Cold Water Surf Stories | Peter Conroy
Ireland could be one of the world’s most special cold water surf destinations. Beautiful landscapes, Guinness, and a shitload of waves. The Irish scene is a bit of an outlier, or a punk kid of the surf communities if you will. Less sun-bleached hair and boardies, more thick rubber, harsh conditions, and heating on full pelt on the way to the session. But that’s what makes surfing the Emerald Isle, the scene and the locals so unique. We caught up with one such local for a St. Paddy’s Cold Water Surf Story- Team Rider, and big wave legend Peter Conroy. Pedro took some time in between firefighting, surf sessions, and family life to chat about Irish surf scene nostalgia, wipeout fear, and drive-by barrels.
Was Ireland the backdrop to you falling in love with surf? Tell us about that era of surfing in Ireland.
I fell in love with surfing when I started lifeguarding on the beaches because I grew up in a town about 40 minutes away from the beach. Before that, I’d only go in the summer and splash around. It was only when I started lifeguarding at 17 on one of the bigger beaches that I decided on my lunch break I’d take a board and go play around. I didn’t have an interest in surfing until then.
It was actually one of my friends that brought me out on one of my first times. We went to Crab Island and it’s in no way a beginner’s wave but I grew up competitive swimming so you didn’t have to worry about going out. It ended up with him losing his board and I had to give him my board and then I had to swim around looking for his board. It was a bit of a circus but a great learning curve. I knew then I could handle a big smackdown or a wipeout.
That was back in the day when wetsuits weren’t as good as they are now – you’d only get half an hour before you had claw fingers so wintertime surfing there didn’t really kick off for me until maybe ’98/’99. Still bad wetsuits in ’99 though, I’d still come out and not feel my fingers for days on end. There was a big surf community when I started surfing around Lahinch. There were the ‘cool kids’ like Saul Harvey and Dexter McCullough that you really wanted to go surfing with because they were better and you could learn from them. At the time, there was one surfing competition a year called the Loguey. It was invitation-only so it was like if you got invited to that you were in. It took me 3 or 4 years to get an invite, I only got one on the last year it ran!
Who did you look up to in the scene at that time?
It was a close-knit community when I started. Like you knew everyone on the west coast, like if I went up to other spots I’d probably know a lot of people in the water. The same if they came down with us. Now though, even at my local break, I don’t know half the people down there. It’s really gone mad in the last 10 years, it’s gone crazy. The people I looked up to at the time were Saul Harvey, Steven Thomas, Heber MacMahon. Heber – he was a surfer at the time when I started. He was our family friend that I kind of went off with. He was 3 or 4 years older than me so we’d go surfing together. Some spots there were only 2 or 3 people there so we did know everyone, but not now. Lahinch beach on a sunny day you have nearly 1000 surfers in the water.
Do you feel nostalgia for the Irish scene at that time?
I miss the old times. I miss the close-knit community – knowing everybody and having respect for everybody. It’s not that people don’t have respect now but you go out and it’s so busy that everyone wants their wave. Like a lot of the time I go out on the beaches, I just take my longboard to do a bit of training and I catch more waves on it. But then you get the local groms looking at you with their shortboards saying “why you out there on a longboard?!”.
It’s like Jesus – when we were groms we were abused. But you can’t do that anymore [laughs], they’re like “oh no leave ’em alone, you have to encourage them, you have to do this”. It’s like no – he’s a grom and if I want to catch waves over him I will [laughs]. Back in the day, Ollie O’Flaherty was our grom and we used to bully the shit out of him – times have changed. Not bullying really, but you learned your spot. It’s tough love and you learned from the older guys and you wouldn’t dare drop in on ’em or catch a wave in front of them. That’s just etiquette really, but then again there were a few guys back in the day that did that too. But you just get on with it, you know they’re gonna snake you and you just drop in on them.
Is there anyone from the old crowd that you haven’t surfed with yet?
It’s hard to say because I haven’t surfed my local breaks in like 2 years. That’s from COVID and from working I kind of concentrated on the bigger stuff, like whatever breaks I try and get there now I have to sacrifice enormous surf to go. I’d just like to get back out with some of the people I used to surf with like Heber or Saul or Maria. Maria – one of my really close friends, she used to come out and longboard with me all the time, like we got out once or twice during the summer but not much.
I just like being out there with people that just enjoy being out there and enjoy being in the moment and just surfing. It doesn’t matter what you go out on. I had a good surf with Saul. He moved literally to the beach in Spanish point so he’s looking at the waves. Hopefully, I get to surf more with him on the beach when I get time. It’s like I called in for coffee there yesterday or maybe the day before and he was literally putting his wetsuit on to go out. He had an hour at lunch and he could jump in the water and out. I had the two kids with me though.
Are there local sessions that stand out in your mind or favorite memories?
Yeah you know we were in a pub recently – the Armada Hotel. They did a massive renovation there and they did a surfer wall with pictures of surfers from around that area. It’s class to look at it and go “Jeez there’s the boys”. I texted the photographer and was like oh when was this shot taken at the cliffs. He said 10 years ago. 10 years ago! It’s a wave at Lauren’s and it’s a wave that doesn’t break that often but I remember it well because the sun was setting in the background so that all the barrels were backlit green. Big barrels. Myself and Glen were out, Ollie was out, Ferg and Micky were out on the cliffs as well.
I was sipping a cocktail at the bar just reminiscing about it, looking at one of the pictures of John on a big green barrel at Aileen’s, and Dave (the photographer) digs out another [photo], showed me, and said this is you at the exact same day over on a different wave.
What about recent sessions?
I can’t even remember the last surf I had. Well, we towed Mully on Saturday and Monday but it was a bit of a mission because I was working and I couldn’t get off. I managed to leave a bit earlier but one of the boys was injured so he was going to hospital. So then all the paddlers came out, then all the skis went out. Then I got that wave you saw – I think that was Monday morning, but I was meeting my wife for a romantic night away. I literally had 50 minutes of free time before I had to be there.
Basically, I jumped on a ski, went out, caught 2 waves and then they dropped me at the cliff. I climbed up, got changed, and went and met her. When I got there she was like “you’re in a good mood”. I said, “yeah yeah yeah I got a good wave”. I’d arranged to get there early but things just didn’t work out. I even called the lads and said I can’t make it – sometimes that’s just the way it is. I just said I’ll go to the top of the cliff and be on the radio for the 15 minutes I can be there in case you need a hand.
Whatever way it happened one of the skis broke down and they were in the harbor when I was driving by so I just threw on my gear we drove out. I got two waves, they got 2 waves each, they dropped me in and I was not even 45 mins in the water.
Almost like a drive-by [laughs]?
It was a drive-by barrel, that’s exactly what it was.
Has Ireland claimed most of your own injuries?
Ireland has claimed all of them. I’ve only damaged myself at Riley’s. Wait no, some of the local breaks too. Between being a reckless youth and falling out of trees, snowboarding and surfing…
Surfing I’ve broken my back, fractured my skull (I thought it was a burst eardrum but it turns out I fractured my skull). I broke my jaw, chipped my hip, kneecap, perforated eardrums a few times as well – yeah. Touchwood I’ve been very lucky recently.
Like in December I had a really bad wipeout. Just held down for a long time, but not injured. I had proper whiplash for nearly two weeks. Concussion and whiplash happen a lot more than what most people would think. It’s quite funny because on the last session on Saturday everyone was having loads of fun, loads of wipeouts, loads of waves. I was driving back out with someone on the back of the ski and I was seeing double. I’m there trying to get him on to a wave and he was like “nah nah nah, I’m aiming for a bigger one”.
I had to stop out the back and go “listen I’ll have to settle a second because I can’t see properly”, and I was still rattled from the first wipeout. I was just sitting there and he goes ‘what’s wrong with ya’ I had to tell him I was seeing double at the moment and I needed a bit. Had to settle a minute and take a few breaths and stop my brain from rattling around in my skull.
What do you think about helmets at Mully?
I’ve seen some of the lads wearing skullcaps and Justine has been wearing one out at Nazare. James Garvey who got a bad wipeout at Mully last year – he’s been wearing one. It’s one of those though where people still say you’re not cool if you’re wearing it. But it’s also the bucket effect on your chin strap. If you hit at a certain force and it does bucket it’ll cause more damage. I’ve been hit a few times but what we worry about when we’re surfing is the board. It’s 10kg so if that hits you in the head there’s only so much a helmet will help with that.
Plus, I’m wearing a 7mm wetsuit, so you have that over your head too. 7mm of rubber. Dylan used to wear a helmet too, he doesn’t anymore. He had a bad wipeout and it jarred his neck from it. I have been looking at some of the Gath helmets. I’m going to try one of those but that bucket effect is a worry.
Do you feel any fear still surfing waves like that? Those moments where you think shit what am I doing?
Yeah, every time I have a wipeout [laughs]. Like even last time when I got a bad wipeout. I always say I don’t go to the gym and I don’t do much but I keep myself physically and mentally fit. It’s all about mentally being able to handle it and knowing when not to go and when to come off the wave. I think Cotty and the boys went out on a big day there last month. It was just chandeliering everywhere and those are the days that I’d probably say no. If I was there I’d probably be like “no, I wanna go”, but there were so many wipeouts on that day and a few injuries. It’s just unpredictable. Whereas the days that I like to go out, it’s 90% predictable. When you’re in the barrel it’s safe but when it’s chandeliering on top of you it’s such heavy water. If you get a good clunk you’ll be knocked out.
Any secret spots left in Ireland?
There is. There’s definitely waves for the right wind and the right swell. The places we’ve been looking at are pretty dangerous, so you want to have the right team with you when you go out there. There’s so much undiscovered swell. Waves along the coast that work on different swell or tides and everything and wind. There will always be a new wave to be found. I’m surfing this little wave its 2-3ft and I longboard it the whole time. I’ve not seen anyone else surf it yet.
It’s literally on a road in a little village, and people look at it and say “ah nah it’s shit”. But every time I’ve gone out there, I’ve caught really good waves by myself. I’m like “ah I’ll get the lads to come” and they all look and say they don’t want to surf that. But, it’s a beautiful wave and I guarantee if they got into it they’d think it was class. It’s like – do I want it to happen now though? Because, if I say it to too many people every time I go there there’s gonna be somebody there.
We thought that about Mully as well actually, but we’ve got away with it. Nazare takes the heat away from Mully, but Mully is a different bag of bones. If you go out there and you’re not able for it, it tells you straight away – you realise. You need a ski too and you need the gear and that takes a lot of money. You get a lot of guys coming up now to Mully when it’s a tow day, and they’re standing in the harbor hoping you’ll bring them out on your ski. You’re only there with your tow partner and you feel bad.
We worked hard to get our ski and do the training. They’re like “oh will you bring me out on the back of it I’ll sit out in the water”. I say “you’ll be sitting in the water for 2 and a half hours”, and fair play to them they do and they sit out. It is a rite of passage to get a ski and do the training with someone else at the same level so you get wiped out as much as your partner does. Whereas they’re coming out to Mully, expecting us to tow them in, they’re catching the waves of their lives and we’re still towing each other. We’re getting waves as well but they don’t see or understand the hardship that goes into it.
They say there’s a lot of trust and chemistry at play for tow partners to work well with each other as well.
Yeah, the new kids are class. They’re well able to surf. They ask me to bring them out towing. I say “yeah, I can bring you out towing and you’re gonna get loads of waves but you can’t tow – I’m not gonna get any”. Where’s the win-win there? There’s a few young lads coming up now that are into the skis who are coming out doing safety with us. Taking the club ski out, doing safety and then we’re towing them in. Like the last big day in Spanish point we took the skis in and the two lads towed together and they were catching more waves than we were. So it’s kind of like they’re learning from everyone. You have to get out and learn the hard way.
Tips for anyone heading to Ireland surfing for the first time?
If you’re coming here to surf it’s either Bundoran or Lahinch. They’re the best 2 spots to stay. If you do see there’s a north swell coming in, up Port Rush in Northern Ireland there’s lovely spots there. You can get there from Bundoran too. Loads of spots, loads of hostels, good pubs, locals and there’s loads of surf. I surfed up there on the peak at the weekend which is straight out in Bundoran. You can walk out of the hostel, jump in the water, and out you go. In Bundoran, there are loads of waves north or south of it. Within walking distance and for different abilities too. Loads of different waves.
At Lahinch you have the beach, you have the reefs along the beach, you have Spanish Point. Then you have Doolan, the cliffs… you can go look at the bigger waves if there’s bigger waves while you’re there. You can watch the lads towing and go to the pub and chat with them.
Favourite thing about surfing in Ireland?
My favourite thing at the moment is just going out somewhere where there’s only 2 or 3 people. Getting a quiet spot to surf. My main thing is when I’m going out to the beaches or the reefs is I just take my longboard. I’ve just bought I new one and it’s class. I’ve got my old board back as well so it’s like getting my friends out on longboards to have a craic. We have mini-competitions against each other.
The worst thing to do is take surfing too seriously. That’s what people do too many times. You see people catch waves and then they’re shouting at the water and shouting at themselves for not doing something that they wanted to do and it’s like – what the hell are you doing?! It’s just like – it’s a sport you’re out there to have fun. The person winning is having the most fun. If I come in and I’m smiling I’ve had a good surf, it’s as simple as that.