Inter-County 50th Anniversary

All Irish surf roads led to historic Rossnowlagh Beach in Donegal last weekend for the 50th

anniversary of the Inter County Surfing Championships. This year’s event attracted way more people than usual. There were two additional reasons for such a big turnout, besides celebrating five decades of Ireland’s unique team surfing event. Hundreds of surfers from the four provinces, along with others from overseas, were eager to pay their final respects to the godfather of Irish surfing, Brian Britton, who passed away recently. In addition, teams of surfers from third level colleges all around Ireland were also in Rossnowlagh to compete in the annual Inter-Varsities event. The student’s surf comp on Friday commenced an enjoyable long weekend of fun and festivities. It looked like Brian Britton’s spirit, in conjunction with Celtic sea god Manannan Mac Lir, had blessed the weekend with some serious surf on offer. Surfers couldn’t have asked for anything more with booming waves, mild weather and light winds. Students from Galway Mayo Institute of Technology emerged victorious from the roaring sea to claim first place honors late Friday afternoon. Elsewhere that day, on various reefs in south Donegal and nearby Leitrim and Sligo, many of Ireland’s best surfers were pushing themselves to new limits while making the most of the powerful autumn swell. Surfers like Irish champion Gearoid McDaid and Aaron Reid from Bundoran were among a posse of brave paddlers launching into dangerously thick tubular caverns at G-Spot in Leitrim. Super shallow reefs at locations such as G-Spot and nearby Mullaghmore were never paddle surfed a decade ago. That perilous reefs such as these are now being scoped and ridden with confidence is testimony to how far Irish surfing has progressed in recent years. Brian Britton was, and would be, very proud of this. Other surfers like Brian’s son John, and his cousin Neil, warmed up on world class reef breaks closer to Bundoran that also provided visitors and locals with some fabulous Friday waves. The forecast for the light wind and thumping swell to hold steady for Saturday proved accurate. The Inter-County event commenced early Saturday morning and progressed without any hiccups throughout the day as Willie Britton kept the hooter blaring to time every 20 minutes while more people gathered at the contest site. By late Saturday afternoon Rossnowlagh car park resembled a Silver Surfari convention. Generations of distinguished surfers, grey beards, families and energetic groms kept arriving as numerous campervans and surf vehicles of all description circled the wagons in anticipation of the evening’s proceedings. At 4pm nearly 200 surfers, young, old, big, small, male and female, assembled on the beach. They stood proud for a photo shoot alongside their surfboards, long, short, hard and soft that represented 50 years of surfing. Irish language television station TG4 was among several media organizations there recording the event. A couple of minutes later the scene looked like an Attenborough nature documentary with a big march of enthusiastic penguins. The large tribe of surfers in black wetsuits waddled, waded and leapt into the sea to paddle out beyond the breakers. When most had made it to the line-up Brian Britton’s wife Antoinette and grandchildren then sounded the hooter. It was the signal for all and sundry to start catching one good wave to pay homage to the industrious, caring and selfless surfing life of Brian Britton. The crowd watching from the beach joined the surfers riding waves with big smiles, all hooting and hollering. The scene got more special as a speedy stunt plane suddenly appeared in the sky and started performing barrel rolls and upside down flying with smoke trails directly above the surfers. Then a bit of magic, as if Brian himself was acknowledging the gathering and saying his own goodbye. When the last waves were being ridden to shore, the air temperature noticeably dropped a few degrees as the wind picked up and changed direction. The evening kicked off in the foyer of the Sandhouse Hotel with esteemed Celtic surf scribe Barry Britton hosting a signing of his new book, complete with his iconic Inter-County and Irish music posters he has lovingly and painstakingly drawn over the years. Yes, Brian Britton will long be remembered as the thinking head of Irish surfing. His artistic brother Barry is admired and respected as the heart and soul of what makes Irish surfing so special. Together the two brothers symbolize the dichotomy of surfing as a sport, and lifestyle too. In a way their parallel but closely linked relationship defines what surfing is for many people here in Ireland and worldwide. So it was fitting and proper that Barry was there with all the Britton clan to launch his book with its unique art while welcoming guests into the historic beach hotel where he and his brothers first started their well-travelled surfing journey many years ago. At a special commemorative dinner in the hotel Irish Surfing Association director Kevin McCloskey welcomed everyone to the gathering. More speeches and tribute was paid by former ISA head honcho Roci Allan. Inspirational coach, Tramore surfer Hugh O’Brien-Moore, and Rossnowlagh Surf Club president John Britton also addressed and thanked the congregation. European Surfing Federation president Huw John presented Roci Allan and Brian Britton a lifetime achievement award in recognition for their work in helping grow and develop surfing in Ireland and abroad. Brian’s award was accepted by his nephew Neil who runs the Finn McCool Surf School & Shop across the road. Many of the diners then joined a couple of hundred keen and thirsty revelers across the road in a massive marquis to dance the night away with the sounds of local Bundoran musicians The Fabulous Franks, followed by ACDC tribute band A Whole Lotta Voltage. Needless to say, as is the custom at all Inter-County comps, there were a few dazed and sore heads the following morning. Zoe Lally and event organizers wisely decided to delay the quarter finals until a 1pm start on Sunday. By that time the eight remaining teams had got their minds and sea legs operational again. The morning began with a freshening west-northwest onshore wind with grey sky and rain. The sea didn’t look too inviting in such conditions. But as the finals drew closer to start time the sky turned blue again and what remained of the swell improved with the incoming tide. At day’s end it was the reigning champions from Sligo that successfully defended their title in a tightly contested final against the Donegal team that won it ten years ago. Sligo victors Gearoid McDaid, Kerry Larkin, Jason Southcombe and Colin O’Hare were stoked accepting their Brian and Barry Britton imprinted trophies made by talented local artist Gavin McCrea. The Donegal team of Ronan Oertzen, Owen Murphy, Aaron Reid and Emmett O’Doherty were gracious in defeat and vowed to be back again next year for another crack at Inter-County glory. Oertzen, a former Irish open champion, probably summed up the weekend best for everyone who loves attending this special Irish surfing event. “Thanks to the likes of Brian Britton, and many others who have helped over the years, the Inter-Counties comp is an institution of Irish surfing. I think the most important thing is that ten years on the guys we were doing it with back then are still here doing it. And it’s great to see people from 50 years ago who are also still coming here annually too and enjoying themselves as much as ever. This event is a surfing celebration for everyone and just gets better every year.”