Until recently it was believed that surfing arrived in Ireland in the 1960s however we now know that in 1949 fourteen year old Joe Roddy took to the water on his homemade four metre paddle board near Dundalk. The inspiration for Joe’s board came from a wood work manual.
In 1962 Kevin Cavey discovered surfing when he read about it in a Readers Digest. He ordered a balsa surfboard kit after a couple of attempts with marine ply. Following trips to Hawaii and California, Kevin took a stand titled “Bray Island Surf Club” at the 1966 Boat Show, the catalyst for the spread of surfing in Ireland. Following the boat show Kevin organised a surfing safari around the coast and on his return the Surf Club of Ireland was founded in Bray. When an invitation arrived to compete at the 1966 World Surfing Championships, Kevin packed his bags and set off for San Diego to become Ireland’s first representative at the World Surfing Championships.
The first Irish National Surfing Championships, inspired by Kevin’s trip to the World Championships, was held in Tramore in 1967. The title was claimed by Kevin Cavey with Eamon Mathews 2nd and Ted Alexander 3rd. The following year the first Intercounties Championships was held in Rossnowlagh where Down beat Wicklow in the final (neither county has succeeded in reaching the final since). In 1969 Ireland sent its first full team abroad to the inaugural European Surfing Championships held in Jersey
By the late sixties members of the Surf Club of Ireland began to break away to form other clubs. The South Coast Surf Club, now T-Bay Surf Club, emerged in Tramore along with the West Coast Surf Club in Lahinch, Rossnowlagh Surf Club, North Shore Surf Club in Portrush, and Fastnet Surf Club in Cork. In 1970 the Clubs founded the Irish Surfing Association, the Governing Body of surfing in Ireland today. By then there were about 400 surfers in the country.
In 1972 Ireland hosted the European Surfing Championships in Lahinch, Co Clare. Unfortunately there were only sufficient waves to run off the junior category, however some visitors travelled up the west coast to Easkey and were treated to some excellent waves.
Crisis rocked Irish surfing in 1979 when the Smirnoff International was held in Easkey, Co Sligo. With perfect surf, perfect weather and the resulting publicity both at home and abroad the event organisers declared it a success. However the event was not regarded a success by all. "We enjoyed surfing until we discovered Smirnoff" was painted on a banner and hoisted on Easkey castle during the event by those who opposed the commercialisation and exploitation of the surfing in Ireland. The Irish surfing community met with impasse, on the one hand there were those who wanted surfing in Ireland to remain pure without organisation, commercialisation and publicity and the other side were those who wanted to grow and develop the sport, recognising the need for organisation, commercialisation and publicity to do so.
The popularity of surfing continued to grow in Ireland. Irish teams competed regularly at the European and World Championships. In 1985 the European Surfing Championships returned to Ireland, hosted in Bundoran and Rossnowlagh. In 1988 Rossnowlagh Surf Club opened the first purpose built surf club house and the country’s first surf shop, Lahinch Surf Shop opened 1989. The ISA initiated its Surf Instructor Development Programme in 1990 with a Level 1 Surf Instructor Course. Surfing was becoming increasingly popular with young people and in 1992 Ireland returned from the European Junior Surfing Championships with two bronze and one silver medal. In 1995 the Irish Surfing Association set up its headquarters in Easkey and employed a full-time development officer. By then the ISA was actively involved in club and youth development, promotion of safety, coach education and organisation of competitions. In 1997 the ISA hosted the European Surfing Championships in Bundoran, Co Donegal. The surf was flat for the first seven days of the ten day event however it picked up on the eighth day and due to the efficiency of the event management team the entire competition was run in two and a half days with perfect Peak on the final day. The contest is still regarded as the best European Championships ever held!
In 2001 the Irish Surfing Association was once again rocked by controversy, to host the World Surfing Games 2004 or not. Following much debate it was decided to abandon the World Surfing Games to focus on grassroots development.
Today there are approximately 50,000 surfers in Ireland and the ISA comprises of 2500 members and twenty surf clubs each representing a different geographic location or surfing ethos. With more surfers in Ireland than ever before the surf industry is booming. There are approximately forty surf schools and a similar number of surf shops. The ISA is still faced with the challenge of balancing the views of Irish surfers on issues such as competition, commercialisation and publicity along with new issues such as environment, overcrowding and increased safety concerns.