Arts & Culture

The green hills and white surf of Ireland

Surfers cross a stone bridge, part of a medieval castle, on the way to the break.
Surfers cross a stone bridge, part of a medieval castle, on the way to the break. PHOTOS COURTESY OF REVOLVER ENTERTAINMENT

Joel Conroy was just about to wrap up the editing of his surf film “Waveriders” when a couple of the surfers featured in the movie called him, excited about the forecast.

“Joel, this big storm is coming,” they told him. “It’s the biggest thing we’ve seen for, like, a decade. We’ve got to get on it.”

While his deadline was fast approaching, Conroy eventually collected his gear and hit the Irish coast for one last shoot.

“I always wanted to finish the film with a bang, just to let people know how big it can really get,” he said.

By the time the surfers were in the water and the cameras were rolling, the road along the coast was jammed with spectators.

“About an hour into the session, word kind of spread that these guys were out surfing,” Conroy said. “They were giving weather forecasts all over the news and the radio, saying, ‘Don’t walk near the coast.’ It was like there was a tsunami going.”

That epic surf session will be featured in this year’s Surf Nite festivities at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. If last year’s successful screening at the Santa Barbara film festival is any indication, “Waveriders” will once again prove Surf Nite to be the best-attended event of the San Luis Obispo festival.

The screening of “Waveriders” marks the second straight year the festival will highlight a foreign-made surf film. While last year’s featured film, “Under the Sun,” shed light on the Australian surf scene, this year’s will reveal the lesser-known Irish surf world — a culture that is still new even to most Irish.

“In the last couple of years, it’s started to take off,” Conroy said by phone from Ireland.

Still, he added, most of the people who surf there are from other places.

“We get more British, French, Spanish, Portuguese coming here to surf, easily outnumbering the Irish.”

Many surfers got their first glimpse of Ireland surf in Dana Brown’s 2003 movie “Step Into Liquid,” which featured the Malloy brothers from Ojai meeting Irish surfers such as Richie Fitzgerald.

Chris Malloy, who is also featured in “Waveriders,” said he first started thinking about surf in Ireland after seeing a 1940s documentary about villagers just off the Irish coast.

“I could just see the coast getting bashed by swells, and I know that’s right off of Ireland,” he said. “And I thought to myself, ‘There’s got to be waves there.’ ”

Eventually, Malloy, a filmmaker himself, shot footage in Ireland for his 2000 movie “Thicker Than Water.”

“We got there and were surprised to see that there were actually one or two little surf shops and a handful of guys that were surfing,” Malloy said.

While Malloy’s films tend to resemble extended music videos, with some narration interspersed, Conroy’s is done in a more documentary style, tracing the history of Irish surfing to an American named George Freeth.

Even before Duke Kahanamoku became surfing’s ambassador, there was Freeth, the son of an Irishman, who took to surfing in his native Hawaii.

After novelist Jack London wrote about a surfing outing with Freeth, railway magnate Henry Huntington paid him—making him the first pro surfer — to conduct surfing demonstrations in Redondo Beach, effectively introducing surfing to the mainland.

Conroy had been thinking about making a surf movie about Ireland when he read about Freeth in a letter to the editor that appeared in a London newspaper.

“The question to the editor was, “Is it true that it was an Irish person who invented surfing?’ ” Conroy said. “And, of course, the editor replied, ‘No, it’s not true that an Irish person invented surfing— that was the Polynesians. But it was an Irish-Hawaiian guy who helped kind of popularize the sport in California, and his name was George Freeth.’ ”

While the Irish-blooded Freeth brought surfing to the mainland, it still didn’t catch on in Ireland right away. For one thing, the water’s awfully cold—sometimes dipping below 40 degrees.

“Their winter is vicious,” Malloy said. “It’s ugly. It’s scary cold.”

So when surfing was exploding in the U.S., Irish lineups were bare.

“There were literally like a handful of people that were surfing in Ireland,” Conroy said. “We couldn’t get wax here. There were no boards for sale or wetsuits. You had to get it from America and bring it over.”

The surfers who tackle Irish waves, Malloy said, are a special breed.

“Those guys are tenacious,” he said. “They’ve come from a long lineage of being in heavy ocean, so they take to it quickly.”

While the winters can be cold, Malloy—who has surfed there several times —said the water temperatures in the summer months are comparable to Central California. Plus, he added, the waves, as the movie shows, can be pretty impressive.

“Most of the waves there are on this real rocky reef,” he said. “So it’s definitely powerful.”

Still, Irish surf remains under the radar, which means fewer crowds in the lineups.

“Fourteen, by our standards, is a crowd,” Conroy said.

Conroy, who began surfing while working for MTV in Australia, said he plans to bring a board when he visits San Luis Obispo. After all, he’s heard about the state’s epic winter surf.

“I’ve been following the surf out in California,” he said. “You guys have had a pretty brilliant year so far.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune