing has unintentionally become a coping mechanism for life’s ills, instilling virtues of respect, patience, commitment, discipline, joy and, in the context of this group of surfers in Co Clare, and perhaps the rest of Ireland, the importance of friendship and community.
Ireland’s surf culture remains unique despite the rapid change and commercialisation of the sport. Although the surf is becoming increasingly crowded, etiquette and mindfulness are still held in high regard, and it is the role of the older generation and those held in high esteem to pass these values on.
Because they were following their passion in life, the lives of these surfers remained unchanged by the so-called Celtic Tiger and remain relatively unchanged by its collapse. Mickey Smith describes it in his short film Dark Side of the Lens as “living a life worth scraping”. Despite the almost romantic sense of freedom it gives, this lack of security, Duggan says, makes its own demands; as Smith notes, it is both a blessing and a curse “Most folk don’t even know who we are, what we do or how we do it, let alone want to pay for it.”
Duggan’s book heralds a new era for Ireland in which, perhaps, the way out of the madness lies in turning to face the sea once more. As a surfer, I was enthralled and felt that tugging sensation become an urgent call to get back into that wild Atlantic myself. As an Irish person it gave me hope, pride and a hefty respect and awe for the boldness of this way of life and the individuals who are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible by simply doing that which they value most in life.
Waves have been crashing on our shores since time immemorial, and we are just passing through.