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.
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
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.
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.
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
Donegal, the town of Bundoran is awash with fairground rides, amusement arcades
and fast-food joints, but its hosting of the annual Irish
National Surfing Championships each April is a clear indicator of its wave quality.
The Peak is a death-defying, shallow-breaking, rocky reef, with a barrelling
left break and shorter, hollower right break by the town centre; there's a less
daunting – and exceptionally consistent – beach break just north at Tullan
championships inspire you to refine your skills, check out the Fin McCool Surf School just
north in Rossnowlagh. It’s owned and run by former Irish national team member
and international surf judge Neil Britton, who also opened an adjacent surf
lodge. Surfing is in Britton's DNA: his hotelier grandmother bought a board for
her guests from travelling surfers in the 1960s, and her surf-obsessed offspring
include Britton's cousin, five-time Irish ladies champion Easkey Britton, the first woman to
surf Aileen’s "perfect wave".
Ireland's water temperatures range from around 8C in the winter months
(December to March) to about 17C in summer (June to August), but air
temperatures and wind chill can take their toll. A wetsuit is essential; in
summer, a 3/2 (3mm body, 2mm arms) will generally suffice, but in winter you'll
need a 5/3 steamer. If it's really chilly, a 6/4, plus a hood, booties and
gloves is recommended. While it's possible to surf year-round, summer waters
can often be flat, and surfers in winter need to watch out for high winds, huge
swells and treacherous currents. Autumn and spring are optimal, but any time of
year, Ireland's fickle weather can change in the blink of an eye, making it
crucial to check forecasts and heed warnings.
The Irish Surfing Association offers plenty of advice
on surfing in Ireland. Surf-forecast.com
is a good starting point for weather checks and information on the country's