Where Irish eyes are surfing
Irish surfer Alastair Tienneie takes on the waves. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty)
Pods of surfers bobbed on their boards, watching eagle-eyed as white-capped waves rolled in and paddling fervently for sea-sprayed ride towards the beach. Due to its notoriously inclement weather, Ireland isn’t known for being a prime surfing destination. But low pressure systems in the Atlantic actually stir up ferocious winds – which create huge swells. Without any landmass to impede them, these swells land along the Irish coast, resulting in waves that can reach up to 12m high.
With 3,171km of crenulated coastline, plenty of reef, beach and point breaks fringing the coast and opportunities for beginners and seasoned pros alike, the sport is riding a wave of recent popularity – all set against a backdrop of spectacular Irish scenery.
For beginners, two easily accessible spots on Ireland’s eastern and southeastern coast provide perfect training grounds. In County Wicklow, just 60km south of Dublin, powdery white, wildlife-inhabited dunes edge the Irish Sea at Brittas Bay; its sheltered position provides gentle beginner waves. Brittas Bay Surf School can get kids and adults going with lessons.
About 134km southwest is Tramore (Trá Mhór in Irish, meaning big beach), a seaside resort town on County Waterford's undulating Copper Coast. Although on the Atlantic, Wales and England buffer the coast from monster swells, this corner of Ireland – nicknamed the “sunny southeast” – tends to have better weather than much of the country. The shore’s shallow gradient also prevents strong currents, a bonus for those just starting out. Ireland's largest surf school, T-Bay Surf & Eco Centre, operates year-round and runs ecology-based hikes in the area.
For larger waves, head to County Kerry, in Ireland's southwest. At this point, the country’s landmass has broken away from the rest of Europe, thrusting into the open sea, and Kerry’s exposure to the elements means the Atlantic surf is truly pumping. St Finian's Bay, known as “The Glen” by locals, arcs between the tiny villages of Portmagee and Ballinskelligs on the scenic Ring of Skellig, which spins off the famous Ring of Kerry circuit around the Iveragh Peninsula. This exposed beach break works well at mid and high tide and is rarely, if ever, crowded. Watch out for submerged rocks.
- Surf's up on the Dingle Peninsula. (Design Pics/Peter Zoeller/Getty)
To the north, the Dingle Peninsula, an exquisite promontory of opal waters, jade-coloured fields and craggy cliffs, culminates in Europe's most westerly point. Inch Beach, a 5km-long sand spit, juts out from the peninsula's southern side. The exposed beach break is relatively calm and reliable, making it good for surfers of all levels. You can drive directly on to Inch's broad expanse of sand – just take care not to become stuck, as numerous cars do each year.
Further north, beneath the Cliffs of Moher, County Clare is home to some of Ireland's biggest swells. Aileen's is a massive wave only braved by a handful of highly experienced board riders, including two-time Irish champion Fergal Smith, one of the world’s leading heavy-wave professional surfers. Discovered by Irish surfer John McCarthy, who was the first to tackle it in 2005, Aileen's has since been declared the nearest thing to a "perfect wave" by scientists at the National University of Ireland, Galway. The reef pushes up enormous right-hand barrels that have helped carve the 214m-high cliffs above.
- Cruising off the coast of County Mayo. (Gareth McCormack/Getty)
For consistent beach breaks, head to County Mayo and its northern neighbour County Sligo. The village of Keel in County Mayo features one of five Blue Flag beaches on Achill Island, a mountainous, 148sqkm isle reached by bridge from the mainland. Stick to Keel's western half; there are dangerous rips from the centre to the eastern end beneath the Minaun Cliffs.
Just to the northeast, in County Sligo, surfers camp around the seaside castle ruins at Easkey village. The reef break Easkey Left works on all tides and swells, while Easkey Right is a right-hand reef break that can have phenomenal tubes. If you take on one of the mighty rollers that sweep the burnished-gold beach at nearby Strandhill, soothe your muscles afterwards in a native Irish homeopathic seaweed bath at Voya Seaweed Baths. Said to cure ills from rheumatism to hangovers, the iodine-rich seaweed leaves surf-battered skin baby-soft.