Ireland, the emerald isle, poetic and yet accurate. I have been taking trips to Ireland and surfing for the last 15 years. In that time there have been huge changes over there, the fragile peace that has come to the North, the prolifereation of road building and infrastructure bought about by European Union funds, the rise and fall of the Celtic tiger, the huge amount of house building. Despite all of this, what draws me back year after year, and what stays imprinted on my eye lids is the perfect isolation and the waves !
I have explored the coast from Kinsale, round to Brandon Bay, Lahinch, Bundoran, the Bloody Foreland and over to Port Rush, but North West Donegal keeps calling me back. On this trip I decided to take the stand up paddle board, and it proved to be the best choice I could have made. The swell forecast was off the scale, however the howling off shore wind had dampened the excitement somewhat.
I left from Southampton Airport after checking in my board bag with a 9ft 11 SUP board and two paddles in the bag. It was not all smooth sailing and the whole kit ended up getting jammed in the x-ray machine, causing furrowed brows and stern looks from the security people. I was taken into a "special" area where I thought the board would be taken to bits, but all that happened was a nice lady got me to open the bag, she peaked in and said "What on earth is that?" after I explained all was well and I was on my way.
After the short one hour flight I arrived in Belfast to grey skys and rain, or lovely soft weather as the locals have it. I was picked up from the airport by my Irish family and ferried up to our cottage in the middle of nowhere on the side of Lough Swilly, the journey is stunning, up over the Sperrin Mountains, across the River Foyle at Londonderry (or Derry as all the locals call it - I am never sure which is correct to use) and then into the Irish Republic. It use to be that you could tell when you crossed the border as, apart from the Army checkpoints, now thankfully consigned to the history books, the roads suddenly turned from a four lane marvel to a two lane pot holed track. That is something else that has been (almost) consigned to the history books, as the major roads are mostly new and well maintained, however, once you hit the back country in search of that wave you saw from the top of the hill you will be glad you hired a four wheel drive.
On arrival at our cottage, which was a former cattle shed, beautifully converted, I could already see tantalising glimses of swell lines marching into the Lough, normally a surefire sign that there were some waves to be had, but I had to wait until the next morning to check it out, as I could not ignore the cultural tradition of the first night craic, catching up with friends that I have not seen for a long time. Its a hard place to go surfing sometimes, as you end up meeting people who invite you round for breakfast/lunch/supper/guiness/magners and it is hard to refuse them all.
The next day I was up early and eager to get into the water. I walked over the heather and peat headland to see what the nearest beach, a heavy beach break barrel had to offer. If there were waves here, even tiny ones, the big beach at the end of the headland would be offering up some great rides. Sadly it was not to be, the off shore breeze was more like a gale and had blown the incoming swell flat.
"Would you come and have yourself some tea?" was the voice I heard next and who was I to refuse.
The day after I set off with my surfing friend for many years Paul. He comes from this area and first introduced me to the delights of Donegal many years ago. We have been on many surf trips all over the globe and I have never failed to score waves when we have been travelling together, could it be the luck of the Irish? The off shore wind was still howling when we arrived, but sure enough small waves were peeling perfectly left and right. We decided to skip the paddle out and jump straight off the rocks into the line up, something that I have done many times with a short board, however it becomes somewhat complex with a stand up paddle board, trying to clear the rocks and make sure you don't lose the board or the paddle was interesting. Next time I will paddle out ! The waves were small but fun, the weird (or perhaps not) thing was that this is peak holiday season and we were the only people on a three mile long beach.
After a bit more exploring we found another beach that provided the perfect venue for a late evening session. The waves were small again, but fun and the scenery was spectacular. We surfed until the sun went down then drove back to our cottage, ate fresh mackerel and drank cold Magners. Life does not get better than this. This was the pattern that continued for the rest of the time we spent there, grabbing sessions in small waist to chest high waves, with nobody else out around. It was also the perfect opportunity to take our children out on the boards and ride a few waves in with them.
There are so many unexplored breaks, every new cove and reef offers up potential in the right swell. I can remember surfing this coast for the first time 15 years ago and two farmers were on the beach watching us and applauding after we kicked out of each wave, although there are many more native Irish and travelling surfers since then, you can still find plenty of beaches that have probably never been surfed before, and on any day you can find breath taking isolation and perfect waves. I know that I will always be coming back here, because there is always something special just around the next corner.
Photos: G. Argyle, P. Deane, C. Crozier.