It’s not unusual for motorists on Ireland’s western coast to feel as if they’ve driven straight into a painting, bordered on one side by picture-perfect waves and on the other by fusing shades of green.
But that surreal spell is often broken by unexpected splotches of colour, as drivers find blurs of blue, yellow or white whizzing by — atop cars carrying another common but somewhat anachronistic sight — surf boards.
Ireland may not be known for a beach bum culture or limitless sunshine, but its breathtaking coasts and world-class waves have made the island a star in the world of surfing and windsurfing. Pros from all over the globe travel to Ireland to take on its challenging swells, and the country has hosted more than its share of championships.
“Ireland’s ideal for it because we have so much coastline,” said Easkey Britton, 21, a County Donegal native and surfing champion — who also happens to be named for one of Ireland’s premier surfing spots, Easkey, in County Sligo. “There are some really challenging breaks for really experienced surfers, but there are also really great beaches for learning how to surf.”
The damp, cold weather is another challenge for surfers. Even in summer, water temperatures in Ireland don’t average much more than 15 C in July and August (in winter they are more like 10 ).
“Ireland, like many surfing destinations around the globe, should have some special pre-planning,” said Alan Atkins, vice-president of the International Surfing Association.
He adds that April-May and September to November are the better seasons for surf, but if you’re planning on visiting in the cold months of the year make sure you have a full winter wetsuit — boots, gloves and hood. He recommends researching conditions at an Internet site like GlobalSurfers.com.
The sport certainly doesn’t spring to mind when most people envision Ireland; the country is more likely equated with whitewashed stone walls, grazing sheep and lively pubs. Britton, Ireland’s three-time national champion and current British Pro Tour champ, said she often gets funny looks when she turns up at international competitions with an Irish accent.
“When I travel, people still find it quite unusual to find that there’s a big surf scene in Ireland,” she said.
But for those aware of secret global surfing hot spots, more than a few can be found in Ireland, almost all along the western coast.
Bundoran, in County Donegal, lies in the island’s rugged northwest and is the de facto epicentre of Ireland’s surf scene. The town boasts a celebrated beach culture, offering multiple surf schools, yearly festivals anchored by surfing and establishments with names that seem transplanted from Bondi Beach or California, such as Turfnsurf Lodge.
Bundoran has hosted European Surfing Championships and the Quiksilver World Masters in 2001.
“We’ve gone from having only a handful of surf shops to about 30 or 40,” said Zoe Lally, development officer for the Irish Surfing Association.