A soon-to-open attraction in Ireland will highlight the country’s unlikely relationship with an adventure sport.
In October 2020, viewers worldwide were awed by footage of a surfer taming one of the biggest waves on the planet. Many would have been shocked to learn this 60-foot swell was not in Hawaii, Australia, or Tahiti but in an isolated corner of Ireland, a cold, rainy country better known for pubs, castles, and mountains than surfing.
Yet due to its consistent swell, Ireland has become Europe’s newest surfing hotspot and will soon seize this momentum by unveiling the $3 million, tourist-focused National Surf Center. That aforementioned colossal wave was ridden by Irish surfer Conor Maguire in County Sligo, where the center will be opened in the holiday town of Strandhill.
Located 2.5 hours; drive northwest of the capital, Dublin, Sligo is one of Ireland’s most scenic counties, embellished by towering mountains, idyllic lakes, dense forests, picturesque towns, and wonderful beaches.
The cutting-edge surf center, scheduled to open in the first half of 2023, will provide advanced surfing training facilities, according to Sligo County Council Councillor Michael Clarke. It will offer surfers’ training rooms, video analysis equipment to assess footage of their riding technique, and a virtual reality surfing experience.
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That latter technology will also appeal to non-board riders, who can get an immersive sense of what it’s like to tackle a heaving wave without ever having to enter the ocean. Tourists will also be able to learn about the history of Irish surfing at the center’s small museum.
While surfing dates back more than 800 years in Polynesia, in Ireland, it only began in the 1940s, according to the Irish Surfing Association. In 1965 the first surf club was established in Ireland, and in 1972 it hosted the European Surfing Championships for the first time.
Surf tourism only boomed in Ireland over the last 20 years, says Zoe Lally, chief executive of the Irish Surfing Association. The worldwide spread of the internet meant Ireland’s previously hidden surf scene had gained global exposure, Lally says. Now surfers from Brazil to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Morocco can go online and watch videos of alluring waves in Ireland.
“Surfing has really grown within Ireland, a lot of the surf tourism growth has been in the domestic market,” Lally says. “And in recent years, some of the big wave spots have really captured the imaginations of the big wave surfing community, drawing surfers from around the world. When conditions are right, the surf [in Ireland] is very perfect.”
The National Surf Centre will be a “big boost” to not just Sligo but also the national surf scene, says Seamus McGoldrick, manager of Sligo Surf Experience school. A board rider for more than 20 years, McGoldrick, believes Strandhill is a perfect location for the center, as its one of Ireland’s surfing hubs, along with Portrush in Northern Ireland, Bundoran in County Donegal, Lahinch in County Clare, and Tramore in County Waterford.
Unlike some surf destinations, where conditions are only suitable during certain seasons, Ireland has good swells year-round, Mc Goldrick says. Its north, south, and east coasts all boast rideable surf breaks. But the ultimate Irish surf experience, he explains, comes from following the 1,550-mile-long Wild Atlantic Way. This marked driving route traces the entire west coast, past majestic countryside and endless surf spots.
Starting from Mullaghmore, at the northern tip of Sligo, tourists can drive south along this county’s coast and find a trove of surf breaks, including Streedagh, Strandhill, Easkey, and Enniscrone, Mc Goldrick says. Along the way, he says, tourists should visit Sligo’s cluster of Neolithic tombs, which are older than the pyramids of Egypt and are in contention to become Ireland’s next UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Beyond Sligo, Lally says there are many fine surf breaks conveniently located near key tourist attractions. This meant travelers could weave wave riding into their holiday. Portrush, for example, is just 5 miles west of the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is a cluster of nearly 40,000 basalt columns that stretch out into the ocean.
Similarly spectacular are the Cliffs of Moher, a series of towering sea cliffs in County Clare, which are Ireland’s most visited attraction and are just 4 miles west of surf town Lahinch. Even taller cliffs can be viewed at Slieve League in County Donegal, which is home to board-riding hotspots Bundoran and Rossnowlagh.
Meanwhile, consistent waves roll into Brandon Bay, located on the Dingle Peninsula in County Cork, a breathtaking area popular for driving tours. And in 2023, tourists will have even more reason to delve into Ireland’s surf scene thanks to the opening of its new National Surf Centre.