Words and Photos By Alan Rich
With a typical Irish glint in his eye and a microphone in hand, Brian Britton recounts how the idea first came to him: “It was around two or three in the morning, and I was having a pint of Guinness with Roci. A few pints actually.” He pauses, grinning at his understatement, “and I thought, why not get everybody together from the old days? Have a big reunion? Celebrate 40 years of Irish surfing and honour those recently departed patrons who had supported us all. A Patrons’ Pilgrimage. Wouldn’t that be grand?”
His friend Roci approved. “Sure. We don’t see much o’ each other these days, and if only the two o’ us turn up, we’ll share a couple o’ pints together. Anybody after that’s a bonus.”
What began that night between two friends and some Guinness is now at fruition. The banquet room of Brian Britton’s Sandhouse Hotel is full, and the man himself (surfer, hotelier, surfing administrator, and member of one of Ireland’s most influential surfing families) is the emcee and driving force on this historic once-in-a-lifetime night. All (or close enough) of the surfers who played a founding role in riding the Emerald Isle are here, in body or in spirit. Many of them in body and a good measure of spirit. Guinness, of course.
The patrons were those stalwarts who lent guidance and gave support in the early days to this new fad called ‘surfing’ which afflicted their families and friends, if not necessarily themselves. Their kids and grandkids are now scattered at tables throughout the room.
In recent years, three of these patrons have passed on and are being particularly honoured: Doc O’Brien-Moran from the Irish south coast, Dubliner Harry Evans, and Vinnie “The Boss” Britton from Rossnowlagh in the northwest, the departed patriarch of the Britton clan.
For son Brian, a man who deals in success, this triumph goes beyond surfing. It’s very personal and in more ways than one. By the time the farewell diners gather at the Sandhouse, I will realise that this is about family as much as anything else. I’m not Irish, but it feels like home to me.
IMAGINE NOBODY OUT
If anyone is the modern patriarch of this Irish surfing family, it is 65-year-old Dubliner Kevin Cavey. A hardcore surfer who still goes out in almost anything, his enthusiasm is timeless.
Kevin is credited with being the first Irishman to surf (in 1964) in his country. He formed the Bray Surf Club in 1965, but was the club’s only surfing member. It wasn’t ‘til February 1966, when Kevin finagled a booth to promote surfing at the Irish Boat Show, that he finally found a surfing partner, American Tom Casey, and they immediately planned the first ever surfari up Ireland’s west coast. Thus, over the Easter of ’66, along with two party-passengers, the lads began what became a tradition, as their first surf trip charted much of the course of Irish wave exploration for the coming decade. Kevin confides that this first surfari was his first-ever experience surfing with someone else in the water. Just try to imagine: by that time Kevin had been going out alone for two years, just looking for someone to share waves with!
The summer of ’66 saw the initial assaults on Ireland’s cold beaches by groups of youngsters keen to be Irish surfers. Forty years later many things in Ireland have changed, no question, but not quite as many as you might think.
The 2006 Patrons’ Pilgrimage kicks off in earnest in Lahinch. Remembering my second Irish trip to Lahinch in 1970 for the championships now seems like the best part of a lifetime away. I last stood here squinting in the sun at the curiously-empty lefts breaking off the southern bluffs. In 1970 these waves were virgins, but we were to change all that. Senses of surrealism, déjà vu and stoke collide as I again scan the lineup in 2006.
Today, just on the far side of these series of left reefs sits Moy Bay. It has become the chosen spot to officially christen our 2006 Pilgrimage. As a sheltered cove it is well suited to we of advancing years. While the older guys size up the beach, I have my eye set on a nifty pitching right in the corner. After some protracted negotiations with my rubber armament, I optimistically borrow one of 71-year-old Johnny Lee’s newer boards and paddle out. It’s a mere 14 years old, the ex-jet pilot reckons.
The tides in Lahinch are big, ranging through 4.3 metres this weekend, which means my good right, a surf spot 15 minutes ago, is now almost gone. My sights shift to the next break down, one of those lefts from yesteryear, which seems to grow larger with each set. The difference in swell size just a 100 metres away is dramatic. It’s like Barrtra Point on the earlier tide this morning – sizeable, clean, and unwinding. Kevin and I paddle into the lineup from the back door. I’ve waited 36 years for this.
Almost immediately a wave too good to miss appears with my name on it, and I’m paddling from the pole position without thinking. As the peak jacks overhead, Johnny’s old board slides in and I accelerate into a drawn-out backside wall. It’s then, spying the boils ahead, that I finally wake up to myself. I’ve just broken the surf traveller’s basic rule: check it out first. I’ve never even seen a wave break here, and I don’t know where I’m going. Plus, I’m on a borrowed board.
So what do you do? You just keep going, as far as you can, and hope for the luck of the Irish. And so, I’m thinkin’, this is shaping up to be a fine week, to be sure.
THE CLIFFS OF MORE
Another pilgrim is an old friend from Devon, Steve Daniel. He and his wife Amanda decide to slip away to visit the nearby Cliffs of Moher, while the swell is working. The natural formations of the Cliffs of Moher are flogged as one of Ireland’s most spectacular tourist attractions. Natural formations of a different nature, however, lure surfers in the know to a special reef at the base of these fearsome cliffs. The break is called Aileens and it’s one seriously big wave. Lahinch Surf School proprietor John McCarthy recently dominated the front page of the local newspaper pictured on a classic at the spot he has pioneered. “Aileens” is the current buzz word in Irish tow-in surfing.
That night at the pub, Steve shows us an intense little video taken from the top of those cliffs of a set breaking at Aileens, a long way below. Judging by the time it takes the lipof a wave to hit the flat water out front, I’d guess it’s in the 15ft range. We immediately schedule a pilgrimage to check out the Cliffs of Moher.
“We’re going to take you to a place tourists never see,” tour guide Britton proudly announces as we reach the Visitor Centre lookout … and keep driving. Our string of cars squeezes halfway onto a narrow roadside to park, and we begin our trek. Across the paddocks. Over the electric fence. Down the hill. Careful to negotiate the camouflaged bovine land mines, and then we reach the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, vertical as a plumb line.
Only a metre or two separates the barbed wire from oblivion as we squeeze along the cliff-top fence, all the while being mindful of the many small fissures underfoot where the next slab of cliff will eventually give way. A sign at the end warns all who have finally made it this far that you might fall into the sea at any moment. Groovy. There is a trail, which I don’t want to know about, descending the horrendously perpendicular ledge “just over there”. It’s how you get to the beach to paddle out. I have no desire to even imagine, much less look closer.
They tell me the story of a hot young bodyboarder who powered into Aileens a while ago. He parked in the same place we did and ran the paddocks, got to the grassy area and down the cliff with photog in tow. He paddles out from the beach and, straight away, drops into a 15ft cannibal which swallows him whole in a disastrous wipeout. Pulling himself to the beach, his fins have been ripped away, and I don’t know what happened to his bodyboard.
As only kids can do, the 17-year-old charges up the unimaginable trail, etc., all the way back to his car. He grabs his spare equipment then sprints the reverse journey again to the beach. It takes him 45 minutes to return to the lineup. When he does he picks a better 15-footer than the last one, gnarly and picturesque, all captured by his lensman on film. He rides just this one wave and comes in, climbs up the cliff and so forth. His heroic pit made the cover of a bodyboarding magazine. I remember seeing it in my barber shop at home in Australia. The caption said it was Ireland. To be sure.
THE SUMMER OF ’67
Riding an emerald green board, Kevin Cavey made the quarterfinals of the 1966 World Contest in San Diego. This sparked his imagination and the idea of a home-grown Irish surfing championship. In those years, Rodney Sumpter was already a big deal in the surfing world. He held the title of Australian Junior Champion and was featured in the 1964 classic, The Endless Summer. Never mind that Rodney had left the best country in the world to live in England. That’s another story.
Anyway, I met Rodney on my summer break in Biarritz. He was drumming up interest for the First Irish National and International Surfing Championships, to which he’d been invited. He had heard Ireland could get good, that hardly anyone surfed, and that the Irish loved overseas visitors. I told him I was in.
I arrived, by thumb from Dublin, at the south coast town of Tramore where I found Rodney had forgotten to mention the part about the onshore gales and cold water. The weather was ghastly, but so what? Most of the spectators had never seen surfing before. When the rains qualls came, they jumped in their cars and turned on the windscreen wipers until the sun returned. I recall Irish-style surf music – a bagpipe band marching down the main street. Lots of last year’s beginners were now having the times of their lives. The organisers gave some good advice to us overseas competitors on how to handle their cold conditions. The Irish style, they explained, was to get out of the surf and straight into a hot bath followed by a Guinness. They promised us both, and delivered.
The stoke in Tramore in 1967 was as thick as the heads on those pints. Later that year I wrote in Surfer magazine: “Watching the Irish out there was like seeing the birth of surfing.” That it was, to be sure.
Hughie O’Brien-Moran, a stoked 16-year-old local kid, was on hand for that first Tramore contest. Since then he’s gone on to four national titles and been described as Ireland’s most successful international surfer. Hughie, his brother Niall, my wife Ev, and I have all been having a glorious time reuniting as pilgrims. Their late father was one of the three patrons being honoured. One evening, over drinks, he leans towards me and quietly says something that slides in under my guard. Hughie wants to tell me about the influence I had on him back at the 1967 Championships.
“We had never seen anything like it before,” he starts. “You were going this way and that, doing all these turns and stuff that we’d never even thought of, and at the end of your rides you were doing these kick-outs. We didn’t even know you could do that! To us that was just amazing, and we tried to do all those kinds of manoeuvres on our boards from then on.”
It’s humbling to realise how what one takes for granted another takes to heart. One moment it’s like four decades ago, the next it’s like yesterday. Sitting there with the former champion and his brother, Hughie’s simple story has revealed the soul of this pilgrimage to me in an instant. It’s not just about the surf, the drinks, and these three patron families, or even Ireland. It’s about all of that and more; it’s about the family of surfing.
Following the first Tramore Championships, Captain Kevin took everyone on the first repeat of his west coast expedition. Regrettably I had a plane to catch. My summer of ’67 was over. The surfari got rave reviews. I heard I’d really missed it. Brian Britton, himself a 17-year-old there at Tramore, sent everyone Patrons’ Pilgrimage invitations early in 2006, recollecting that I won the International Division of that first contest. I read it and smile, choosing to run with his version for as long as I can.
By the time I returned to Ireland in 1970, the exposed west coast town of Lahinch was established as a budding surf centre. It was to be the site of a fourth international get-together. Kevin’s surfaris had also become a regular post-contest feature, and that time I made sure I would be on board.
I remember Lahinch for its long strand, excellent conditions, and perfectly formless 8ft waves – their curtains were closing out the full length of the beach with exasperating, ruler-straight precision. I also remember looking beyond the beach, towards the cliffs at the south end of the bay and seeing a cluster of lefthand reef or pointbreaks peeling merrily away in the very accessible distance.
During the contest, frustrated at the prospects of trying to get both out and in through the big closeouts, we overseas surfers quietly asked organisers why they didn’t just move the contest over to where those shapely lefts were breaking? They blankly answered, “Because no one has ever surfed them before.” Why not? “Because of the rocks” came the not-soobvious answer; “We like beachbreaks.” We looked at ourselves, smiling the smile of wave thieves. Fine by us.
Afterwards, along with a handful of surfers from Cornwall, I went out for a surf and found those rock-bottomed lefts were as good as they looked. Being the first session ever, we exercised naming rights. It was decided by almost all of us to name it “Cornish Point” and that’s how the name came to appear on the Irish surfing map. The remaining excellent lefts of Lahinch – Barrtra, Cregg, and others – would eventually be named and surfed, but not yet.
In only three short years the west coast surfari had become a post-contest Irish surfing tradition. It was a time of infancy and innocence, and new spots were everywhere for the taking. Every surf-check was an adventure. One-room pubs could be found even at the most isolated of beaches … and our hosts knew the way to all of them. For a week I saw and surfed the real Ireland with the Irish.
After four decades it’s near impossible to explain it to those who weren’t there doing and living it. If I had to pick one word, “fun” comes as close as any. Kevin Cavey’s idea to take a surfin’ safari of cars up the Irish coast became an institution, and surfaris would annually follow each of the early surfing championships. At some point, though, the iconic tradition stumbled and fell by the wayside. Directions diverged, adventures became hoarded, and innocence faded with age.
Now, as we motored north, retracing the old surfari on our 2006 pilgrimage, I asked Brian what finished them off. He searched for an answer, then concluded, “Nothing really. Just the old crew started to scatter. The mid- and late-’70s were the early days of The Troubles. They took their toll.” That was when the tourists stopped coming and Kevin Cavey lost the family hotel; he departed for Canada to find work. Brian, already a precocious administrative talent, was recruited to a major position in corporate Africa. Roger Steadman relocated to Kenya.
All up, the surfin’ safaris lasted about 10 years. When they finished, so did an era. You might say it marked Irish surfing’s transition to adolescence.
Brian Britton’s been on the phone to his son, Neil, who owns the Fin McCool Surf Shop next door to the Sandhouse Hotel. “There’s a low off the coast, and the winds should be offshore. The weather map is looking the best Neil’s seen it all year for the Pilgrimage!”
Brian’s excited. He tells me about a secret spot we’re going to check tomorrow – if I promise not to publicise it. That’s easy, I can’t even pronounce it.
This secret spot is named after another place “about 4 or 5km distant,” Kevin confides the next day. “That’s far enough so surfers can remember the vicinity but not close enough to be able to find it unless you know where it is!” True to his word, after a number of wrong turns, the founder of Irish surfing finds the right road shorewards.
With our first glimpse of the blue North Atlantic we are staggered by the swell. Britton’s forecast was spot on: perfect, sunny, offshore. Waves are everywhere, like in a fairy tale. “Stop the car!” I blurt. Kevin obligingly pulls over and says, “Y’know, Alan, the place we’re going is still a wee bit farther down the road.” Everywhere we look empty, perfect waves are peeling – three rights and two lefts, at least. How much better can this secret spot be?
A wee bit down the road I got my second surprise. A chequered fleet of surf vehicles is parked in most available spaces. In front of them a “secret” peak unwinds beautifully in both directions. Excellent, true, but with at least 20 guys out. Some secret, Cavey! It’s hard to even find a parking place. I immediately dub this The-Secret-Spot-That-Everybody-Knows-About.”
The true secret of this spot is that up the beach it’s even better. I’m mesmerised by a couple of empty breaks reminiscent of picture-perfect Indonesian lefts … except for the temperature. I don’t have to worry about hiding names, they don’t have any. I called them Outside Hollow Bodies and Inside Hollow Bodies. Eventually a few lucky Paddies had a go.
The amount of surf and surf potential in Ireland was unlimited back in the old days. Forty years later, it’s still yours for the taking, if you’re ready. All you need is a wetsuit and a pair of balls and you too can have the ride of your life.
BROTHER VS. BROTHER
We’re on surfari, winding about Ireland’s only fjord, sightseeing on our way towards Ballina, County Mayo. Chatting with Brian and Antoinette Britton as we go, I can sense pain in Brian’s voice as he relates his story of the 2004 World Surfing Games, which set the illustrious family Britton on a bitter collision course in the national media. They headlined it “Brother against Brother.”
In 2001, as its long-serving president, Brian was heading up the Irish Surfing Association’s bid for the 2004 World Surfing Games. He was proposing to hold the “Olympics of Surfing” (as he describes it) at Bundoran Peak, right in his neck of the woods. While some championed Britton as a progressive visionary, others accused him of attempting to loot the treasure at the end of Irish surfing’s rainbow.
It was “organised surfing against the soul surfers” he explains, like a man needing to set the record straight, “us against them”. Brian was leader of the “us”, backed up by brother Conor. “Them” included brothers Willie, himself a former national champion, and brother Barry.
It was a turning point for the Britton family as much as for Irish surfing. One side saw the contest as on-track to secure organised Irish surfing for the next generation, the other as a fast-track to overcrowding and exploitation. Joke as the four brothers might about it back then over drinks, it was a time of polarisation and wounds.
Brian put the confrontation directly to Ireland’s surfers to resolve it. When the votes were counted, he unexpectedly both won and lost. A majority supported his World Surfing Games, but not enough. In a move of selflessness befitting the head of a family, he announced that the Association was withdrawing its bid for the Games, and that he was resigning as ISA President. Thus a lasting schism amongst Ireland’s surfing community was averted.
The aftermath was difficult for the extended Britton family. Businessman Brian now sees it as Ireland’s lost opportunity. Brother Barry sees it as simply about going surfing, nothing more. But if you name your daughter after your favourite break, as Barry did, your surfing probably means a lot to you. Easkey is currently the Irish Women’s Champion, and the irony is not lost on Uncle Brian, noting that Barry is even seen at contests now watching her compete.
Further up the road, however, Brian asks me not to publicise the secret spot he plans to take me to, an acknowledgement of the topic’s ongoing sensitivity. The reaching out seems to go both ways, as it should. That’s how it works in families.
For Brian Britton, this pilgrimage has been a personal catharsis. By the time of the gala dinner at week’s end, he admits, “This week has been memorable in more ways than one. I think it has brought me personal exorcism from the incredible hurt felt at the time of the split vote in Irish surfing five years ago over the World Surfing Games. The surfing family is one, and I feel part of it again.” To be sure, to be sure.
ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY
The Sandhouse Hotel is buzzing at the Patrons’ Pilgrimage dinner. Surfers are arriving from all shores of the country. Tables are placed throughout the room like beaches on a map, filled with emptying bottles and living history. The atmosphere is steeped in respect, reflection, affection, drink, and laughter. (I will later remember the feeling and energy more clearly than any of the speeches.) Fortunately a TV film crew have been chronicling the pilgrimage all week and don’t miss a word.
Their production, The Silver Surfari, has sponsorship from the Irish government and the 23 year-old producer is, not surprisingly, named Naomi Britton. After dinner the din gives way. Brian Britton is now working the room like a captain at the helm, microphone in hand. One after another the players have their say. Poignant comments flow from the Patrons’ descendants, the O’Brien- Moran brothers, Viv Evans, and of course the Brittons. Kevin Cavey relives the days “when we were super surfers.” He laughs, “spell that s-o-u-p-e-r” and then he describes a recent conversation he’s had out in the water.
“How long have you been surfing?” this young sceptic asks him. Cleverly, Ireland’s first surfer replies, “Before you were born.” Snapping right back, the kid coolly comments, “I’d thought you’d be better at it by now.”
The microphone is aimed my way, and I’ve given some thought to what I’ll say next. After all, I didn’t start the rumour, but once it was out there I said to myself, “Why should I rush in to stop it? We both were there, and if Brian remembers me winning the first contest in ’67, who am I to contradict him?” Let me tell you, the key to spreading a good rumour is to nurture it carefully. Make sure it has a chance to grow, to do the rounds. Don’t rush in and deny anything too quickly.
But now, in front of all these pilgrims, friends, and fellow travellers-in-arms, I reckon my time has come. I would have done it anyway, even if Sumpter wasn’t there, sitting at our dinner table. I would have done it because it was the right thing to do, and because by now it had all the traction it needed.
So … “I have to set the record straight,” I confess. “In that 1967 Tramore championship … I got second. Rodney won!” The room bursts into applause. Rodney, who is speaking next, has a look flash across his face that tells me I was just in the nick of time. Thanks for the memories!
A well-oiled Kevin Naughton sums up the feeling of the pack: “If it keeps going the way it is, we’re all going to need a tow-out tomorrow!” ... Indeed, it did.
THE LAST SURF
Brian, who owns the beach at Rossnowlagh, exercises both his considerable clout and local knowledge to interrupt the weekend’s national surfing competition with a Patrons’ Pilgrimage Expression Session. During the midday’s best waves, a pod of some dozens of relict pilgrims, with an array of craft to match, crawls seaward at the appointed time.
We enter the cool Atlantic in front of a crowd of assembled youngsters (meaning anyone under 50), who to their everlasting credit give us a rousing and standing ovation. Our hearing being what it is, of course, we aren’t really aware of that until later. I’m also told that some of the crowd stood up longer than some of the surfers but, hey, if you’re a living legend of 60 or 70, just getting out there deserves applause.
It isn’t quite the end of the pilgrimage but it is, perhaps, an end to an era, at least ceremonially. Whether she wants to or not, Ireland will never again see the likes of the family gathering that day at Rossnowlagh, and that’s for sure.
Wise travellers know it’s all about the journey, not the destination. This one was everything I’d imagined, and everything I hadn’t imagined … or had long forgotten. Most of all, it was real. I could touch it, taste it, feel it, and live it. For a week and a half, it was the trip of a lifetime, to be sure. To be damn sure.
A lot of people seem to quote Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again as if it was some everlasting truth. Well, maybe it was for him, but for me … I don’t buy it. He’s wrong, and I know it. Why? Well, I know it because I’ve just been there, in Ireland.
An Irish film documentary following the Patrons’ Pilgrimage, titled The Silver Surfari, has been produced for international release in 2007. To find out more about this once-in-a-lifetime event, visit: www.irelandsurfari.com
Once local to Torrance Beach, California, Alan Rich was in the vanguard of world surf travellers. A widely published surf photographer and notable soul-era film-maker (Salt Water Wine, Playgrounds in Paradise, Wizards of the Water), for the last 20 years he’s occupied a three-acre parcel in Lennox Head, Australia, where he’s a shire councillor with a decidedly environmental bias.