Late in the winter of 2010, I took a trip to Clare to visit Mayoman Fergal Smith, who at the time was surfing monstrous winter waves all over the world with a kind of sinewy grace and intuition that set him apart from the crowd. This was during the time when the deep gloom of the recession, the bailout and the IMF dominated the national conversation.
A friend who lives in Liverpool said he knew Ireland’s goose was cooked the day he stood in line in a branch of An Post while on a visit home and overheard a lady tell the postmistress that she had “said a prayer for Hank Paulson” the night before. The afternoon radio talk was filled with the usual head-wringing and about a thousand references to AJ Chopra, about haircuts, about burning bondholders.
As we navigated a sheep trail which surfers use to descend the Cliffs of Moher, I mentioned this to Smith. At the base the water was glistening and the cove was like a heat trap. It was utterly serene. Smith raised his arms like a celebrant and grinned, and said: “You’re not going to be thinking about the banks down here.”
He was right, of course. A few weeks later, the sunshine had vanished, and Ireland was in the grip of what was said to be the coldest winter since 1947, with unverified reports that the thermometer had dipped to -21 in Straide, Co Mayo.
And while all of Ireland stayed indoors, it was heartening to know that there were a handful of people in various surf spots around Ireland who couldn’t wait to get into the Atlantic Ocean to get battered around in gargantuan waves to experience rapturous highs and hypothermic levels of cold.
Over the following winter I popped up and down to Lahinch to try and chart the progress of Smith and a group of like-minded pilgrims who were drawn to the wonderfully impractical idea of trying to frame their lives around their love of surfing.
Because money was the national conversation, the life that Smith and a group of others – his friend Mickey Smith (no relation), John McCarthy, Tom-Doidge Harrison, Bill Keane, the Skajarowski brothers – were pursing seemed to contain a message from which everyone – especially the putative leaders of our nation – could learn.
They had the usual adult duties, concerns and priorities – jobs, bills and very young children in some cases – but they also had this brilliant glorious opportunity for escapism all around them.
Mickey Smith, a Cornwall man who through an exercise in informal cartography discovered Aileen’s, the now-celebrated big wave at Moher, made a short film around that time,
Dark Side of the Lens
. It should be on the school curriculum as a lesson in individuality. It contains this phrase: “If I only scrape a livin’, at least it’s a livin’ worth scrapin’.”
Things change in the intervening seven years. Mickey Smith isn’t around Lahinch as much: he has spent the last few years recording and touring with Ben Howard as a multi-instrumentalist. Fergal Smith has become a father and, always environmentally conscious, figured he couldn’t really justify the carbon footprint sponsored jaunts around the world to surf waves in Fiji or Hawaii or Asia. He has let the sponsorships lapse and has set up an organic farming and seed-saving project near Lahinch.
When I last caught up with him, he was running in the general election under the Green Party umbrella. It struck me that he was precisely the kind of person Irish politics needed: young, highly articulate, ferociously energetic and hard-working and heavily engaged in his local community and at the very least of his cares lay the ambition to have the letters TD after his name.
He would probably have been the first goofy-footer in Dáil Éireann, and while he was once photographed surfing a wave containing a great white shark, several of his FF and FG brethren could probably regale him with similar tales of their own.
Of course, Ireland as a nation is great about moaning about the need for change while remaining deeply suspicious of actual agents for change. Smith didn’t get in, and you kind of feel he dodged a bullet: you’d worry Irish politics would wither his soul.
But it was brilliant to see Smith and the others (it would be wrong to describe them as "friends": they are friendly but their paths cross according to weather patterns and they lead such deeply individualistic lives that months probably go by when they don't lay eyes on each other) featuring in Between Land And Sea, a truly splendid film by Ross Whitaker which goes on release next week.
Whitaker traces a year in the lives of people whose lives have been shaped by the wilder moods of the ocean around Lahinch. Ollie O’Flaherty is at the forefront of a generation of surfers who came directly behind Smith. John McCarthy was one of the leading Irish surfers of his day ,and now runs a surf school in Lahinch and is a deeply committed Christian. Like Tom Doidge-Harrison, who works as a mining engineer in concentrated bursts so he can live at home and shape boards and surf, McCarthy is hitting the 40 mark now: both are wrestling with the reality that committing to these unreasonable surges of ocean water is a finite business but neither are ready to quit.
On one level the film is about surfing and the filmography (by Fergal Smith’s brother Kevin) at Aileen’s and the edgy, stone plateau named Riley’s is breathtaking.
Surfers are constantly being pulled by diametrically opposing forces: the commercial and the spiritual. McCarthy, in particular, is terrifically honest about this: how the ego – the want to make it onto a magazine cover – pales into nothing on those afternoons when it seems like you have the entire sea to yourself. “The moments when you are alone and it’s silent and its: What is life about? Who am I? Where am I going?”
Surfing has been unable to escape or resist its own hipness since the 1950s, and it has that instant appeal: what child when first seeing someone surf a wave- even terribly isn't going to think 'I want to try that'. And surfing lets you be whatever version of yourself you want to be. And on one level what Between Land and Sea is about is a cast of people figuring all of that out as they go about chasing waves.
But it is also about how a community lives and prospers. Lahinch was always a resort town, but whereas once the golf course was its primary draw, the past two decades have seen its gradual reinvention as a seasonal surfing spot.
Surfing has brought people into the town and townlands to make a life. Surf schools and cafes have sprung up, and in the summer months the town feels young and vibrant. There are similar stories in other coastal towns with surf traditions– Strandhill in Sligo, Bundoran and Rossnowlagh in Donegal, and others along the coast.
The slow decline of so many towns and villages west of the Shannon is the great unspoken Irish scandal. The life breathed into Lahinch didn’t happen through any government policy or by design: it happened because a loose confederacy of people found this place and realised that its prevailing feature – the sea– offered a multitude of wonders and a life experience which made the hardships worthwhile. And they just said: why not.