Bundoran: How a Remote Irish Village Turned International Surfing Destination
It was the long Easter weekend in Ireland. Winter had not gone yet and I was heading to the most improbable destination you could think of. I had booked a surfing trip to the Atlantic coast, blinded by the excitement and forgetful of the weather conditions.
Surfing had been my thing since I had moved to the north-west corner of Europe a few years back. The sea, everyday so close, had become part of my life. I had taken surf lessons under the Cornish sun the previous year, and practised on the wind-swept coasts of Brittany the year before that.
This weekend I was going surfing in Bundoran, Co. Donegal, a remote and wild corner of the West of Ireland.
All had been conveniently organised by a surfing school I had found online. The package included transportation, accommodation and surf lessons. I showed up at a meeting point in Dublin Friday evening and a bus shipped me and a bunch of strangers to the other side of the country.
After four hours on the winding roads of Ireland, the group arrived in Bundoran. The bus parked in front of our accommodation, an old building with an elegant 19th century facade. The building was a surf lodge painted in white and pastel green, while characterised inside with shabby sofas, a creaking wooden staircase and paper thin walls. BUT, it offered an amazing sea view over the bay.
I had booked a private room to get as much sleep as I could realistically get and packed my favourite earplugs, the wax ones that blocked ANY sounds.
A Glimpse into “The Brighton Of Ireland”
The surf lodge was in a part of town known today as Bundoran’s West End. It owed its name to being located west of the bridge over the Bradoge River, the river that flew (or trickled) through the town into the sea.
Walking through the West End, the little seaside resort had an eerie feeling to it at first. Derelict buildings and faded walls, a deserted Main Street and a crumbling church. I was drawn to the peeling facade of the Ulster Tourist House. Standing lifeless on the other side of the street, this grand building took me back to a time when Bundoran had begun to change.
Bundoran was born out of a village going by the evocative name of Single Street. A remote gathering of cottages and small plots of land along a single street. Seaweed collected by men were sprayed by hand by women and children in the fields growing the traditional potato. So went life in the 18th century a mile east of the bridge over the Bradoge River.
Then Bundoran’s fortune took an unexpected turn. In 1777 Viscount Enniskillen decided to build his summer residence, Bundoran Lodge, west of the bridge. He started a trend that would turn Bundoran into the “Brighton of Ireland”.
Bestowed with a stretch of sand and unique bathing pools, the village attracted growing members of the gentry during the summer months. They were eager to take advantage of Bundoran’s seaside location and health benefits associated with sea bathing.
The distinguished visitors rented bathing boxes inside which they would change into their rented swimming costume and cap before going for a dip.
During the 19th century, hotels and lodging houses sprung up in the West End to accommodate Bundoran’s first holiday makers. Built in the 1830’s, the now empty Ulster Tourist House was one of those pioneering hotels set up to receive the wealthy.
I recognised the surf lodge from a 19th century picture. It might have been one of those lodging houses built during Bundoran’s gentrified heyday. Well-off families might have enjoyed the sea view I now contemplated during my breakfast.
Bundoran's Growing Popularity
Exploring the town further, I left ghostly West End to cross the bridge into the other part of town, the vestige of Single Street. There I found a town very much alive. Full Irish breakfasts and pancakes were served in cafes, treats ordered at the ice cream parlour, families reunited around restaurant tables for the ritual weekend meal.
With the construction of the train line in 1868, Single Street had merged with the West End to become Bundoran. The train brought economic improvement and opened the trendy resort to a broader clientele. With Bundoran now connected to the expanding railway network, different social classes were flocking all the way from Belfast and Dublin to enjoy the town’s therapeutic benefits.
The social divide between the East End (former Single Street) and the West End persisted nonetheless. New houses and villas were built for the gentry in the West End while locals in the East End rented out rooms in their cottages to the country people.
Among Bundoran’s most popular attractions were the bathing pools. To this day, at the bottom of the cliff in the West End one of those pools is still in use. A dark rock hollowed out into a bath perpetually filling itself with clean water; to me a place only hardy swimmers would venture.
On the other side of town, along the scenic cliff path heading to Tullan Strand, the Wishing Chair, a man-made chair carved in stone, had been attracting wish-makers for centuries. Next to it, the haunted Fairy Bridges, spitting water upwards as the tide crashed into the rock, was an equal object of curiosity.
On hot summer days, beach goers from the country changed by the rocks before cooling off in fresh Donegal water. Others would dive into the ocean from old-fashion springboards affixed to nearby dramatic sea stacks.
The last decades saw game arcades together with slot machines become the latest distractions in town. Lining up Bundoran’s Main Street these “Amusement Centres” illuminated the town with their tacky lights. On the seafront a Margate styled funfair without its peer reminded me of the first trip to the UK I took as a kid 20 years ago. Adding classic pop tunes barely audible under the hysterical screams of teenagers to the sweet smell of candy floss, Bundoran’s recipe for nostalgia was complete.
Bundoran, the Surf Capital of Ireland
Why did I decide to travel to a remote Irish seaside resort on a cold Easter weekend? Certainly not for a tan. And I didn’t come to gamble either. Something else attracted the wannabe surfer in me to Bundoran. Maybe it was the need to get away from the noise of urban life, the need to escape from the stress. Or simply a sense of adventure.
All I knew was that the picture I had envisioned of myself victoriously riding the wild waves of the Atlantic had been too exciting to be reasoned with. In no time I had signed up for three days of surfing lessons in the icy ocean. The consequences of which had yet to be fully realised.
Bundoran on the International Surfing Circuit
For the last twenty years or so, Bundoran had gained a new popularity. It had rebranded itself in the coolest way possible, attracting a new crowd of visitors and breathing a renewed energy into the resort. Bundoran was now the surf capital of Ireland.
Bundoran burst onto the international surfing scene in 1985 when the town hosted the European Surfing Championships for the first time. The competition returned again to Bundoran in 1997 and 2011.
Bundoran’s star shone brighter on the international stage when it was featured in National Geographic in 2012 as one of the world’s top 20 surfing towns. World-renowned surfer, Kelly Slater even described Bundoran as a “cold paradise”.
The little town had also been making waves (pun intended) for being home of Ireland’s best known wave called The Peak. The Peak, a perfectly formed but dangerous wave breaking over shallow rock, had attracted several international surfing contests over the years
With a reputation as one of the best surf spots in Europe and the explosion of surfing in the 1990’s, Bundoran had reinvented itself as a prime surfing destination.
Surf schools and shops popped up, painting much needed electric blues and apple greens on a town that too often sat under a grey overcast sky. Some grew into surf lodges. Some expanded their services, organising stag weekends and offering cheap packages to attract Dublin’s young, multicultural and thrill seeking crowd.
Bundoran, rechristened “Fundoran” by the surfing community, was now catering for everyone from first timers to hardcore surfers. I was at the right place to sharpen my surfing skills and hopefully stand on a surfboard for more than 5 illusory seconds.
Thanks to this renewed interest in Bundoran, the West End was showing signs of rejuvenation. A modern seafront complex advertising luxurious apartments for sale with unparalleled sea views had recently been built. The Peak, a trendy restaurant with jaw-dropping view over the bay and the famous wave, had opened at the back of the complex.
Back at the lodge the fun was about to start. In the backyard, fittings were in progress. In April a thick wetsuit was required, along with lots of pulling and squeezing. Disgust was widely expressed at the cold neoprene against our skin. But excitement soon returned as we sat in the back of the colourful, road-hardened jeeps filled with the promise of an exhilarating adventure.
Tullan Strand, Bundoran's Scenic Surf Spot
Bundoran had a variety of surf spots, enough to content anyone no matter the level of their surfing skills. But one stood out by its beauty: Tullan Strand, a two kilometre long beach break with a backdrop of picturesque sand dunes. It was also a very consistent surf spot great for beginners and experienced surfers alike.
On Tullan Strand’s southern edge the dark cliff rose above the green water busy with accomplished surfers. Taking attention away from the dramatic sea view, tiny black specks moving dangerously close to the perilous rocks were an easy distraction for strollers who watched from the cliff path. A few drops from the unsettled sky and the onlookers soon resumed their fast-paced stroll along the Rougey Walk back into town.
This was it. All I could feel was excitement and nervousness growing as I dragged my board down to the beach. Tullan Strand was so vast that lone surfers heading into the sea looked like black pins against the pale open horizon.
On the beach the instructors opened the lesson with the mandatory 20 minutes “how to not look like a fool on a board” tutorial followed by safety recommendations. With the sound of the waves crashing behind our backs, nerves were shook as we giggled at the instructors’ attempts to loosen the atmosphere.
Time had finally come to face the wild Atlantic. The wetsuit worked its magic as I marched towards the waves getting deeper into the cold water. Still delusional, I was confident the next hour would be pure joy and delight in this breathtaking corner of the world as I’d launch myself onto the green waves.
Then the first wave hit me. Hard…. in the face. The only part of my body that didn’t have a layer of thick neoprene to protect it. Brain freeze struck. Paralysis of the facial muscles. As I tried to speak, I sounded as if I was having a stroke.
A minute later (or was it five?) I regained some sensation in my lower jaw, enough to articulate, slowly and painfully, “It’s fucking cold!”. Looking at the horror stricken faces around me, I finally understood what I had got myself into. Survival mode quickly kicked in. Better start paddling to avoid hypothermia!
Extraordinarily the fun took over the dread in a matter of minutes as people tried (and mostly failed) to stand on their boards. Nose canals were deep-cleaned and egos were bruised but bodies were reinvigorated and spirits lifted. People who had just met a few hours earlier were now encouraging and applauding each other whenever someone managed to stand on their board, even if only on their knees.
Time in the rejuvenating water was soon up. The surfers gathered on the beach, exhausted but nonetheless reluctant to see the end of the lesson. Sitting at the back of the jeep, I tried to revive a few numb toes. They all made it back to the lodge. Until the next day.
How many pancakes did I eat during this weekend? I wouldn’t dare say. Sitting at the Waves Surf Cafe, with old surfboards hanging from the ceiling and miniature ones serving as table numbers, I was certainly enjoying these last ones before heading back to Dublin, reinvigorated.
People have been coming to Bundoran for generations to enjoy its health benefits, even after the train line sadly closed down in 1957. The “Brighton of Ireland” may have disappeared a long time ago but Bundoran, even with its tackiness and faded colours, continues to enliven those who dare to surf the shores of the surf capital of Ireland, any time of the year.
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