Big-wave surfer John McCarthy is standing in front of a group of about 50 people.
Recognisable from an iconic bank advert that showed him surfing at the Cliffs of Moher, McCarthy is slender and tanned. He’s dressed in runners, jeans, and a check shirt and he wears an over-the-ear microphone.
“We’re going to start today with Colossians: Chapter 1,” he says. McCarthy is a pioneer of Irish surfing: he was among the first to ride and is credited with naming the gargantuan Aileen’s Wave that crashes at the cliffs. In 2006 he won a bronze medal for Ireland at the European Surfing Championships.
However, in that same year, McCarthy’s life swivelled on its axis when he surrendered his life to Jesus and today he is an assistant pastor who gives bible teachings to the congregation in North Clare Community Church, the church he co-founded in Lahinch.
In a new radio documentary, Shipwreck and Deliverance, 42-year-old McCarthy speaks candidly about his life before and after his conversion. From his early teens in his native Tramore, Co Waterford, McCarthy styled himself as a classic surfer dude.
Handsome, athletic, and outwardly confident, surfing was essential to his identity and his ego. He was winning national surf titles and representing Ireland at international surf events.
However, the gilded facade was masking a burgeoning unease.
“If I had stopped long enough at that time I’d probably have looked and seen things about my life that I didn’t want to confront.”
By his late 20s, McCarthy’s life was unravelling: he was drinking heavily and his personal relationships were foundering.
“My friends might come to Lahinch for the weekend to surf and if the wind turned and the waves went bad for the afternoon, it might be like: ‘Okay, come on — everyone’s going to the pub’,” says McCarthy.
“There was a day I sat down in the pub and I saw where it was going. I was like, ‘No, I can’t’.” Sensing a void in his life but unable to pinpoint it, McCarthy began searching.
“I was backpacking in Australia at the time. I bought a book on world religions, read about Jesus, and from there bought a bible. So, I just started to open up to the idea that maybe God is the answer or something like that.”
At the very end of a surfing contest in Easkey in Co Sligo, McCarthy had an accidental but fateful meeting with Steve Boal, a born-again Christian pastor.
“I was involved in ministry to surfers at the time,” says Boal.
“God just sparked something between us,” he says of his first encounter with McCarthy.
“I could tell that John was hungry to learn of the reality of Jesus.” In 2005, McCarthy and Boal travelled to a conference in England organised by Christian Surfers International.
“It was just full of surfers, who loved Jesus, having a great time together,” Boal says.
McCarthy was bemused by the sight of long-haired, guitar-playing surfers praising God, but when he attended the event the following year, June 24, 2006, he experienced an epiphany.
“I really felt the call of God in my soul,” McCarthy says.
“I could not physically see, but, in my mind’s eye, Jesus Christ was on the cross, his blood was falling, and a drop of his blood fell on to my hand.
“And I knew I was guilty. That Jesus went to the cross not just for the sins of the world, but for my sins.
“But there and then I felt the embrace of, ‘John, I have died for your sins, come’. I had such a thirst in my soul. There was a surrender.”
Immediately, McCarthy was imbued with a mission to dedicate himself to God.
“It’s like as if someone came along in the morning and paid off your mortgage: you’re now debt-free and you want to tell the world.” McCarthy’s new-found purpose recalibrated his relationships.
“He’s born-again, so it’s a new John,” says Martin Cullinane, who runs T-Bay Surf and Eco Centre in Tramore and is friends with McCarthy since their teens.
“You’re talking about a few different things with John, but it always comes back to his passion, which is his beliefs. We just don’t have the same religious beliefs and that would normally not matter to most people, but it is a bit of a barrier.
“Our friendship is back to where it started. It’s just surfing,” says Cullinane.
“But whenever I get to surf with him, it’s a good day.” McCarthy’s missionary fervour takes him to unlikely places, including the Ballinasloe Horse Fair and the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival.
However, for a former software engineer, McCarthy also embraces technology to promote the word of God. McCarthy has just embarked on a new project called Cliffs of Hope that uses short videos that he posts on Facebook to send a message of faith from the Cliffs of Moher.
“There are so many thirsty people looking for meaning, so many people at the end of themselves, so many people with regrets,” he says.
“That’s the joy of the internet: you can share a message of hope and it can be watched anywhere by one person or by 1,000 people. But if it [Cliffs of Hope] can encourage one person at the right time, that is success and that’s all I’m aiming for,” he says.
McCarthy is unruffled about presenting himself as a Christian pastor in a society where religion is an increasingly contentious subject.
“I don’t want religion. I want a relationship with God,” McCarthy told me the first time I met him to record the documentary.
He was sitting at his kitchen table and had a black bible. Its pages were festooned with pink and blue highlighting and yellow post-its in front of him as he prepared a bible teaching.
Before that and every interview we did, McCarthy said a prayer that his contribution would give God his glory. McCarthy, who, with his wife Rachel, owns Lahinch Surf School, travelled the world — Hawaii, Indonesia, Brazil — in search of the perfect wave, but found it much closer to home.
Ironically, the thunderous, 12m barrel known as Aileen’s Wave that assaults the Cliffs of Moher is the closest wave to McCarthy’s house.
After helping to ‘discover’ Aileen’s — a wave described by scientists at NUI Galway as the nearest thing to a “perfect wave” — in 2006 and surfing it for a decade, McCarthy stopped due to concerns about his safety and whether he was serving God’s will.
However, as Shipwreck and Deliverance reveals, McCarthy believes that God spoke to him and insisted that McCarthy get back on his surfboard. The documentary accompanies McCarthy as he attempts to return to surfing at one of the world’s most famous big-waves.
“In Romans 12:6, it says: ‘Having gifts, then let us use them’. And I really felt like God say to me: ‘John, I want you to use your gift of surfing’,” says McCarthy.
“God has given each of us gifts that He wants us to pursue and develop, but to do it all for his glory: to use it as an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus.”
- Funded by the BAI, Shipwreck and Deliverance broadcasts on Newstalk 106-108fm on Sunday, November 19 at 8am and is repeated on Saturday November 25 at 10pm.