The LookWest.ie Insider’s Guide to the West Coast Surf Scene is a series exploring the vibrant West of Ireland surf scene along the Wild Atlantic Way. Your guide to the surf is writer, pro bodyboarder and surf coach Seamus McGoldrick from Strandhill, Sligo.
Seamus began surfing at Strandhill Beach, one of Sligo’s hidden gems, and followed his passion by setting up his own thriving surf school business, Sligo Surf Experience.
So, who better to give you the inside scoop on the Irish surf scene?
Our series kicked off in Donegal where Seamus met some lucky surfers who manage to chase the dream of surfing all year round on the west coast. We then turned to Seamus’ home county of Sligo, where we met surfers of all hues – surfboard shapers, musicians, architects, and entrepreneurs – who have made Yeats County their home because of its world class waves.
Having followed the surf coast of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way from south Donegal through Sligo we now land in the mystical county of Mayo; a wild, rugged county that can boast 1150 kilometres (722 miles) of coastline. With the longest coastline in Ireland, it is no wonder you can find plenty of waves out among the beaches and bogs of Mayo.
Mayo Surf Scene Overview
The limestone landscape of east Mayo gives way to blanket bog near its western Atlantic coast. Much of Mayo’s spectacular natural scenery lies near this coastal drive along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. The cliffs, stacks, and islands at Benwee Head offer some of the most dramatic scenery on the Irish coast. Under Mayo’s blanket bog lay spectacular secrets. The field systems used by the ancient Irish are preserved under the peat. The most famous site is the one at the Céide Fields which is believed to have been built five and a half thousand years ago and is the world’s oldest known field system.
In addition to the longest coastline, Mayo also contains Ireland’s largest offshore island, Achill Island, whose western edge houses Croughan mountain. Croughan’s northern slope has been eaten away by the ferocious Atlantic waves to produce the highest sea cliffs in Ireland (and the third highest in Europe at 688 meters).
Mayo is a laid back surf haven but people also visit the county’s dazzling beaches to kayak, kiteboard, paraglide, swim and dive. Outdoor enthusiast can explore Mayo’s Blueway trails or cycle the Great Western Greenway – one of the world’s most scenic cycleways.
The WAW Surf Coast ends at Erris, at the western tip of Mayo, and the majestic Bay Coast, a salty fresh-air playground, takes over from Erris into Connemara in western Galway. If you are looking for savage Irish beauty along with plenty of history and culture, Mayo is the place to be.
Mayo Surf Scene Facts:
When the early Irish surfing pioneers ventured south from the spiritual home of Irish surfing in Rossnowlagh, County Donegal, they soon discovered Sligo. Naturally, Mayo became the next surfing frontier. Once you pass Easkey’s limestone reef breaks you soon reach the wilds of Mayo. You might not see any surfers, but they are there.
Ballina is the capital town but the largest town in Mayo is Castlebar (population 34,000) followed by Claremorris. Mayo is well serviced by rail and a number of national primary roads and easily accessible by Ireland West Airport Knock near the famous religious shrine at nearby Knock Village.
Mayo has always felt the effect of high emigration but the county can now boast that its great surfing is making young people stay put and attracting in foreigners. And when you land in Mayo make sure you learn the local lingo as nine percent of Mayo’s population live in the Irish speaking Gaeltacht.
Hikers might like to hike to the top of Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain that overlooks Clew Bay that houses 365 islands, one for every day of the year and one owned by John Lennon. Clew Bay is home to the picturesque villages of Louisburgh, Murrisk and Mulranny – the gateway to Achill Island.
Local Surfer: Charles O Malley
Local Mayo surfer Charles O Malley felt lucky to grow up in Murrisk village at the foot of Croagh Patrick halfway between Westport and Louisburgh. His mother would drop him to the beach where he would hang out with one of his older brothers who worked for Surf Mayo one of the first Irish surf schools run by Elvis Beetham.
“My older brothers started surfing in the mid-Nineties and I copied everything they did. When I was a student I would teach kids in surf camp in the mornings for SURFMAYO and Lifeguard on Carrownisky Strand in the afternoons seven days a week. Summers were always hectic working on the beach every day but good fun also and helped fund my studies in IT Sligo.”
According to Charles, surfing in Mayo is quite special because the county has such a vast amount of coastline. The beaches on the north and west coasts are exposed to all the swell that meets the Wild Atlantic Way. After a stint in Dublin and Galway working as an engineer, Charles returned to his home roots in Mayo in 2018 and started working with Elvis from SURFMAYO.
“I’m lucky now that I’m living beside the coast again that I can fit in surfing in the mornings and evenings with running the surf school.”
Charles says ‘the big difference between summer and winter surfing is definitely the water temperature as it’s much cooler in the winter and the waves can be a bit bigger also. However, once you have a good winter wetsuit it makes it much easier to enjoy winter surfing around Mayo.”
Outside of surfing, Charles recommends other activities like cycling the Greenway, stand up paddle-boarding, windsurfing, kitesurfing, fishing, camping, swimming, playing GAA, rugby, football.
After all this action you will be pleased to know that between Westport and Louisburgh there are many great cafés, restaurants, and bars where locals and tourists enjoy hanging out. Charles reckons his local beach, Carrownisky Strand, is a great surfing beach: “however there many great surfing beaches in Achill and Belmullet also.”
“If you want to get into surfing in Mayo, my colleague Elvis is the man with the most knowledge to introduce you to surfing. He moved from Cornwall to Mayo twelve years ago and has taught hundreds of people to catch their first wave.”
SURFMAYO was Mayo’s first surf school, established in 1998, and one of the first surf schools and surf hire companies established in Ireland. SURFMAYO School of Surfing caters for all ages and abilities in surfing and offer professional surf coaching and equipment with coaches who are highly experienced, passionate surfers. SURFMAYO offers a taste of the ultimate surfing experience on the Wild Atlantic Way.
I learn from Charles that Danny Hedley from Louisburgh is the local up and coming teenage surfer. He began learning to surf with SURFMAYO eight years ago and you’ll often see him in the water preparing for events like the National Irish Surfing Association competitions.
Danny is also training to become a beach lifeguard and hopes to become a Surf Instructor. Charles tells me he ‘will be sure to spread his knowledge onto the next generation’.
More at surfmayo.com
Brothers Fergal and Kevin Smith:
Fergal and Kevin Smith grew up four miles outside of Westport on an organic vegetable farm. Their family used to go to Achill Island on the weekends in the summer. Fergal’s dad tried surfing and he and his brother soon followed when Fergal was about seven years of age.
Being from Westport, Fergal was closer to Louisberg which is where he decided to go to school, to be closer to the waves. Now he could surf after school. Fergal surfed Keel Beach in Achill Island until he reached his teens when he started exploring other surf spots.
“I have amazing memories of Achill Island and I still love going there,” says Fergal. Finally, Fergal’s older brother Kevin, also an avid surfer, got a car and the true adventure began. Every day they would venture all over Mayo and out to Belmullet to go surfing. Fergal began to excel the better the waves became.
Kevin Smith is a standout Mayo surfer in his own right who is now a professional photographer. But it was Fergal who decided to focus on becoming a professional surfer. Kevin went off surfing to Australia and became an engineer. When he came back to Ireland, Fergal’s surfing career was taking off and his brother decided to turn professional. Fergal needed someone to film him surfing and Kevin was always interested in photography.
The two brothers began one of the most remarkable collaborations in Irish surfing history culminating in the fantastic Growing Series.
“Surfing, as a teenager, was my dream in life to pursue.” explains Fergal, “And I really wanted to see how good I could get, to push myself but also to surf these amazing waves in Ireland.”
Before Fergal, the days when the surf was huge were spent watching the massive waves break from the safety of the shore. Fergal grew up seeing these waves breaking but he hadn’t seen people riding them. He knew it was possible. In fact, with partners in crime Mickey Smith and Tom Lowe from Cornwall, he went ahead and made it possible, busting down the door for others to follow. With minimal equipment and money, this power trio broke down the perception of what was possible in Irish waters.
The Mayo coastline borders on Enniscrone, home of local surfing legend Cain Kilcullen, the manager of the family-run seaweed baths.
“I grew up with Cain Kilcullen who is still in my opinion and in most people’s opinion one of or the best talented Irish surfers that there ever has been. I had the privilege of growing up with him.” says Fergal.
Inevitably Fergal began to venture farther afield in search of more waves. Fergal learned a lot from the varied coastline of Mayo and the precocious talent of Cain Kilcullen and began to attract the attention of surfing magazines and photographers. Soon, he was the most photographed surfer in the world.
Fergal enjoyed his work as a professional surfer, surfing all over Ireland and also doing overseas trips to Australia and Tahiti. But growing up on an organic farm he knew in his heart that he would sooner or later go back to this occupation. Fergal now is part of the Moy Hill community Community assisted agriculture project based in County Clare but says he still misses the winter swells in Mayo.
Fergal says “One thing I miss living in Clare is all the mountains. In Mayo, there are beautiful mountains everywhere.”
Filming professional surfing led Kevin to wildlife photography a job Fergal thinks he ‘definitely enjoys more than civil engineering’. “What is great about Kev is he has all the degrees and could work in any city but he really wants to live in the west of Ireland”
According to Kevin, surfing in Mayo is still fairly new and there were little to no surfers in the water in the early 1990s. “I feel Mayo was a lot slower than other counties to get large numbers regularly surfing. Mayo has a lot of great surfable beaches to explore out past Louisburgh to Achill or Belmullet. Now we have a lot of great surf schools, for example, SURFMAYO in Carrowniskey and a lot more people are enjoying the waves around Mayo.”
Kevin says the unique thing about surfing in Mayo is “seeing the mountains in the background as you surf with no one around; it is quite special.”
“There is not a huge surf scene but it is cool hanging out at Carrownisky, experimenting with Elvis’s self-shaped surfboards and there is a great welcoming surf scene around Belmullet too and always good vibes in the water.”
“There have been some great surfers to come out of Mayo; Rory Tuey and Fergal Smith spring to mind. Now there is a great local lad called Danny Hedley from Louisburgh.”
In summary, you don’t need to be a professional to surf in Mayo. In fact, Mayo really suits beginner and intermediate surfers. Plus, it is a nice, quiet part of rural Ireland. It houses a low key surf scene packed with mellow surfers just going surfing. There might be some campfires and BBQs but there are certainly no fans or photographer thronging the sand dunes.
Fergal Smith explained to me about how hard granite makes for a rough coastline. Softer rocks make smoother coastlines where there is more chance of waves being found. Sligo and Clare have flat soft Limestone rocks and you’ll find a lot of waves there but Galway has a different type of rock which forms islands and pinnacles but doesn’t yield much surf.
“Regardless of the waves, going to Achill Island is a beautiful experience you will definitely enjoy.” says Fergal Smith, “For adventure, take a trip to Belmullet and Louisburg has a small surf scene and there are some really nice people out there.”
Achill Island can boast some of the finest beaches in Ireland including five blue flag beaches.
We will visit Fergal and his brother again in our next installment of the Insiders Guide when we arrive in County Clare skipping Galway as it doesn’t have the same level of surfing as Mayo simply because of geology.
Pure Magic on Achill Island:
Over ten years ago, a dedicated, world traveled watersports team, including Frenchman Francois Colussi, found a kitesurfing paradise on Achill Island. All year, Achill is swept by wind which is perfect for kitesurfing. The island has plenty of spots to practice kitesurfing including lakes and beaches. Achill is the first land mass in Europe to receive the wind from the Atlantic and it blows!
The Pure Magic centre, situated at the foot of Slievemore Mountain and overlooking Keel Lake, takes full advantage of this fact. Achill is such a world-class venue for the sport that the 2012 World Kitesurfing Championships were held there.
The Pure Magic team created the Battle of the Lake to celebrate the finale of the Irish Kitesurfing Tour. Every year, at the same windy time, kitesurfers from home and abroad head to Achill Island, along with water fanatics, beach lovers, music lovers and all sort of other lovers. The competition is intense but good natured and the legendary afterparty has grown into a festival in its own right.
Other activities like stand up paddle boarding, surfing, sea kayaking, angling, horse riding, land yachting, walking, cycling, climbing, snorkeling are all within easy reach of the Pure Magic centre which also boasts a lodge and restaurant.
All this and more make Achill Island the perfect place to relax and unplug from the mainland.
Find out more at PureMagic