This is a pretty gorgeous place to surf. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
You can see the spray from the surf over the sheep-dotted green hills of Ireland’s Atlantic Coast miles before you reach the sea. The waves here are legendary, even if you haven’t ever heard of the legend.
When I think of surfing, I think about the Maldives, or Hawaii, or maybe Bondi Beach in Australia, which is where I learned how to surf a thousand years ago. I certainly don’t think Ireland in autumn.
Surfing and Ireland don’t seem at all synonymous. In fact, until I landed here this week, I had no idea that the Irish ever even went into the ocean. Yet, somehow I found myself on Aughris beach in County Sligo, donning a 5-millimeter wet suit and preparing for a surf lesson.
I look quite happy here … dry, on the land. (Photo: David Noyes)
It was balmy for October in Ireland, about 55 degrees and overcast. The water, at about 59 degrees, was just a touch warmer than the air.
"It will feel like a warm bath," Michael Crawley, my guide for the week from Mor Active tours, said as we marched across the gray sand. Michael was lying to me. Being in that water might have been the coldest I have been in the ocean in my entire life.
This being Ireland, there’s a pub to warm up in right on the beach. Maggie Mayes Beach Bar has roosters running about the back. Very beachy.
Of course this is what a beach bar in Ireland looks like. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
"We have massive surges today," Gerard Byrne, the owner of 7th Wave Surf School, said. “They’re around 14 feet. The wind is quite strong here. It could blow you out to sea.” No big deal.
Surfing is quite good in Ireland, from Enniscrone to Bonduran, all along the western coast. There are some gnarly breaks up around north Donegal, and there are still stretches of beach that are largely unexplored by surfers. The thing with surfing in Ireland is that it is inconsistent.
I got pretty bundled up down on the beach. (Photo: David Noyes)
This summer there was no surf to speak of for about two months. The western coastline is actually best surfed from September to April.
"When we have good surf, the quality is high," Byrne said. "You’re seeing it at its best today."
The waves are high too. On the day we went out, the swells a bit north in Sligo were between 30 and 40 feet for surfers who were game to be towed out.
Gerard Byrne surfs much better than I do. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Byrne has been surfing for 45 years, since the late ’60s, when two men, Ian Hill in the north of Ireland and Kevin Cavey in the south, brought the sport here. Cavey is still known as the grandfather of Irish surfing. Hill taught Byrne how to surf. Back then, all the surfers on the island knew one another, since there were just a handful of them. Today there are thousands of surfers here.
"You don’t really think about Ireland when you think about surfing," I said to Byrne, who looked at me like I was crazy.
"We are an island in the Atlantic Ocean" was his response. "Of course we surf."
Rocks and grass line the beach, but the gray sand is surprisingly soft. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Surf schools have exploded in Ireland in just the past decade.
"It gives ordinary people the chance to give it a try, and some even stick with it," Byrne said. His daughter, Ionie, who helps him run the surf school, is the country’s long board champion many times over.
"It’s really a thing at the moment. Everybody here wants to try it, but only the hard core would keep it up."
The waves are rougher than they look. (Photo: David Noyes)
I wiped out. Hard. (Photo: David Noyes)
I’m not hard core. I did want to try it; and to be fair, surfing in Ireland, even in October, is a lovely experience. The waves are rough but good for beginners looking to catch a long ride. It’s cold, too cold for me to be in the water longer than an hour, but refreshing. And you can’t beat the scenery as viewed from the water: unspoiled beaches backed by rolling farmland edged by lush green cliffs.
Check in with 7th Wave Surf School before planning your trip. Adult lessons are just 30 euros. They’re experts on when you can surf where. They provide all of the gear and the lessons, so novices can feel completely comfortable taking an afternoon off from exploring the local pubs to have a bit of a chilly adventure.