Hangin' Ten on the Celtic Coast, Easkey in Co. Sligo

Surfing, poitín, and other magical moments on Ireland's west coast, by Shelley Snowdon.

What's it like in the summer?" an Australian drawls to the American guy next to him, as the other peels off a wetsuit. "I dunno, I've never been here then, but it's pretty good now." Surfin' USA, hang ten down under, but catch a wave in Ireland? It's green, filled with Celtic history, and you'll get the best pint of Guinness anywhere in the world, but who would have thought riding the surf would be big in this little country?

I look out over the waves in Easkey, County Sligo, Ireland, in time to see a few others get up on their boards and surf toward shore. Though the wind blows cold, and the sun shines intermittently at best, I can see the draw for surfers.

With it's stunning cliffs and remote beaches exposed to the whole force of the North Atlantic waves, it provides a consistent surf. In Easkey, the main surfing spot combines Irish history with beautiful rocky shoreline. The town started as a monastic settlement, so it's not surprising that surfers don their gear in a parking lot beside the 15th-century remains of Roslee Castle. And the castle is just an indication that when the surf is flat, Sligo still offers plenty to see and do.

Amazingly, when most people tour Ireland, they go from the Ring of Kerry and the Connemara region, straight to the infamous County Donegal, driving blindly right through one of the country's prettiest regions and best kept secrets.

I learned about the area from my boyfriend's parents, who moved northwest to County Sligo from Dublin some five years ago in search of a more relaxed pace than the ever-growing capital of Ireland could offer. We drove down from Dublin one long weekend, the roads getting narrower and the sheep getting bolder the closer we got.

Over rolling hills, past the flat-topped Benbulben mountain and through the pretty town of Sligo, with it's colourful houses and stone bridges and river cutting through it, we went until we reached the coast and the road to the home of Alice and Gerry, my boyfriend's parents. Céad mile failte or, a hundred thousand welcomes, we received along with a fine meal and hotwater bottles to warm our beds against the biting cold winds. Then it was up early the next morning and off to see the countryside they boast of.

It's not any wonder, that W.B. Yeats, who found his home in life and death here, called this the land of heart's desire. From high rocky cliffs we look down on the shores from where French General Humbert fought the English and won in an 18th-century battle.

In the treeless distance, we can see a mound on a green grassy knoll that marks the spot of Queen Maeve of Connacht's grave. She died around the time Christ was born and was buried under this cairn of small stones. It is said her ghost can still be seen roaming the hillside from time to time. Back in the car, we warm ourselves Irish style with a flask of good tea before heading home again.

Over the roast beef dinner that Alice cooks us that night, we drink poitin (alcohol distilled from potatoes) and discuss the charms of the area. Everything is different in the west, they tell us, and the people much more relaxed. The local bus driver, for instance, won't hesitate to stop the vehicle and leave the other passengers waiting as he helps you up the walkway with your bags and fills you in on the local gossip.

Over a carrageen (seaweed) pudding desert, Gerry tells us how, not too long ago, the local farmers shared the same 50 cows when government officials went from farm to farm handing out subsidies depending on herd size. Since then, officials have wisened up and the cows are tagged with permanent markers. We laugh and warm ourselves by a woodstove stuffed with peat turf collected by Alice and Gerry from the local boglands, as wood is scarce in this part of the country.  

Dwarfed by the giant staircase at the Markree Castle hotel, I imagine myself a lady as I glide up to reception and through to the drawing room on the next day's tour. Wooden floors creak under each step as we walk from room to room discovering handsome fireplaces, royal decorating and spectacular views. Today the sun is shining, so we opt for a walk along the beach front at Enniscrone, sheltering ourselves against the wind among sand dunes and enjoying the solar warmth on our faces. We could have gone to Strandhill for a healthy seaweed bath, but the day proves too short to take in everything.

Back in Easkey again, we leave the brave boarders to their swells and appropriately go for dinner at the Easkey Surf Club. The menu is filled with gourmet delights and with each main dish comes three kinds of potatoes, red cabbage, turnip and other vegetables. Stuffed to the gills, when it is time to pay, we flash a VISA card. The manager regrets to inform us that the restaurant is new and that credit cards are not yet accepted. It's cash only, but the nearest bank machine is too far away to go tonight. With true Irish hospitality and trust, the manager lets us leave with a promise to pay the next day.

Our bill paid, we set out from Easkey the next morning for the three hour drive home, passing by Yeat's grave on the way. The weather's getting warmer, the winds dying down and we'll surely be back to Sligo again to enjoy, if not to surf, then to take in the sights. The summer promises many more festivals and, for those who want to hang ten the Celtic way, Easkey will host the Surfing Association's Tiki Cold Water Classic again this September.

© Poste Restante-The Travellers Magazine