CURRENT ISSUE:  August 2023

Surfer on a yellow surfboard surfing on waves at Strand Hill Beach in Sligo

Akron Irish: Secret Surfers


iIrish Akron Irish Columnist: Lisa O'Rourke


For more articles from Lisa O’Rourke and the Akron Irish team, click here!


Imagine, if you will, the Atlantic Ocean off the Irish coast. I’m sure that your vision has way more jackets than bikinis in it, and you would be right.

You probably also imagined pristine white beaches with stunning cliffs and teal colored water reflecting the green of the surrounding hills. Your vision might have included some people, maybe some Aran-sweatered fisherman sailing out in curraghs, the iconic little tarred fishing boats.

I am betting that your imagination did not envision beaches full of surfers and boards. Thankfully, someone did imagine just that.

Some fifty years ago, Kevin Cavey, a Dublin boy obsessed with American culture, looked at a National Geographic magazine and saw a surfer. His curiosity was piqued. A shift in family fortunes took young Kevin to Bray, a coastal town.

He remembered the surfer, riding cresting waves on top of a board. This was the 60s, the beginning of surf culture, blond tan surfers, Beach Boys, bikinis, and perfect waves. Why wasn’t anyone trying this in Ireland?

The main obstacle to getting started was the lack of a board. Kevin was determined and used to improvising in many cultural aspirations, since Ireland was more cut off from the world.

After finding out that building a surfboard was trickier than it looked (he made something like a table top), he allowed himself to be persuaded by his parish priest to follow his dreams and buy his own board, for the princely sum of twenty-five dollars. That was the moment that changed his life.


Keep It Secret movie poster
Keep It Secret movie poster via keepitasecretfilm Instagram

Keep It a Secret

Kevin’s story is told in the documentary Keep it a Secret, by Irish-American filmmaker Sean Duggan. Sean was intrigued as a teenager by what he saw on a family trip to Bonduran in Donegal, no less than a multitude of perfect waves.

He immediately wondered had anyone noticed this before? His journey led him back to the 60s and to Kevin. Of course, it wasn’t only Kevin; the 60s pop culture zeitgeist created a wave of its own, with a few UK and Irish gentlemen realizing that Ireland could be a great surfing spot at relatively the same time.

Kevin was a natural organizer. He placed ads in papers to start a club. He had the idea to formalize surfing and to make it a proper sport. A recent transplant from England, Roger Steadman, found Kevin through a boat show. The two of them became Ireland’s traveling evangelists of surf.

To help their recruits practice what they preached, the two men were able to manufacture sa few boards to sell as part of their road show. Access and means could meet at last.

In the North of Ireland, a young Belfast immigrant came home after several years in California. Davey Gavin was ready to take on the Irish surf. The experience of California surfing also made him incredibly grateful for what the Irish surf scene did not have – crowds.

Davey had a different attitude about surfing than his southern neighbors. He just wanted to ride waves with some friends, without the constraints of competition and rules. He called the southern crowd “the Blue Blazers,” He wanted to keep surfing wild and free. What is amazing is that the formal versus informal approach was all anyone disagreed about. A quick check of the history book shows that the late 60s, despite the feel-good buzz of the time, was the beginning of “The Troubles” in the North.

Not one person remembers one sectarian comment at the time. It is an amazing testimony to sport and its accompanying passion, since the surfers represented all the players in the conflict.


Rocky beach by the ocean
Aran Islands near Dun Angeus Fort via iIrish

Surfing in Ireland

The surfers were undaunted. Now they had to choose a location. They wanted a place more central and safer, so they chose Lahinch, in Co. Clare.

Of course, Ireland is nothing if not unpredictable. As the time for competition drew near, the predictions of great waves proved false, and the magnificent rides were nowhere to be found.

The assembled athletes made the best of it and had the craic. They surfed what they had.

The second day of competition could not be completed. Just as the athletes were getting ready to head home, swells were reported at another beach just a little south of Lahinch. The surfers who stayed did get to enjoy some terrific waves. It was the best of the blazers and the rebels.


Image of Blasket Islands in Ireland
Blasket Islands in Ireland via Canva

The Irish Waves

The word did get out about the Irish waves, at least in part. There are foreigners, mostly Australians, who have been drawn to Ireland for the waves. They work in surf shops all along the Wild Atlantic way. They sell boards and teach classes, sharing their love of the water and the surf on the quiet and certainly less shark infested beaches of Ireland.

This documentary is both inspiring and charming. The “find a way, make a way” mentality of the early surfers has grit and joie de vivre about it. The early surfers were completely unintimidated about doing things like making their own boards and even wetsuits.

There is a funny scene of the men tracing each other so that they could cut a shape to eventually sew into a wetsuit. How the passion of sport can unite people is another bright spot of this little film. It is easy to forget that point in the day of mega millionaire athletes, that the simple thrill of play is what it is about.
Sport breaks down all kinds of barriers. Yes, you will always have the Blue Jackets and the Rebels, but that is just temperament. What matters is that you focus on the game and play.

Keep it a Secret is available for free on YouTube.

Please send any Akron events to be published in iIrish to my email or Click Here: ol*****@ic****.com">ol*****@ic****.com!

Check out the print version of this article and other articles in the June 2023 issue!

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