Let’s go surfin’ now
Everybody’s learning how
Come on and safari with me
– Surfin’ Safari, song by The Beach Boys (1962)
In the summer of 1972, an international group of surfers held their boards upright on the sands of Lahinch in County Clare and looked despairingly at the sea. The day was unusually calm and the waves were barely six inches high. The sea at Lahinch, usually turbulent enough to provide optimal surfing conditions, might as well have been a lake.
Surfing at that time was a very new sport in Ireland. Indeed, it barely existed until 1963, when Kevin Cavey picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest.
One day I read in the Readers Digest about the sport of the Kings in the Hawaiian Islands, and saw a picture of them riding head height waves, the sort of which I had often seen in the west of Ireland. I immediately determined to put Ireland on the map as a surfing country. So as to test if surfing would work, I built an 8 ft long plywood and aero foam board and launched it in Bray in August 1964. I immediately formed Ireland’s first Surf Club and called it ‘Bray Ireland Surf Club’.
– Kevin Cavey
He linked up with other interested surfers in Ireland and the U.K., and organized “surfaris” to places like Tramore, Strandhill, Enniscrone, and Lahinch. He even established networks in Northern Ireland, a remarkable instance of cross-border co-operation at the height of “The Troubles”.
By 1970, Ireland boasted about 400 surfers. Irish surfers competed abroad and started to win, and in 1972 it was decide to hold the European Surfing Championships at Lahinch. Surfers travelled from Britain, France, and Spain for the chance to ride the Atlantic waves.
Unfortunately, the waves didn’t co-operate and only the junior competition went ahead.
The day after this anti-climax, there was a swell off Spanish Point, produced by a reef that had never before been noticed. The French contingent had already left, but those remaining became the first to ride this newly-discovered reef. They followed this with a “surfari” to Donegal, and most of the surfers returned home with exciting tales of the wild and unpredictable surf on the west coast of Ireland.
Surfing continued to grow in popularity. The 1997 the European Surfing Championships were held again in Ireland, this time in Bundoran, County Donegal. Today, there are around 40 surf schools and 20,000 surfers in Ireland. Kevin Cavey is now known as “the grandfather of Irish surf”.
I’ll end this post on a personal note. In September 2006, my work colleague told me he was going surfing in Lahinch with his brother and a friend, and asked if I’d like to join them. I didn’t have anything better to do that weekend, so I accepted the invitation.
The sea that Saturday was just as calm as it had been for the European Surfing Championships in 1972. We ended up walking the beach, drinking smoothies, and enjoying the sunshine. My colleague’s friend had a lovely smile and, as we chatted away along the beach, our companions decided to give us some space to get to know each other.
Two years later, P.J. and I were married. So I owe a great deal to the fickle waves of Lahinch.