The LookWest.ie Insider’s Guide to the West Coast Surf Scene is our new series exploring the vibrant West of Ireland surf scene county by county. Your surf guide will be writer, pro bodyboarder and manager of iSurfIreland surf school in Strandhill, Seamus McGoldrick.
Seamus began surfing in Strandhill, one of Sligo’s hidden gems, and followed his passion by setting up his own thriving surf business. So, who better to give you the inside scoop on the Irish surf scene?
Kicking off in Donegal, Seamus meets some lucky surfers who manage to chase the dream of surfing all year round on the wonderful west coast of Ireland.
Donegal Surf Scene Overview
It is fitting that Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way starts off in Donegal, the county with island’s longest coastline on the island, which is either 400 miles or 1130 kilometers long depending on who you talk to. So, if you have an interest in surfing you have 400 reasons to want to come here to live.
Epic, expansive and wild, Donegal is home to Ireland’s most rugged and beautiful coastline. It was against this stunning backdrop that surfing was introduced to the shores of western Ireland by pioneers like the Britton brothers of Donegal, who were beckoned to the water and the wild by the thundering waves.
In the late Sixties and early seventies, a colourful and brave bunch or Irish men and women took off on legendary Surf Safaris, that started with the thousand of kilometers of endlessly varied surf terrain in Donegal and aimed south.
When the Celtic Tiger hit in 2004 surfing took off. More surf schools opened up to cater to demand and surfer friendly accommodation soon followed. The fact that Europe’s premier big wave challenge – the Mighty Mullaghmore – was pioneered just a few miles down the road in Sligo means that surf tourism in Bundoran, Donegal’s number one surf town, is increasing.
Starting in North Donegal, surfers like to visit Falcarragh, Marble Hill, Dunfanaghy, Dungloe Strand, Rossnowlagh, Tullan Strand and Bundoran. Donegal was voted number one on The National Geographic Traveller (UK) ‘cool list’ for 2017 for good reason.
Meet The Surfers
Killian O Kelly is Bundoran born and bred. Killian is one of the original local crew of surfers at ‘The Peak’ – the world famous premier European surf spot located right in the centre of the town.
Killian has had a long love affair with the Donegal coastline. He spent his childhood exploring the county’s different beaches, he sea-kayaked around Donegal Bay and began surfing aged sixteen. In addition to being a Bundoran lifeguard for many years, Killian is a volunteer on the local RNLI lifeboat.
Killian established Turf n Surf – one of the friendliest and coolest surf hang outs in Donegal – in 2006 with his wife Mary on Bundoran’s West End with a premises overlooking The Peak, of course. This family run tour company, hostel and activity provider is one of the largest adventure activity providers in the northwest.
Killian O’Kelly also helped set up the Irish Gap Year company to cater for students coming over from the US for various cultural and leadership programs, which provides employment during the off season. Since most surfers simply suffer financially through the off-season hoping to catch the perfect wave, Killian realised early on that surfing alone wouldn’t get him through the off-season
“We diversified out of surfing along time ago to make the business work.” explain Killian.
Turf N Surf now offers accommodation, surfing, sea-kayaking, stand up paddleboarding and blo-karting.
The Surf Instructor
One of the most common ways in which surfers can make their living in Donegal is working as a surf instructor. Several of the surf schools like Surfworld, Bundoran Surf Co. and Finn McCools also have surf shops and accommodation businesses which offers extra employment options.
Wicklow woman Kate Gaffey was between jobs in 2012 when she completed a surfing instructor course in Bundoran. After living on the west of coast of Donegal for a few weeks, Kate decided to turn her back on the nine to five office lifestyle beckoning her in Dublin. The natural surrounding beauty in Donegal is what enticed her to stay here to live.
“Donegal is not just a beautiful part of Ireland,” says Kate, “it is one of the most beautiful parts of the world.”
Next, she met Killian and Mary at their Turf N Surf Halloween party – dressed as a human weather map. Kate called in a few months later (in regular clothes) with her new surf instructor qualification and, to her delight, was hired.
“The people are so welcoming in Bundoran, whether you’re here for a night, or for life.” affirms Kate.
Bundoran is a cosy and compact town where you can easily walk from one end to the other. Bundoran’s Main Beach and Tullan Strand are within walking distance of each other. The famous Rougey Cliff Walk and the West End walk have some of the best views of the summer sunsets or the dolphins jumping. In the winter, there are numerous prime views of the raging Atlantic hammering the coast.
Bundoran boasts great pubs, nightlife and cafés. There are many beautiful places to explore outside of Bundoran too so you can really make the most of your time off.
Kate says there are all sorts of ways of making a living in Donegal for surfers and non-surfers alike, “If you are willing to work there is work. You’ll find it in hotels, bars, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets that all take on extra staff in the summer months.”
“If you have a job where you can work from home, you’ve hit the jackpot.”
The busiest time for Donegal’s surf school is from June until August. In the winter months places like Donegal Town, Letterkenny, and Sligo all offer plenty of work that is not reliant on the season. Kate believes the highlights of the surf scene in Donegal varies depending on what level surfer you are.
“For the hard core, the winter months are always welcome, with the consistent, powerful swells rolling in. For the thrill seekers, the huge swells at Mullaghmore would be without doubt a highlight. That is a sight to behold, whether you are one of the surfers braving it in the waves or just there to spectate with your heart in your mouth from the cliff at Mullaghmore.”
“But for me, sometimes the highlights can just be that sneaky evening surf, when its glasses off and you’re catching waves in the most beautiful of surroundings, wondering why you’d ever want to be anywhere else.”
“Traffic jams are mostly non-existent and the work commute could almost be described as a pleasure. How many people can say that! With all the time you save not being stuck in traffic on the M50 you can get in a morning or evening surf. With the beach on your doorstep your quality of life can only be improved.”
Read a great article about big wave surfing at Mullaghmore on MagicSeaweed here.
Noah Lane is a professional surfer and surf coach from Rainbow Beach on the east coast of Australia who now lives in Donegal. Noah surfed professionally through his younger years and could have made a living from his talent as a skilled athlete anywhere in the world: Hawaii, Fiji, Brazil. So why Ireland and Bundoran in particular?
“Bundoran is a hub for the sport in Ireland.” Noah explains, “Surfers travel from across the country and from around the world to access the ocean off Donegal’s coastline simply for the opportunity to use the ocean in some of the more beautiful and remote areas of Ireland.”
“The coastline here is one of the best in the world. I’ve been at one beach and felt like I was in Norway and driven less than ten minutes and felt like I’m back in Australia.”
From East coast Aus to West coast Donegal is a big jump but it is unsurprising given Bundoran’s famous hospitality and incredible surf. Noah relocated to Bundoran four years ago where he met his partner Tara Mc Guinness, a local Donegal surf artist.
As well as a thriving surf scene, Donegal is also home to world famous arts scene and an incredibly talented music scene. Noah says, “Musicians like Cian O’Donnell, Kevin Lowery and bands like the Wolves of Youth are all heavily involved in the surf scene.”
There are a number established surf artists in the area including Barry Britton, Gavin McCrea and Tara McGuinness. Gavin and Tara have painted colourful oversized surf-themed murals throughout Bundoran. And legendary Silver Surfer Barry Britton has painted numerous posters and artwork for some of the most prestigious surf contests in the world, including The Pipeline Masters.
Compared to Australia the surfing industry in Ireland is quite small so year round trade is a problem. The harsh winter weather makes the primary business of beginner surf lessons in the off-season that bit more challenging, although these challenges are being overcome with improved wetsuit technology and steady growth in the surf industry in the last decade.
“I know it is cliched, but surfing really is a lifestyle,” Noah elaborates, “and most surfers that I know find ways to get by and to continue doing what they love.”
Noah feels very fortunate to be supported by surf companies like Finisterre and Globe, “That helps through the winter months and allows me to chase waves. Along with that I work on a surf magazine called Backwash, which keep me busy through the winter months.”
“Having surfed around the world there really is something special about surfing in Donegal. It’s hard to put your finger on it. It might be a combination of the volatile weather, beautiful coastline and amazing people but whatever it is, it’s unique and captivating.”
Follow Noah’s adventures @noahlane_
The future of surfing in Donegal.
Surfing is growing in Donegal, but so is recreational boat ownership and activities like kayaking, diving, wind surfing and jet skiing. Maritime events are very popular and have the potential to draw large amounts of visitors to Donegal in the future.
Marine tourism in general around the globe is forecast to grow substantially, which bodes well for Donegal and her world class coast. To be sure, Donegal County council are committed to promoting Donegal as a marine tourism destination of excellence and are committed to developing a unique marine tourism visitor experience.
Donegal has always had its own unique identity. Part of it is geographical. Part of it is historical. The economy of Donegal will be particularly susceptible to currency fluctuations of the Euro against the Sterling and is ground zero when it comes to Brexit. I guess this will just add to the edginess, chaos and wildness that already characterises Ireland’s northernmost county.
Photo credit: Ian Mitchinson
Donegal Surf Scene Facts
- Donegal has one of the most established surf scenes in Ireland
- Over one hundred people are directly employed in surfing in Donegal.
- Surfers, amateur and professional alike, travel from all over the world to visit Donegal for its famous surf.
- Donegal’s buzzing surf scene boasts half a dozen surf shops, surf hostels and surf cafes.
- Donegal is home to over twelve surf schools, including seven in the Bundoran area, employing dozens of surf instructors
- A building boom during the Celtic Tiger means there is plenty of affordable accommodation in Donegal.
Who To Know
- Irish surfing founding father Barry Britton barrybritton.bigcartel.com
- Surfer, scientist, artist and adventurer Easkey Britton is trail-blazing a path for Irish female surfers and activists. @easkeysurf
The space in between… that place of ‘allow happen’, not make happen… like the bird of prey, a sparrow hawk I saw last weekend when exploring wild coasts for surf, hovering mid-flight – holding space, waiting, so much power contained in the pause. This moment is one of those spaces, captured by @chrismcclean, at the Cliffs. Where suiting up becomes part of the preparation ritual. Join me in conversation @finisterreuk stores next week in preparation for the launch of the long-awaited women’s wetsuit tester programme – link to events in bio. #womenwhosurf #coldwatersurf #cliffsofmoher #wildcoasts #wildatlanticway #bluemind
- Saffa photographer Ian Mitchinson‘s feed is constantly inspiring us to explore more of our own backyard @ianmitchinson
Two weeks after my shoulder op and I’m feeling confident that I will have another shot at getting barrelled again….on both sides of the lens!! First have to regain motion and then work on strength. Thanks for this shot @surfaroundireland from last September. Hopefully be back here soon. #willlearntosurfwithonearmifihaveto #surf #ireland #recovery #dream #bettertoburnoutthanfadeaway
- One of Ireland’s bravest and youngest big-wave surfer Conor Maguire hails from Bundoran @conormaguiree
- Ireland’s largest surf and music festival in Bundoran – Sea Sessions (22 – 24 June)
- The Irish National Championships where the nations top surfers battle it out at the world famous contest location of ‘the Peak’ in Bundoran. All competition details and dates via Irish Surfing Website.
- The classic Intercounties surf contest in Rossnowlagh, which has been running for fifty years! The Intercounties will take place in Sept 2018.
- Liquid Therapy’s AS Open that brings together volunteers and surfers with special needs for a fun day’s surfing.
From Ireland’s longest coastline, the next coast we will reach on our epic surf safari south will be the Leitrim coast, which is the shortest. Some people say bigger is better but when it comes to the super short and super surf rich Carbury Coast bridging Donegal and Sligo, I would beg to differ.
A huge thanks to Ian Mitchinson Photography for the stunning photos