THE story of how four brothers in Donegal brought surfing to Ireland will be featured on national radio next week.
In 1966 surfing was practically unheard of in Ireland. It certainly wasn’t an activity that was done off the rainy chilly west coast of Ireland. Surfing was the sport of Hawaiian kings and of blonde tanned Californians.
That is until Mary Britton, owner of the Sandhouse Hotel at Rossnowlagh went to California and thought to herself that the waves back home in Donegal were just as good as – if not better than those Californian waves.
Mary ordered two surfboards to be delivered to Donegal for use by her hotel guests. Not that the hotel guests ever got a chance to use them.
Four of Mary’s five sons: Brian, Conor, Barry and Willie, got their hands on the boards and they were hooked – for life. Surfing would be a sport that would bring them together and almost drive them apart.
Willie was only 8, Barry was 11, Conor was 14 and Brian 17. There were no such things as wetsuits when they went into the water with the boards at Christmas 1966. Sodden Aran jumpers and Marigold gloves was what they tried in vain to use in order to keep warm. Nor was there anybody around to teach them how to actually surf – they just had to figure it out for themselves.
And figure it out they did. The eldest brother, Brian, became involved with organising the sport of surfing into an association and in running competitions. But the two younger brothers Barry and Willie were ‘soul surfers’.
They didn’t like the idea of surf clubs and competitions. The issue drove a wedge between the brothers culminating in a protest by the ‘Black Wetsuit Brigade’ on the cliffs of Easkey County Sligo overlooking a Smirnoff-sponsored surf competition organised by Brian and others.
After almost coming to physical blows over the issue several times, the boys found a way to come to a truce. They eventually agreed that when they talked about surfing in the future they would only talk about the waves.
Of course the Britton boys weren’t the only ones who were discovering surfing in 1960s Ireland. Kevin Cavey from Dublin also discovered surfing and started experimenting with crafting his own surf board in his back garden, importing surfboards and road-tripping around Ireland on ‘surfari’.
Kevin became firm friends with the boys, especially Brian, with whom he organised events and competitions. It’s 22 years since the Britton brothers have been surfing together. While Barry and Willie both moved back to Rossnowlagh so that they could build their lives around surfing, Conor and Brian don’t get in the water as often as they did when they were young.
In 2014 we record the four brothers – now in their 50s and 60s – as they finally get in the water together again. And when they emerge from the sea, buzzing from an amazing surf – they only talk about the waves.
The Beach Boys of Rossnowlagh will be aired in the Documentary on One series on Saturday, July 12, at 2pm on RTE Radio 1.
Bernie McGuigan, (44), is originally from Mountcharles in Donegal. She works in a GP practice in Malahide village.
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