Lives gladly spent chasing moments of transcendence

Cliffs Of Insanity:A Winter on Ireland’s Big Waves

Keith Duggan

Transworld Ireland, £14.99

Review: Simon Lewis

For those of us whose surfing experience begins and ends with the purchase of a trendy t-shirt at one of the numerous high street clothing emporia to have successfully exploited the board culture so vividly portrayed in Duggan’s chronicle, the thought that it should be played out on Irish shores is at odds with our perceptions.

When we think of west coast surf we imagine the glamour of California, and bronzed bodies effortlessly riding waves to a Beach Boys soundtrack. Not for us land-loving posers the freezing waters and life-threatening rocks of Clare and Donegal.

Even for those a little more curious about surfing, the nearest most get to the experience is by watching a few short clips on YouTube, but in Cliffs of Insanity Duggan gives a voice to those often blurred and faceless images whose personalities are as hidden in those videos as the dangerous rocks and coral that linger beneath the surface.

Centring on the life of a young Mayo surfer named Fergal Smith, whose talents are quickly earning him world renown, Duggan traces a winter on the desolate and beautiful shores of the Irish coast, where a small band of dedicated surfers from this country and beyond pursue some of the Atlantic’s biggest waves.

This is a life of bitterly cold days, hours spent drifting in freezing water in the hope of catching a heavy wave and the sometimes dire consequences of poor decision-making when a choice made in the blink of an eye can land you with broken bones and near drownings.

The names Aileen’s and Riley’s suggests pubs to most folk, but to Smith and his fellow travellers they speak of two of the wildest waves on Ireland’s west coast and the few seconds of exhilaration they offer to those who can ride them balanced precariously on a surfboard.

Through his excellently drawn observations and the words of the surfers he interviews, Duggan brings those moments crashing home to the reader, both the rewards of successfully conquering Aileen’s under the awe-inspiring shadow of the Cliffs of Moher and either the pain or fright, or both, when a miscalculation is made.

Duggan allows his collection of surfers to explain the elemental pull.

“Sometimes surfing can seem like the most frivolous pursuit in the world,” Duggan writes at the start of a chapter. “It is, after all, about nothing more than chasing an intensely personal wish for escapism, about spending hour after hour in the water for a few seconds of transcendent experience.”

Yet to these guys, whose number includes Mickey Smith, a Cornish man whose brilliant pictures feature on the cover and within this book, surfing is, as one of them puts it, “all about the addiction of chasing the next big wave and hopefully it will be better than the last one.”

There are contradictions, however, as the lads at the centre of Duggan’s book readily understand. The waters are getting more crowded as a new generation of Irish surfers emerges, their fascination for Aileen’s and Riley’s bred watching the likes of Fergal Smith, filmed by his namesake Mickey Smith courtesy of his sponsors, on YouTube.

Ironically, that burgeoning appeal for surfing will scarcely abate if the quality of Duggan’s book is properly recognised.

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