To tell the history of surfing in Tramore it is important to tell the whole story of surfing in Ireland as Tramore from the very beginning has been at the core of Irish surfing.
Many believed that surfing on these shores began in the 1960’s with pioneers such of Kevin Cavey or Ian Hill but we have recently discovered that the opening chapter in the book on Ireland’s surfing history may actually have begun a couple of decades earlier...
Picture this: Circa 1949, a quiet stretch of beach near Dundalk in county Louth. Weekend strollers, many still dressed in their Sunday best, walk and wade along the seashore. A few of the braver ones bathe and splash about in knee-deep water. The general mood of these seasonal beach-goers matches the lazy sound of the gentle waves that spill and roll towards the shore. But not everyone in the vicinity shares the same balmy, end-of-summer malaise. About a mile out to sea, unbeknown to the people frolicking on the beach, a fit and dexterous 14-year-old lad is paddling hard toward shore on a craft never seen before in Irish waters.
Joe Roddy, the son of an Irish lighthouse keeper, has just launched his latest home-made contraption, a four-metre paddle-board made mostly from discarded tea chests and lashings of sturdy lighthouse paint. Joe got the design from a woodworker’s manual but, with all the materials required to build such a craft in short supply after World War II, was forced to improvise. Having to make do with very little was a simple fact of life for young Joe who would soon become renown for his beachside acrobatic skills and home-made gymnasium equipment, as well as his life-long fascination for the sea.
Joe's strong maritime leanings meant he was seen by land-lubbers as being a bit peculiar. After all, thiRods was the same man whose curiosity for what lived under the sea drove to him to develop his own set of primitive scuba diving equipment.
Flippers? No bother for Joe, simply cut off some aluminium downpipe and flatten it out into triangular shapes before attaching them onto an old pair of boots. Goggles? Easy, just a few minor adjustments to an old military gas mask. As for a wetsuit? Ah sure, just paint a few coats of tar onto some Long John underwear.
Such dedication would see Joe help pioneer Ireland's fledgling diving scene. He eventually went on to represent Ireland at the World Scuba Championships at Cuba in 1967, complete with his own set of home-made spearguns. But it wasn’t what was underwater that had captured Joe’s full attention on this particular summer’s day in the Irish Sea in 1949. Rather, it was the delightful feel of his sleek-wooden craft as it picked up speed with an incoming wave. A few more paddles and Joe instinctively scrambled to his feet and then, standing erect, rode tall and proud in similar manner to ancient Hawaiians while aiming his half-submerged tea chest craft towards the unsuspecting group of bathers and strollers on the beach. Suddenly there was a bit of commotion on the shore. A surprised murmur quickly turned to gasps of shock and awe as more heads turned and looked up to the dark and mysterious Christ-like apparition standing on water that was fast approaching them. Joe was greeted by stunned silence from the astonished crowd. He fondly recalls seeing nothing but “the whites of their eyes and their gobs wide open,” as he stepped off onto the beach and into the history books to become Ireland’s first surfer.
Joe is semi-retired these days but is never too far from the ocean where he lives in south Kerry. He keeps a keen interest in the family charter boat business operating around Port McGee and the Skelligs. So while the Patrons Pilgrimage Surfari was in full swing Joe was probably fishing somewhere in Kerry while happily reflecting on his own small but important contribution to Irish surfing.
Kevin Cavey, the daddy of Irish Surfing, first heard about surfing in a Readers Digest in 1962 and having tried to ride a skim board made by a local farmer in Kerry, he progressed onto a sophisticated craft constructed of marine ply with insulation stuck to the bottom and on this he became Ireland's first kneeboarder. This was not a total success and nor was Plywood Mark 2, except for towing behind boats, so Kevin put in an order for a balsa kit board and in the meantime he headed off to the States. While he was there he took a side trip to Hawaii and surfed Sunset Beach, making the mistake of underestimating the size of the waves and getting pounded by 12' surf , but only after catching a "gasser". As he dragged himself out of the water, minus his board, he watched the sky fill with American Globemasters taking off from Hickam field and turning west for Vietnam. In California he saw his first fibreglass board, which was lent to him by friendly locals and he surfed Rincon and Huntington beach with friend, Jim Duane.
Another influential surfer in the early years is Ian Hill from Portrush, father of six times Irish champion, Andy Hill. Ian saw surfing for the first time while on holiday in Bude in September 1963 and he bought his first board from Bob Herd of Bilbo in 1964. He surfed Tullan and Bundoran all that summer before heading to England where he lived until 1979.
However Kevin Cavey returned home more convinced than ever that Ireland had considerable potential for the sport of surfing. This was followed by a momentous event, (in terms of Irish Surfing at least) the 1966 Irish Boat Show at the R.D.S. It was at this time that Kevin Cavey, took a stand at the Show under the banner of the Bray Island Surf Club.
At the Boat Show a few other external influences came to bear. Kevin got in touch with Pat McNulty, Editor of Surfer Magazine (and father of Joe and Terrence McNulty) and he sent across posters of Greg Knoll at Waimea Bay to help dress the stand whose main feature was a fifteen foot safety board from the Irish Red Cross. Roger Steadman, honourary Irishman, had just moved to Dublin and he arrived at the show with fibreglass surfboards and instantly became a member of the new Club. Kevin had already caught his very first wave on the finlee balsawood board at Gyles Quay, Dundalk in May '65 but America had convinced him that fibreglass was the way foreward and he ordered a new board from Doug Wilson of Bilbo at a cost of £33.00.
Things began to move quickly after the Boat Show. In the spring of '66 Kevin organised the first surfing Safari with his brother, Colm Patrick Kinsella from R.T.E. and American Tom Casey who was soon to be drafted and unfortunately died later in Vietnam. The Bilbo board had arrived and the first stop for the missionaries was Strandhill in Co. Sligo. From there they travelled to Bundoran where they managed to get washed up on the rocks ( like many's the one since), having headed out into the eye of a westerly storm. A little further north they found friendlier surf at Rossnowlagh where they met up with friends of the family Vinnie and Mary Britton. Vinnie and Mary could both see a place for surfing on the Irish coast and another critical point in the development of surfing in Ireland occured when they took steps to involve their young sons Brian, Conor, Barry and William.
From Rossnowlagh the Surfari moved up to Cruit Island, Marble Strand and Portrush where Kevin met up with Desmond 'Bow' Vance with whom he had been corresponding for sometime. This liaison put in motion what would turn out to be a great infusion into the sport.
When they got back from tour they formed the Surf Club of Ireland which was based in Mount Herbert, Bray. The first committee of the new club consisted of such people as Kevin Cavey, Roger Steadman and Harry Evans who was brought in by Roger, who in turn brought in Aer Lingus pilot Johnny Lee, Henry Howard, Tony Gleeson, Ken and Helen McCabe and the grommet, Brian Britton. Because of Kevin's continuous correspondence with Pat McNulty of Surfer Mag. Ireland suddenly received an invitation to join the 1966 World Championships. The Club voted Kevin Ireland's first International Cap and he flew to San Diego, California to represent us at our first World Championships. Here he renewed his acquaintance with Rodney Sumpter, of England, met the legendary Kahanamoku and watched Nat Young bring in the new age of surfing. Kevin, who was sponsored by Gordon and Smith Surfboards, reached the quarter finals of the contest at Ocean Beach in 4-5 feet of surf, so we certainly weren't disgraced.
On his return Kevin began making regular trips to Tramore where he involved some young life guards, Hugh O'Brien Moran, Paul and Dave Kenny, Brian Griffin, Justin O'Mahoney, Eamon Mathews and the Musgrave brothers. He was helped in this process by Tim Heyland of Tiki, who had begun to make the first of many journeys across the Irish Sea. Roger in the meantime was heading the west as a representative of the newly formed C.& S. Surf Board Company ( Cavey & Steadman ) with the famous shamrock logo which can still be seen on some of the remaining boards ( or bits of boards ) from that era. Roger introduced Mike Murphy, Eddie Comber, Vivienne Evans (Irelands first female surfer), Frank McEnnis, Andrew Brislane, Hugh Milne and Sam Mc Crum to the joys of the sport, while they in turn introduced him to all night singing and drinking sessions.in Lahinch and Ennistymon.
In 1967 the Surf Club of Ireland held the first National Championships in Tramore thanks to the knowledge Kevin had gained at the '66 World Championships. Rodney Sumpter turned up to help as did a journalist from California by the name of Alan Rich along with Tiger Newling, John Trout and Nick Kavanagh from England. Many of the names at that first contest will be familiar to those on the north coast, names such as Charlie Adgie, Davy Govan, Martin Lloyd and Ted Alexander who came 3rd behind Kevin and Eamon Mathews. Rod Sumpter won the International event. The contest was deemed to be a great success by all and it heralded the dawn of a new era for surfing in this island.
The contest was repeated in '68, once again in Tramore with Ted taking the National title. 1968 also saw the first running of the Irish Intercounty Championships at Rossnowlagh where Down beat Wicklow in the final. As they haven't a wave between them, it's no surprise that neither county has featured in a final ever since. The following summer, 1969, an Irish team attended the inaugural European Surfing Championships in Jersey in the Channel Islands. Aside from Kevin and Harry Evans of the S.C.I. the team for this first trip was made up of Tramore and North Shore Surfers, which began a see-saw relationship between the Clubs that still goes on today. The team included Davy Govan, Alan Duke and Bow Vance from the North and Eamon Mathews and Dave Kenny from the South. The team for the following Europeans in 1970, also in Jersey, included a young junior who was to become Ireland's most successful international competetive surfer of all time, Hugh O'Brien Moran. Hugh has been Irish champion on 4 occasions and he represented Ireland up to 1991 when he retired following a Silver medal in the Masters division of the European Championships in France. Hugh's influence and popularity in the sport would be hard to overstate but suffice to say that over 400 people turned up for his retirement dinner in Tramore last year. Hugh and his wife, Margaret, former Irish Ladies Champion, are now professional photographers and official photographers for the I.S.A. Another surfer from the early days worthy of a special mention was the most innovative of Irish Surfers, Alan Duke. A few years after the 1969 & 1970 Europeans, Alan, four times Irish champion, was riding his famous six foot six 'Wellington Boot' at a time when most Irish surfers were carefully considering whether to drop below the nine foot mark. Some never did. Surfers such as Clive Davies of Enniskillen who still rides a ten foot board which he takes on an annual trip to the north shore of Hawaii where he counts amongst his friends some of the top pros of yesteryear.
In the late sixties members of the Surf Club of Ireland had began to break away to form other clubs leaving the I.S.A. to represent surfers in the Dublin area. The new clubs were the South Coast Surf Club at Tramore, the West Coast Surf Club at Lahinch, the Rossnowlagh Surf Club in Donegal, the North Shore Surf Club in Portrush and in Cork, Tom Flynn, Jean O'Connell, the O'Brien brothers and Jane Cross formed the Fastnet Surf Club. In 1970 the clubs created the Irish Surfing Association, the governing body of surfing in Ireland ever since. Following the first Limerick Leader Contest in Lahinch in 1971 the I.S.A. decided to accept an offer to host the 1972 European Championships which was made by the then E.S.F. and later the world governing body President Reginal G. Prytherch of England. The Eurosurf '72 committee was made up of the West Coast Surf Club, Kevin, Tom Flynn, Harry Evans, Michael Vaughan and the youngsters Ted Alexander and Brian Britton. They organised a highly successful contest in Lahinch, Co. Clare which was unfortunately devoid of the essential ingredient of surf. Only the Junior division was held and the winner was Dai Halpin of Wales. However, Ireland's reputation as a surf mecca was created when Spanish Point came on line with classic surf the day after the contest and with the swell up, a major surfari was organised up the west coast from Lahinch to Rossnowlagh. That surfari contained many international surfers and they were rewarded for extending their stay with waves of eight to ten feet, gentle offshores and glorious sunshine. The ensuing publicity led to Ireland establishing herself as a surfing venue for visitors from all around the world.
In the early seventies new groups of surfers began to appear. Grant Robinson (who later became National Champion four times and European Masters Champion in 1987), Dave Pierce, Stan Burns, Tom Hickey, the Byrne brothers and Roci Allan (who returned to the sport having first surfed with his sister Susan in Rossnowlagh as far back as 1968 on a board belonging to a friend from the Channel Islands). Youngsters such as Brian Cromie, Wesley and Ashley Moore and Graham Stinson became the second generation of North Shore Surfers. Ray McDaid, Kevin McClosky, Dara Daly and the McGuinness brothers took on the mantle in Rossnowlagh while a never ending supply of young Moores began to dominate on the south coast. However, about this time many of the major names in organised surfing began to take sabbaticals. Harry Evans stepped down due to work pressures, Roger Steadman left Ireland with his wife Rosemary in 1973 to go to Kuala Lumpur and from there to Africa where he still remains. In 1975 Kevin Cavey left for Canada to return six years later and we are happy to report that he continues to surf in Ireland today. 1975 also sew the departure of Brian Britton to Zambia although he returned with renewed enthusiasm for the sport in 1978.
The mid-seventies was also a transitional time in the development of world surfing. Abroad the sport had begun to split into two factions. In 1976 professional surfers Fred Hemmings, Randy Rarrick, Peter Townend and Ian Kearns who had been running the Pro Classic Trials as well as a number of professional contests such as the Pipeline Masters, the Kananmoka Classic and the Smirnoff Pro. devised an event rating system that would be used to determine surfing's first World Champion. They also came up with a name for this new concept - International Professional Surfing or I.P.S. (later to become the ASP). This was purely for the professional surfer and it prompted the formation of the first amateur surfing body when the International Surfing Association was formed in 1976 with South African Basil Lombard as its President. Today, the I.S.A. represents surfers in 44 countries throughout the world. Through the I.S.A. surfing finally achieved Olympic recognition in the winter of 1996 and it is expected to be shown as an exhibition sport in Sydney in 2000 and to become a full sport in 2004.
Back in Ireland surfing was experiencing its own difficulties. The return of Brian Britton heralded the restructuring of Irish surfing and in 1979 the ISA in conjunction with Smirnoff Vodka, organised a highly successful international event at Easkey in Co. Sligo. The surf and the weather were perfect and the resultant publicity both at home and abroad took Irish surfing into a new 'fast track' which culminated in Guinness Eurosurf '85 being held in Bundoran. The Smirnoff International also became a rallying point for those surfers who felt that surfing was becoming too organised and that the arrival of a multi-national sponsor was taking surfing too far from its roots. This 'revolution' led to a meeting of all the surfers of Ireland which set out some parameters for the successful development of the sport in Ireland with broad harmony being achieved amongst all surfers.
However, the success of Guinness Eurosurf '85 and the popularisation of beach life by T.V. programs Baywatch and Home & Away combined with the elevation of surf wear to 'trendy' status left the ISA with its hands on the tail of a tiger by the earlier nineties. Fortunately, the combined energies of people such as Brian Britton, Roci Allan, Zoe Lally (Ireland's top woman surfer for many years)., Michael 'Sceach' Kelly, Ian Hill and the Fitzgeralds blended with the steadying influence of gentle but continual pressure from non-aligned surfers such as Gary Salter, Davy Govan, Willy and Barry Britton and Patsy O'Kane, has led to the development of an extremely vibrant Association. The I.S.A. now boasts many clubs, runs courses for coaches, beginners and disadvantaged children, supervises the standards of outdoor pursuit centres and is heavily involved in such diverse areas as Environmental Protection, Health & Safety and Child Protection.
That Ireland has surf to rival any country in the world is not disputed. It can also boast organisers who have chaired the European Surfing Federation for more years than almost any other country and it currently holds the Vice-Presidency. At world level an Irish man up until recently was one of the four Vice-Presidents in the International Surfing Association, co-ordinating the development of surfing in the Euro-Africa region. We have produced many international judges of world ranking such as Stan Burns and Irish judges have won acclaim at every level in world surfing. The challenge for the next decade is to see whether the Irish surfers, through the I.S.A. and its non-aligned friends, can meet the challenge of the pressures being created by the huge increase in the popularity of the sport and still retain the friendly welcome for which Ireland has become renowned around the world. Only time will tell and in the meantime the waves roll in on a coastline that 'has the best surf outside Hawaii'.