Elite Irish surfer, Conor Maguire talks growing up on Ireland’s west coast and tells the story of surfing Ireland’s biggest ever wave at Mullaghmore in County Sligo.
There’s a raw energy to the Irish coast. Every day you go there it looks completely different to the last.
Just yesterday I was down at Mullaghmore. The forecast was for onshore Northerly breezes which isn’t a favourable wind direction for that particular break. As I got there it was snowing, and the wind suddenly changed direction offshore. It just turned into this magic morning with a pink hue around the headland. Benbulben in the distance draped in white behind Classiebawn Castle. Just an ethereal glow all day.
Even though I’ve surfed there so many times, no two days are the same. It keeps it interesting for sure. I love that part of it.
Being near water is how it’s always been. I spent a lot of time as a kid at Mullaghmore. You can see it from the beach I grew up on in Bundoran. When I started surfing at around age 11, a surf shop had just opened called Bundoran Surf Co. Me and a friend of mine were the first ones in the door. Surfing wasn’t such a big thing in Bundoran at the time, not like it is now. It was more famous for the slot machines and the discos when thousands of people would visit in the summertime.
I can remember being 14 or 15 and me and my friend heading out to surf with our small surf boards and our long hair with the tourists from the North shouting at us, “Cut yer hair ye hippies!” How things have changed. Those same “Northerners” are probably surfing the beach now.
From Tullan Strand to Mullaghmore is about 14km. In between you have Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo and it’s just peppered with world class waves. It’s become one of the most famous surfing spots in the world in a short space of time.
The surfing community is quite small, not just in Ireland but globally. No matter where you go with the sport, you’ll meet someone you know or someone who knows someone you know. It’s quite cool that way.
Here in Ireland, most people that surf are committed to the sport. I think it’s because of the cold water here. It adds to the whole experience. You have to be hardy and overcome mental barriers. It’s not like jumping in the sea in a pair of shorts in Indonesia. In Ireland, you have to really want to surf.
The term “big wave surfer” is a funny one. It’s more a term other people put on you. I’d surf whether it’s one foot or 50-foot waves. I just love being in the ocean.
At the end of October, I’d seen this crazy black blob of a storm coming in that looked like it was going to swallow up Ireland. The wind was generating massive waves. I got in touch with my sponsors, Red Bull to let them know there was a potential big wave attempt that week. Red Bull just got this massive operation up and running. They contacted a friend of mine, Finn Mullan who works on a lot of events for them and is also with the local RNLI. Sligo County Council and the Coast Guard were notified. We had five jet skis in the water. Three were dedicated rescue skis for me while I was in the water. Two were for guys that were filming. There was an ambulance and paramedic on land. Two spotters on the cliffs. It was the safest scenario it could possibly be so that I could push myself and see what was possible. To have all that in place just for me to go surfing was pretty surreal. I was tripping on that fact alone. Having that level of safety made me really calm at the same time.
I spent the couple of days leading up to the attempt just visualising and going through each step. I surfed the wave 1000 times over and over in my head so that when the time came, I was as prepared as I could be, even for the worst.
On the day, the ocean was the scariest I’ve ever seen it. But I was surrounded by my friends and the safety team. Because of them, it was just another day of surfing. If I wasn’t that relaxed, it could have been a very different outcome.
My friend Barry was driving me out. We know each other so well at this stage, Barry would know by my body language if I was ready to go or not. It’s all second nature. This wave just stood up about a kilometre out to sea. It took about a minute to get to us. It started capping and feathering. It looked like a wave that could knock over a ship. Barry looked back and I had my eyes closed, focusing on my breathing, visualising dropping down the face of the wave. Barry went for it.
To match the speed of the swell line, we were travelling so fast. I let go of the rope. I was on top of a 20-foot lump of water and below that was a 40-foot drop. It just felt like I was riding this piece of open ocean swell, this crazy energy, like I was dropping for an eternity. I’ve no clue how fast I was travelling. I just know it felt like 100 miles an hour.
I finally got to the bottom and did a check turn. I just got to stand there for a second and watch the wave enveloping me. A wave like that gases out a load of water from the pressure of the tube. We call it “spit”. It just hit me like a fire hose. I could feel the power of it through all the layers of rubber. I couldn’t see anything but white and was just levitating, then the wave placed me back down, so gently back on to the face of the water. The mist cleared, I could see the jet skis in the channel, and I was just like “Woaaah! Jesus! I’m still standing here. Sweet! How did I make that?” Just as that thought entered my head, I was clobbered by a big lump of white water that wiped me out. It’s funny.
”You think you’re safe, but the ocean has other ideas. It always keeps you guessing.
There’s real energy to being that connected with nature. You’re not trying to conquer anything; you’re just trying to be part of it. If you tried to conquer the wave you’d probably drown. You just have to enjoy that moment on the edge of living and match the flow of the wave.
You have to respect the ocean. If I’d taken a different line on that wave, I would have been under water all the way to the cliff and it could have been game over. You trust your instincts. It almost stops being a conscious thing. You’ve done this so many times before, that you just have to be present and go with it.
When you’re a beginner and you surf in a straight line for the first time. That’s the feeling right there. The rest of your life in surfing is spent chasing that feeling. So, whether it’s me as a beginner riding the white water in Bundoran or coming down the face of monster 60-foot wave in Mullaghmore, it’s the same buzz you’re chasing.
”It’s that feeling of being consumed by a blissful moment where nothing else matters and the immersion in nature that keeps you coming back for more.
The reaction from the surfing community around the world was pretty crazy. I was getting messages from some the biggest names in our sport. Ross Clarke-Jones, a legend in our sport said, “That was the craziest wave I’ve ever seen ridden.” Albee Layer, who’s like a progressive maniac with aerial surfing sent me a really nice message. The craziest of all was Kelly Slater, who has 11 world championships titles, and took the time to get in touch to congratulate me. That was trippy. I grew up worshipping Kelly, never thinking I’d be having that kind of conversation with him one day.
While that was all amazing, and some of the media reaction too, the coolest thing for me was how the local community were just buzzing on the whole thing. I had old grannies coming up to congratulate me. It just puts that part of the country in the spotlight for a short while for something very positive and I loved the reaction from local people.
For now, I’ll just keep pushing myself. I really want to improve my paddle surfing and see how far that takes me. When things open up again, I’ll be back travelling to different places to compete.
A career in surfing can be a long one and there’s so much more to do. The possibilities are endless so long as you stay motivated and open-minded.
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