Stan Burns and the changing face of Irish surfing

Irish surf culture has changed dramatically since the Sligo man first started in 1960s


Years ago when Stan Burns decided to sell his surfboard, he let it go for 12 Irish punt on the condition that the proud new owner couldn’t sell it on for any more than that sum – and only then to another Strandhill local. It was Burns’s way of trying to make sure there were enough boards around for youngsters who had become hooked on surfing, just as he had.

Surfing has taken Burns to every country and coastline ever catalogued as exotic – he was the top-ranked judge on the professional world surfing circuit for several years – and he pauses for a long time before deciding upon the least likely and strangest place he has ever surfed.

“Well, I suppose . . . Ireland,” he says on a dazzling afternoon in Sligo town, half-surprised by his answer. “I mean, I haven’t surfed in Norway yet and I knew of a Norwegian surf team. It was made up almost entirely of firemen who worked at an airport north of Bergen. The place was closed for about nine months because of snow and ice but the guys were based there. So they would surf in Arctic waters through the ice season. But definitely, in the early days: Ireland.”

It makes sense. The concept of surfing in Ireland in the 1970s existed somewhere between delusion and wilful eccentricity, observed with amusement and scepticism by the mainstream – if it was noticed at all.

Burns grew up in Sligo town in the 1960s with an eye to the independent life. He gravitated towards music and basketball but could never really get surfing out of his mind after he happened to see a local, Brian Park, out on the waves in Strandhill one afternoon. He quickly moved to Strandhill so he could surf daily and so accidently became a member of the generation of Irish surfers who were there when the local coastline was, in Kevin Naughton’s perfect phrase, “an undiscovered gem”.

Naughton, a Californian who parents emigrated from Galway, is surfing’s equivalent of Neil Armstrong in that, through curiosity and perseverance, he sought out some of the world’s best waves before anyone else. He was never interested in any acclamation for that: he just wanted to surf new places. When he came to Ireland in 1971 to surf and study, he believed he had stumbled upon a greener and wintrier version of what the Californian surf culture of the 1940s must have been like, when a handful of enthusiasts had a breathtaking canvas of sculpted waves all to themselves.

The surfing fraternity is at once global and intensely local: it was no surprise to learn Naughton had ended up crashing with Burns during that period. They worked on a building site for a summer and “Kevin would be so keen to get the job done and get away to Strandhill that we’d end up working like mad to get finished”.

Overcrowded and spoilt

Even in the years when there were just a handful of people surfing in Ireland, the practitioners worried their go-to spots would become overcrowded and spoilt. For instance, when Ray Westby, a Sligo doctor and surfer, told Burns about a terrific break at Lislary, near Lissadel House, he managed to keep it to himself for several glorious months.

Burns spent all his life as a professional saxophonist, playing the show bands around the country. A few of the other musicians surfed and they began to notice he would vanish at the usual haunts. “So Peter Nielson, another surfer, got his father, Carl, a trumpet player, who also had a pilot’s licence, to get in the plane at Strandhill and follow my camper van to find out where I was going. And they tracked me to Lislary. The next time I went down, there was a crowd there. We deemed them crowds then – maybe 10 surfers.”

One of the reasons Burns will make it his business to be in Rossnowlagh for this weekend’s annual inter-counties competition and the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Irish Surfing Association is to acknowledge that fact. Surfing has made it. What began as a spontaneous reaction to the possibility of surfing shared by a number of individuals has tightened into a legitimate sports organisation.

Surfing in Ireland, meantime has become many things: still an escape, yes, but also a vital season-round business venture in various pockets of the Atlantic coast and an obligatory image on all official Irish tourist brochures and advertisements. It has long since shed its underground skin. Still, because Ireland’s seawater is forbiddingly cold in winter, it hasn’t become overrun or mired in commercialism either.

It still takes a certain kind of mindset to want to submit to the Atlantic, body and soul, on afternoons when it gets dark by four and the beaches are desolate and the wind can turn your knuckles raw in five minutes flat.

Burns happily describes himself as someone who believed he could surf pretty well until the first time he saw Kevin Naughton on a board. Still, he had an eye and an intuition for what constituted elite surfing and when he agreed to step in as a judge at an international competition in France, his intuition became apparent. Surfing competitions are judged by a panel similar to a boxing panel and Burns’ scores were habitually in accordance with the winners.

“It takes one hundred per cent concentration and fair play. They always say the best photograph is taken just before the best wipe-out. In other words, there is a brilliant image but they are about to get smashed. You can always tell the really good guy who will read the wave and paddle into it at the perfect moment so he can get the steepest wave. It can form into a wall and level out into a hill and then become a wall again and the best guys will read this really quickly and combine a series to suit that wave.”

Tom Curren, the revered Californian contrarian and three-time world champion, remains his vision of the perfect surfer.

“I liked the fluidity of movement and the artistic value of surfing even more than I liked the radical manoeuvres. I always loved watching Brian Park because he was like poetry on a wave. He just flowed along with it. Some of the surfers look as if they are having a war with the wave. All surfers look great in clean water on sheer faces and their image is almost reflected on the face of the wave. It is lovely to look at that. But when the sea is nasty, Tom Curren could go out and perform equally. Big waves, small waves, messy waves, untidy waves: he was the guy to look at. I liked to go out and see a surfer playing with the wave and looking at one with the wave, whereas Kelly Slater, an absolutely incredible surfer, went out and pulled out these jerky, radical, spectacular manoeuvres all the time.”

Scrupulous judge

Oddly, it was at a competition in which Burns had gone against the prevailing opinion that Curren had won which advanced his reputation as a scrupulous judge. Burns had felt a French surfer had just edged the American out. “Tommy was a great, great surfer but I felt he had won this one on his reputation. He was a huge name then and had all the sponsorship in the world behind him. But I didn’t feel he deserved it and quite a few others watching were of the same mind. And after that, I was asked to act as head judge at the European championships near La Rochelle. And I became a tyrant of a head judge when it came to fairness.”

By the time Burns finished as a head judge, he could pick a good surfer out and now there were plenty to be found at home. His sons Steve and Jonathan established themselves as surfers of national repute. Another Strandhill local, Colin O’Hare, won multiple Irish championship awards. Within two decades, the quality of surfing in Ireland had become unrecognisable.

In the past couple of years alone, Sligo’s Gearóid McDaid and Bundoran’s Shauna Ward have made strong impressions at European level. Ireland has become established as one of the premier heavy-wave destinations. The tension between competitive and spiritual surfing continues to exist. Brian Britton, from one of the pioneering surf families, acted as head of the ISA for many years and was actually the first to propose surfing as an Olympic sport: it will debut at the Tokyo Games.

His brother Barry, meantime, has been a conscientious objector to the idea of surfing as a competition all his life. On several occasions, the ISA splintered on the issue of whether they should be hosting major international surf competitions. It’s just a perspective and Burns can understand both arguments. To him, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can stop at any of the known breaks along the west coast this weekend and see people surfing while in Rossnowlagh, the water will be as busy as on the Twelfth.

“In a way, it has completely changed,” Burns says of Irish surfing now. “At the start, it was just a bunch of people in woolly sweaters trying to keep warm. It was anti-image. All that’s over. But you can still tell the kids who are going to keep surfing up from their first attempts. So I don’t know how much bigger surfing will become in Ireland. But I think that Irish surfers are going to get better all the time.” The annual Inter-counties Surfing Championships is being held this weekend at Rossnowlagh. The ISA 50th anniversary celebration event takes place tonight

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