Aidan’s beat-up kayak rode low in the water. He still kept trying to bail it out with that plastic cup he kept stuffed under his kayak’s spraydeck. But the boat’s lumpy patches and cracked seams, tweaked open by all the combined torque of two hours spent riding big surf, now let seawater gush in faster than he could pitch it out. So the Irish surfer said he’d just paddle on in, hoping to reach shore before he sank.
“Eh very like, I’ll make it, y’know,” Aidan Doyle proclaimed, his bass voice burred by a County Clare brogue. His grin was broad and cocky.
Cold storm swells, twelve feet high, grey and shaggy with broken foam, steamed in off the North Atlantic to hammer on cliffs of Ireland’s western coast.
Aidan’s faith was impressive, but I did not share it.
A low beach where we’d launched was no longer attainable. Tide had come up. And the storm seas had steadily mounted higher, too. Now those hoary combers exploded right against the base of the black cliffs. Get slammed into that glistening, spray-shellacked wall, and your body and boat would be broken up like a crab on a platter.
Our sole hope for a safe landing lay in stroking across Lahinch Bay, then trying to come in on a steep slope paved in boulders.
I wondered: Did Aiden truly know how long he had before his kayak was transformed into a submarine?.
We angled toward that rocky beach. Waves always arrive in different sizes, of course. A crucial line of demarcation for us would be that point where the very largest waves walled up to topple over.
If we could just get inside that zone, catch and ride a medium-size wave, that would be the best tactic. But once we crossed that line, we also could be snatched up and mauled by a giant. So, we kept a weather eye to sea.
Aidan’s scrofulous old boat wallowed. Maybe a dozen gallons sloshed around in the cockpit. Before it went totally awash, and he was forced to abandon the kayak and swim for his life, he had to catch a wave, any wave, and score a boost in toward the beach.
Maybe I could inspire him by catching one. In fact, here came a huffing beast just about the right size. Better grab it. Because the next one hulking up just behind it seemed like Godzilla. My chosen wave walled to my stern. With a bow sweep stroke, I spun the prow of my Phoenix Arc around.
I took paddle strokes to accelerate, but felt bogged down as I rose up the wall, trying to get my kayak moving fast enough to catch the ride. Finally, I broke loose and fell down the face. From a paddling speed of 5 mph, I suddenly flew along at 30. I got on a left cut, with the bow low and tail high to maximize speed. Hissing spray shot up to sting my eyes. The swell steepened, and my speed rose. The fiberglass hull flexed sinuously under my butt . . . .
Agghh. Angle alert. The face of the wave was rising, steepening, going vertical. A 12-foot swell can make a 24 foot-high face. This big dude would reach the height of a two-story building, and it was to tumble in seconds – a blow I didn’t want to take. Time to hit the silks. I shifted from ruddering the paddle blade on the right, dabbed a left rudder to initiate, then stabbed a hard right sweep stroke off the bow to confirm and enhance the sharpness of my turn. I leaned into the wave wall as it went vertical, and took just one more hard forward stroke on the right.
Pahh-hh-h-h-h. . . ! I was suddenly free, clear, and flying up into the air, as that large wave, with a low growl and a pneumatic WHUMPFF thundered down into total close-out behind and below me. Beauty. I’ve performed my first aerial move, ever. Great time to pull one off!
But now, where was Aidan? .
Riding curled in the white-knuckled grip of Godzilla, the giant wave just behind mine. That vast mound of jumbled water — which luckily had broken outside of his position – was indeed his fastest ticket to shore. And now it was going to be mine, too. No way to avoid it. The seething mass loomed behind me, scooped me up, and then we both hurtled straight for the rocky beach.
It was backwash off the shore that saved us. It disrupted the hurtling pile of foam we rode, dampened our speed, served as a counterforce. In the last hundred yards before the rock slope, we bumped through a roiling fleece of confused waters. I flipped over and did a wet exit close to shore, found my footing, put the boat upside down on my helmet, and waded out onto the boulders. Aidan had preceded me. Without hesitation, he’d ridden a heap of foam right up onto the rocks, then let it bonk him down on that hard, uneven shelf. It was suddenly quite clear how his boat had earned its network of leaky patches.
That same cocky grin was still on him. Our eyes met in a flash of shared delight – we’d snatched plenty of rides from the storm, and still made it in!
Aidan and I were supposed to be combatants, antagonists. We’d faced each other in opening rounds of the 1988 Home International and European Surf Championships. This international contest, to determine the world champs of kayak surfing, had brought together teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, and — for the very first time — the United States. This contest was my big reason for coming over.
This storm swell had arrived during a day off, between contest sessions. Aidan had turned to me and said, “Well, the event got us all here. Now, let’s go have fun!”
After my successful landing with Aidan, I stood for a while on that boulder-strewn slope to gaze out over the heaving sea. My kin had come from these Scottish and Irish isles. That prompted me to do a large amount of background reading and research before I’d winged into Shannon aboard an Aer Lingus red-eye from New York. So I was quite aware that I trod upon a landscape drenched in history. Stories of the past, intense sensing of the present, and a spellbinding resonance that seemed to waft up from my very DNA were psychic companions that came along on every mile I traveled in Ireland.
As I gazed out on the cold smoke of the storm-tossed Atlantic, I suddenly realized that it was almost 400 years to the day when many ships of Spain’s Great Armada had foundered here, wracked upon the rocky promontories of County Clare and western Ireland.
Admiral Medina Sedonia’s fleet, mauled by Drake, had fled around Scotland only to find itself in a fatal struggle with an enemy even more merciless.
Some of my great, great, great, great, great, great-grandfathers might well have stood on this very shore at Lahinch, to watch King Phillip’s grand galleons founder, and groan, and wrench apart, as they were driven hard upon the rocks. My great-grandfather had left for America from Sligo, 163 years before the present, a county which lay way around this emerald Isle to the northeast. But plenty of McHugh headstones adorned County Clare graveyards all around Lahinch.
I thought about what it had been like for those grizzled Irish warriors — already scarred as a people from earlier centuries of battle with the Vikings, the Normans and the English. Many had watched without sympathy as survivors from the Spanish seaborne infantry floundered ashore in their armor, like so many steelclad lobsters, pleading in a strange tongue for mercy and coughing up the sea.
You hold the broadsword, a boarspear, or a pike. Which course do you choose, as the dark-eyed, trembling stranger falls to his knees? Slay him to filch his scant belongings? Execute him, then report the death to the English overlords in return for their rewards and praise? Or rescue and hide him, then covertly ship him back to Spain, so he might return to annoy Drake and Queen Elizabeth upon another day? History says all three of these choices were made, at various hours, in varying locales.
Warfare is humanity’s ultimate risk sport. It pins bulls-eyes atop our hearts. In war, you don’t get whacked by some vagrant, indifferent force. You are targeted by others who aim to kill you, with great specificity. The fabulous gifts of human beings, talents of vision, logic and will, become focused on exterminating your tribal unit, and you, as a representative individual. And y’know, we seem built for that sort of thing. At birth, we hold foetal forms of all lusts and drives needed for wreaking mayhem on any perceived enemy.
To dig up the root for that, you’d need a spade with quite a long handle. Go back four million years to A. anamensis and Ardipithecus ramidus. . . the “ground ape” who didn’t need to swing through trees to survive, but stepped out from the sheltering forest onto savannahs where hooves of the great herds thundered, and giant cats stealthily stalked. Now, go one step further into the shadows, back into the jungle shadows of five million years or so ago, to find a fork in evolution. One route away from those forebears led to us. The other, to the chimps.
There are 5.6 billion genetic “letters” or DNA molecules in the human genome, stitched together in 80,000 genes. More than 98 percent of the combinations found in us occur exactly as they do in African chimpanzees. Similarities crop up in our behavior as well. Chimps maim, mutilate, rape and slay other members of their own species on a regular basis.
Biology may not invariably be destiny, but it would be a brave pundit who swore it lacked all influence. .
Atavistic lust for battle surfaces in the most idealistic. However, it frequently goes unrecognized, especially after being coaxed into modern, “politically correct” formats. .
You may choose to do what you call good. But if you also feel compelled to fight for it, you will have to trek to that same old source within, to acquire combative wherewithal. Battle lust, per se, is undifferentiated. What makes the difference is which team(s) or tribe that you decide you’re on.
Personally, I never felt drawn much to compete on teams. Did a little football in high school. In college, I briefly joined the corps of American irregulars who were clubbed and jailed for protesting the Vietnam War. But, when it came to confrontation, I gradually realized that I preferred channeling my aggro tendencies into individualized risk sports. My favorite battles were those that occurred when I pitted myself against nature’s raw force.
Which led to a paradox. I found myself drafted onto an athletic team after I’d grown adept at a highly individualistic risk sport — surfing kayaks..
Kayak surfing, was, of course, invented by visionaries who built the first kayaks: Greenland Inuit (esquimaux) and Alaska’s Aleuts. With neolithic technology — shaping driftwood and bone by the light of sealoil lamps through the long winters — they built tough, light, flexible boat frames. They sheathed these kayaks with seal or walrus hides, covered themselves in waterproof jackets sewn from whale intestine, and paddled out to claim the frigid Arctic seas. The first Russian traders in the region were astonished to see the Aleuts easily scoot about amid tempests which made their own stiff square-riggers groan, and cheerily ride combers which twisted seams of the Rusky ships agape.
“They can move about the sea boldly and freely and take great pride in doing this,” one wrote. “They put to sea during the worst storms, and teach this to children as young as twelve years of age.”
California kayakers surfers paddle in their actual wake; not least because the Russian and Aleut base established furthest south to nurture trade in sea otter pelts, in the early 1800s, was at Fort Ross (“Rus”), a hundred miles north of San Francisco. About 130 years after the Aeuts paddled these coastal waters, California river paddlers stroked out into the surf in summers, looking for entertainment in months when whitewater river rapids ran low.
This rogue activity reached a new plateau of respectability in 1985, when the state’s first kayak surf contest was held.
I made that scene, and showed for the next five regional contests, as well. And so my name was scribbled on a short list by our coach, Matty Kinsella, as he drafted a team in 1988 to cross the pond and have it out with the Brits, Micks, Scots and Welsh — who had their own version of the sport. And so it came to pass that I found myself installed on a national team.
Still feeling mystified by this development, I had looked avidly out the porthole of an Aer Lingus 747 as it descended on the rumpled green chessboard of the Emerald Isle. Each verdant square of that land below seemed demarcated by a wavering line of stacked stone fences. Outside Shannon Airport, I stood out on those rolling hills for the first time. And found an ancestral yen for the auld sod was woven deeper into my psyche than I had kenned. As I sniffed up my first snootful of humid air laced with peat smoke, every cell in my body chanted a message: “Laddybuck, ye’re home!”.
I strapped my Phoenix kayak atop a teensy rental car, and set out driving on the wrong side of the road. In west Ireland, most thoroughfares are narrow lanes, constricted by those encroaching fences of stacked rock. There’s no margin for steering errors, especially when a loaded lorry barrels toward you from the opposite direction, demanding the roadway’s center to ensure safety for his precious fenders.
Another hazard for the newcomer is that your eyes are continually dragged off the road by seductive panoramas, such as the gothic ruins of castle keeps. Castles, in Ireland, are as common as piles of whale crap on the sea floor. Many of the cruder towers were stacked by the Normans, who invaded Ireland in the late 12th Century. Sleeker battlements went up later under English hands, to use as bases during their re-re-colonization of Ireland in the 16th and 17th Centuries. And most castles today have been reduced to a melancholy ruin by the siege cannon of Malby or Cromwell, blasted apart to deny any refuge to rebel Irish.
However, some castle walls were just blackened and crumbled by fire, signifying that the rebel Irish had piled peat bricks against the structure and set it ablaze, smoking out Norman or English warlords in their turn. .
Country towns commonly lie adjacent to such towering relics. The hamlets are clusters of slate-roofed, two-story stone houses painted in pastels. From lower stories, ornate signs thrust jauntily into the street, proclaiming wares of shop and pub.
Mostly pubs. There’s like, one of them for every eight houses. All the pubs look snug and inviting. Some, I would add, are especially famed for sporting a mix of lively conversation and impromptu music sessions known as, “the good craic!”. . . (pronounced, “crack”).
At Lahinch, a cluster of houses and pubs parted, and I finally located the sea. I parked my car to scout the swells coming in off the Atlantic, and was delighted to also find familiar faces. All of Team USA, and several members of the Irish team sat there on the bay seawall, studying the ocean. Swells were low that day, so they were also spending time getting to know one another.
We really didn’t know what to expect from the other teams. Thanks to the research by our American coach, Matty Kinsella, we did know more than a decade of earlier contests had occurred between Scots, Irish, Welsh and English teams. But the results, structure – and especially the culture or prevailing tenor of these wave-battles were unknown to us.
On my flight into Ireland, I began to worry about the combative mood that might prevail between the Irish and English. Would this approaching contest be just one more chance for them to carry on their ancestral conflict by another means? What would be the real depth of the “sporting” struggle that was I about to see? .
Americans tend to think of The Troubles — that poisonous, persistent, low-key war between Catholic Irish Republicans, Protestant Provincial Separatists, and occupying British Troops — as confined to Ulster, the six northern counties grouped around Belfast. We may even have a vague sense some sort of modern flashpoint was reached in 1968, when Catholics marched through the streets of Londonderry, demanding parity with the Protestants in housing, jobs and the vote. They were set upon by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Escalating violence brought about the revival of the IRA and a simultaneous deployment of British troops. That attained a climax on “Bloody Sunday,” January 30, 1972, when edgy British soldiers gunned down seven teenage boys and six adult men during an Irish march. .
Landscapes are illumined by history, once it is known. And in the light of history, Ireland gleams with a varnish of tears and blood. Gazing back through the past millenia, it would be hard to find an acre or a decade unbedewed.
As invasions go, the influx of Strongbow’s Normans in 1170 wasn’t so bad. The Normans swiftly adopted Irish culture. Sons and daughters named Fitzroy, Fitzhugh, Fitzmaurice, Fitzpatrick and so forth soon wove strands into the tapestry of aboriginal Celts on the auld sod. .
The subjugation of Ireland as a vassal fiefdom took place 400 years later, during the Elizabethan era, as Sir John Perrot, the first strong colonial warlord, sought to crush opposition, extract taxes, and hew Irish into Elizabeth’s Navy. Also, it was thought smart to replace recalcitrant Irish with subjects more amenable to the crown. Scots Presbyterians were shipped in to displace the natives of Ulster in 1610 – an early stab at ethnic cleansing.
Lord Mountjoy put down native resistance to this scheme. Under Rory O’More and Phelim O’Neill, the Irish rose up to attack the colonists yet again. Then Oliver Cromwell brought his Roundheads, fire and the sword in 1649, avenging any English dead by repeated massacres of the Irish. Another war closed in an apparently decisive Irish defeat, by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, in 1690.
Rebellion erupted again from Ulster to Dublin, 1794-98. Rebel bodies were dumped into shallow mass graves. The following spring, a forest of green shafts sprang up — shoots from seed corn the dead Irish had carried in their coat pockets for combat rations.
Tiny insurrections and desperate acts of vengeance against oppressive British landlords continued through the Great Famine, 1845-1850, when two million Irish lives were lost to starvation, typhus and cholera. An added factor was the genocidal decision by British authorities to continue to send to England the wheat, oats and barley produced on the best Irish farmland. Meanwhile, Irish underlings desperately tried to live on potatoes grown in patches in odd corners of the stone fences – a harvest that failed, year after year, due to blight.
Against such a backdrop, it’s not surprising there was an Easter Uprising in 1916, promptly followed by the Tan War of 1920, when auxiliary British troops called the Black-and-Tans (due to colors of their mismatched, impromptu uniforms) engaged in vicious, pitched battles with the IRA throughout the country. A pattern of political assassinations and reprisals ricocheted through battered counties for the next decade. It was the era of Michael Collins and “Dev” De Valera.
The eruption of Bloody Sunday seems just another russet bud, unfurling. But the Irish are noted, not only for stubborn combativeness, but – oddly enough – also for great warmth and conviviality.
At Lahinch, especially in Brewster’s Pub, we Yanks grew acquainted with members of the Irish kayak surfing team. I felt a bit shocked to discover that none of them were red-haired poets, anchorite monks, rambunctious sots, bomb-tossing IRA cadres, or clog-dancing colleens. They were schoolteachers, electricians, computer specialists and a soldier for the Irish Republic.
Similarly, the Irish seemed astonished our troop of California surfers did not include tanned, blonde studs wearing sunglasses, flowered shirts and sandals – or buxom bikini babes. We were a bunch of average, non-flashy, young Americans from all walks of life who had gotten reasonably good at an ancient sport.
Interesting, isn’t it, how much human thought leans upon stereotypes.
Still, my supposition that all might not be hearts and flowers between the British and Irish teams was borne out. That animus erupted, at first, in pranks. A pool table’s eight ball was hidden in a pint of stout, where it would roll down and smack against a British drinker’s teeth as he tilted his glass. The young Irish surfer who had put it there — Aidan — was grabbed by Brits and “pantsed,” stripped to his undershorts, straightaway on the dance floor at Brewsters.
Escalation seemed inevitable. Brits boasted of the way an Irish prank had backfired the previous year. An Irishman had coaxed the British into a conga dance line, then led them, dancing, into the men’s restroom. The mischievous Mick grabbed a firehose off the wall and soaked down the entire British team. But as that hoser turned to flee his retribution, he yanked the knob right off the door. He was then forced to swallow copious gouts of his own medicine.
I warily watched out for such imbroglios, wondering if or how I’d react if one erupted.
Meanwhile our international kayak surfing contest began. Low waves initially gave European teams an advantage. Their surf craft seemed decidedly odd: long, high-volume river slalom boats, with special control vanes and fins glassed onto the surface. They did boast superior hull speed. They could catch and ride almost any riffle, then stand on their bows in the final shorebreak to perform pirouettes and forward loops that earned high marks in Euro-style judging
In contrast, our low-volume, hard-railed American kayaks needed to be riding tall and steep (California-style) waves to turn in a credible performance. We bogged down when waves were this small.
Another depressing development lay in finding out the Euros thought the scope of our fight should extend beyond actual surf heats. Struggles for advantage continued into rule-making and judging. As we observed blatant favoritism bloom and flower, members of the U.S. team were aghast. Our lobbying for even-handedness was taken as naivety, a sign of weakness.
Hence, our asses got handed to us during early days of the contest. Our hosts, the Irish, sought to cheer us up with a jaunt in the countryside. They desired to show us a rural pub with “the good craic.” And so a caravan of tiny rental cars wound through the unlit Irish night, and eventually debarked at a rather remote, rural pub.
Clearly, this tavern hadn’t been visited often – perhaps never – by any foreigner. As our crew of Americans sauntered in, bug-eyed Irish locals reacted as if the Martians had landed.
But we stayed low key, acquired our own “dirty old pints” of draft Guinness stout, and sat to tap our toes to traditional tunes. These were jolly, swooping reels played on the tin whistle, fiddle, squeeze box, guitar and flat drum (bodhran). During lulls in the music, people rose from the audience to declaim a poem or belt out a ballad. All kibitzers were shushed. Each performer got heard. This was the grand and lovely craic. A grand dame sang a bittersweet tune about a captain who falls in love with a cabin boy. Then she strolled over to our table, and announced that we visitors ought to go on stage to make our contribution.<.
I gulped, nodded and went up to mumble through a John Prine tune. . . then chased that with a manic Lord Buckley monologue. Other members of Team USA offered their bits. Afterwards, the grand dame saw fit to reward us: “Ye’re good company!” .
Headlights tunneled through the wet night, leading us back to our lodgings. It struck me as we passed their digs, that not a single person from the British team had come along. I asked one of Irish whether Brits had been invited. A brief grunt was my only reply. .
As I mentally thumbed through my stocki Irish lore and history, I located a translation.
The good craic is regarded as more than mere entertainment. It’s the “harp-beat” of society, pumping the blood of cultural identity. Craic ventilates all wounds, promotes social bonds among the citizenry, connection with ancestors gone. It generates jollity in a snug pub during Ireland’s parade of cold, misty days.
Centuries ago, the invading English astutely perceived bardic tradition as a mainstay of the culture. They attacked it viciously. Queen Elizabeth’s warlord, Sir John Perrot, outlawed bards and rhymers on the grounds that their ditties stirred up defiance, inspiring Irish kerns and gallowglasses to rebellion. An even sterner edict was handed down in 1579. “Harpers, bards, rhymers and loose and idle people having no master are to be now executed by martial law.” .
Still, yet, through all the centuries of persecution, Irish music somehow found paths to survival, and it thrives in the present day.
Mindful of that history, the Irish may allow Brits to enjoy pubs along the main drags. Buses can unload tourists of any stripe at such joints. But the Irish team would no more have thought of bringing a limey into venerable craic halls in rural villages than a Brit, in turn, would consider inviting some Mick into the Tower of London to juggle the English crown jewels. After I had asked our principal guide why no English had been invited along on our soiree, and he grunted his response, I noted that his face took on a sour look as he gazed out the car windscreen, into the onrushing darkness.
Next day, at Doughmore beach, our surf competition continued. And on this day, third of the contest, God created waves — swells big enough to break before they actually hit the beach. On ’em, we could shred turns in our short, sharp American boats. Points began to roll in for Team USA. Which created no little consternation on the judge’s stand. A sense that advantage might veer within our grasp made our whole team buckle down to the task of beating our enemies — among whom I even began to include our hosts. I’d a bellyful of watching biased judging and partisan wrangling. If our team displayed unarguable superiority in the surf, so much so that even the most unfair judges from other teams had to grouchily award us points, that would be the best revenge.
Smoldering anger led my emotions; a fierce urge to dominate others motivated my actions; determination to win infused my will. I was growing prepared to fight. Yet, fairly promptly, a reactive switch clicked in my head. I found myself distrusting these feelings. I struggled to stand outside them mentally, to distance myself from them, to objectify and analyze them. This distrust stemmed from my belief that a militarized mind had been my father’s worst addiction, casting a shadow over my entire childhood.
My dad had been a smart and ambitious man, struggling to succeed while our nation was mired in the Great Depression. He only came into his own after he joined the Army. His first military gig, jaunting around with the pre-mechanized cavalry, had been a lark. But after he joined the engineers and advanced to Lieutenant, he stumbled across a darker niche of power. He swiftly gained fame as a martinet, a bear for order and discipline. So much so, that officers reputed as insubordinate were put under him for a bit of shaping up. This, I think, was his life’s true glory period. Amid exigencies of wartime, with full approval of his superiors, he could crush and humiliate men of lesser fiber. It was all accomplished under the shining aegis of patriotism.
After the war, he moved to South Florida, where he became a general contractor. But his construction business faltered. That was an odd development. Being a home-builder near Miami during that era should have been like pushing a wheelbarrow under a golden waterfall. Uncertain, perhaps, why his pockets stayed empty, he turned back to an earlier type of success. He took military command of his wife and kids. He set about shaping us into a platoon that would jump when he said boo. We were conscripts, forced to submit to abuse while fulfilling every order. It’s the same method a boot camp drill sergeant uses to format a random mob of men into a tight squad.
And that’s why, out at Doughmore beach, when I felt that hard, sharp-edged, metallic mind beginning to grind away inside of me, I sought to evade it. I did not, at first, succeed at doing so. Both offshore and on, teams competed in ultra-nationalistic fashion. We sketched giant logos of our countries in the level beach sand. Each sketch was fashioned larger than the next. Bonus points were won for erasing someone else’s work with your own.
“Unenlightened people show a karmic illness. They consider whatever they attach themselves to as having a self. Form a group, and they consider it to have a self. Bind themselves to a nation, and they believe the nation has a self,” wrote Yasutani Roshi, in 1967. (That opinion was well-researched, since this Zen master himself had generated propaganda for the Japanese empire during World War II.)
On the beach in Ireland, we cheered madly for our teammates to spank the neoprene off our rivals. Arguments over points and rules erupted in the judge’s area. I got involved, and veered dangerously close to punching the smirk off the mug of a particularly smug coach..
While I glared at him, revelation suddenly dropped on me like a hod of bricks. It was not only Micks and Brits with their tradition of granting sway to aggressive urges which was of concern. I needed to get the chimp off my own shoulder.
I took a stroll on the beach to cool down, and acquire a freshened perspective. As I did, the clouds parted and the sun shone. This may not sound like a big deal, but in many parts of Ireland, rain falls 250 days per year. However, total annual precipitation is just 50 inches. Translation: You may not get as damp as you fear; but you’ll be genuinely ecstatic to see the sun.
Whenever sunbeams hit Ireland, rounded hillocks take on a glow so green and gold, so ripe, rich and fulfilling, it makes some deep vegetative root of the psyche sigh with pleasure. But our bringer of miracles was not yet done. Next, a troupe of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins swam into Doughmore Bay and began to surf with us during the contest. Party mammals that they were, they soon grasped the name of our game was plying hydraulics for fun. Their dorsal fins began cutting all around our boats on the wave faces. Round, dark eyes glanced up at us as they cruised alongside.
Christine Calvery, a distaff rep on Team USA, described it this way: “When I was out in my boat and they were surfing with us, I saw darting black shadows all around me, and bubbles trailing behind as they went below. It was great to be close to creatures who know how to enjoy the sea. It was like they were teaching us to be playful.”
Onshore, an evolution occurred. After the dolphins showed up, everyone began cheering with a fresh porpoise. (Sorry.) A half-dozen dolphins at once arced their powerful bodies in a wave’s glassy wall, cutting to this side and that. Some judges may actually have begun scoring them. In any event, the importance of team standings faded into background buzz as everyone began to grin and yelp in delight at the day’s enchantment.
A glow still surrounded me as I drove back toward my lodging. Then I came upon a memorial which I’d passed for several days in a row. This time, the spot hit me with greater emotional impact. A bronze plaque set in a stone wall bore the image of an angry man in a long coat, brandishing a revolver. The text below said that a band of Irish patriots had held their ground on this spot, battling against “forces of English oppression,” in 1926. I drove thoughtfully onward.
The next morning, our competition had a bye day. The Welsh came over to the American cottages to have a go at us. Their coach, Alan Page, said good morning, then whacked me across the forehead with a tin bar tray. The Welsh had a special trick with these. Gripping one by its rim, they could bash a victim with the tray center right on the front of the skull. It made a loud noise, produced a flash of light in the brain, and hurt the head not a whit. However, it also usually dented the tray beyond repair.
“Wherever we go, barmaids hide trays from us. But we talked them into selling us a few,” Page gloated. “The night of the big party, we’ll be able to attack!”
Another hit they proffered came from a bottle of poteen. This clear (but vicious and highly illegal) Irish moonshine trickles down your gullet like liquid flame, then suddenly rebounds and bolts like lightning up to the brain. Liberated in your cranium, it produces a luminous burst, not unlike getting walloped on the forehead with a tin tray. The five Welsh, plus the one Irishman accompanying them, had hit their bottle of poteen all night. It’s a tribute to the stuff’s potency that they had barely drawn the liter down to the halfway mark. .
After we succeeded in reducing the by another centimeter, their plan to take us hiking on The Burren began to acquire charm.
The Burren is a bulging plateau of limestone, with miniscule canyons worn into the rock by erosion. Subarctic plants sprout in niches on the surface; temperate vegetation seeks shelter down in the narrow cracks. Amid the spring bloom, The Burren is a botanist’s fantasy. In dry autumns, this area resembles giant gray globes of stony brain tissue mulling green thoughts.
As we wound north through County Clare, heading for The Burren, a member of our expedition had a few green thoughts of his own. The Irishman turned pale, then fell unconscious. We roused him long enough to have him point out a turn in Lisdoonvarna as the right way, the wrong way, then the right way once more. This forced a series of improbable U-turns on the narrow lanes. Drained by his exertion, our Virgil flopped back on his seat and promptly passed out.
We found The Burren anyhow. Our first attempt to climb up the soaring, gray-green mound was defeated by a network of tiny erosion gullies so deep, random and intricate that ankle-busting seemed certain. We retreated, and tried a route leading up from the Black Head lighthouse, where the brow of the hill was worn a bit more smooth.
Once we had ascended several hundred yards above the wrinkled silver foil of the sea, the giant mound of rock beneath our feet began to speak. We crossed the long swath of the Green Road, a winding ribbon of cleared land that writhes over the desolate Burren. It could have had Sam Beckett as chief engineer: it starts nowhere, goes nowhere, and is used for nothing. It simply was a make-work project in the 1800’s, a way of making starving people perform some sort of task before they could receive their dole of bread.
Now, the surreal route simply makes despair of a bygone era visible. Large flat rocks, upended, form tall curbs on each side of the Green Road. This line of blank tombstones writhes by the windswept highway, then vanishes into infinity.
The next masonry project we found was a job from two millenia ago. “Cathair dun Irghus,” our guide called the Celtic ring-fort which loomed on a crest. Open air gradually revived him from his stupor. “That means the ‘Fort of Irghus,'” he said. “Don’t know who he bloody was. Some chieftain of the old days. These forts were used from 200 B.C. until medieval times. The Burren has hundreds of ’em.”
This fort was a circle of stacked rock, perhaps 300 feet in diameter. Just as at Peru’s old Inca stronghold, Machu Picchu, each piece of stone was carefully fitted to the next, creating a walkway below the rim of the outermost rampart. It was easy to visualize some hardy warrior, boarspear in hand, stalking here while a North Atlantic gale streamed his long hair and beard back over a rough brown cloak.
“Barren as it is,” our guide said, “this was the first place settled in Ireland. There were impenetrable forests and bogs almost everywhere else. And y’know, the free people were forced to seek shelter back up here after Cromwell invaded. There was nowhere else. The watchword at the time was, ‘You can go to Hell, or you can go to Connacht.'”
The merriest sight the Emerald Isle offered me was the comfort of Irish pubs. Next to them, an American bar is a cold and lonely place. The dreariest sites I saw were right up here on The Burren: tiny huts made of stacked rock, with smokestained rock slabs laid across to make a leaky roof. These hovels were the last refuge for those fleeing Cromwell’s wrath. Huddled next to a peat fire, their mouths stained green from munching herbs for survival, wretched refugees passed the icy seasons until the Roundheads were gone and it was safe to descend. At this moment, I finally grasped how deeply and thoroughly the Brits could be hated for the long, long train of misery inflicted on this island.
Our guide put his hand on the roof of a wretched cot. “I should come back, try to sleep in one of these some time,” he muttered. “What dreams would you have? It’s a desolate, desolate place. Maybe, a spiritual place, too.” .
We descended from The Burren around mid-afternoon to find that results of the 1988 Home International competition had been decided. Different countries could boast winning particular divisions. Team USA had won the surf kayak part. Ireland took the womens’ wave ski; Wales had the junior kayak division. But the combined scores from all divisions gave the Brits the best overall total.
Wind that had whistled past our ears up on limestone bluffs of the Burren had signaled a sea-change. As if goaded to fury by our paddle-slaps, the North Atlantic reared up and hissed foam across packed sand of Irish beaches. Sheets of air moaned over the seawall at Lahinch, building toward a full-throated howl. It was a remarkably inauspicious set of circumstances for launching the contest’s final phase, known as the European Championship. In this, surfers would compete against each other as individuals, not as team members.
Two emerging favorites in the last heats were Harry Babcock of England, and Eric Hanscom of the USA. Babcock boasted the current title. Tall, broad, and imbued with exuberant ferocity, he seemed a medieval throwback, someone who had popped out of the Bayeux Tapestry and come to life. Babcock would’ve looked perfect in a hauberk and helm at the battle of Hastings, swinging a broadsword.
Our cerebral Hanscom, by contrast, more resembled a lean and cool fighter pilot from WWII, tapping a cigarette on his thumbnail as he shows his mechanic how to stick up that last decal which proves he’s an ace.
So, it was our Apollonian Hanscom vs. the Dionysian Babcock on the unlevel playing field of the North Atlantic. I’d have to say, conditions seemed to favor Babcock more. Waves had become shaggy twelve-footers — the same sort of stuff Aidan Doyle and I had fought during our outing at Lahinch the day before. .
On these big dogs, Babcock would find plenty of room to turn his long boat before they walled and pitched. And he’d be able to blast back to the outside of the break easily, bending his giant strength upon the paddle shaft.
Still, Hanscom was afire with purpose. A former boardsurfer who’d switched to kayaks after a depressing loss (“Shit, I got second in the California state championships, and life went downhill for me then.”), Eric saw kayaks as a new venue, one where he could triumph. It was a thrill to watch him push a kayak to perform with the precision of a surfer’s shortboard.
Amid heaving seas, blasting winds and gloomy skies, the day went absolutely frigid. As he rested between rounds, Hanscom sat in my tiny rental car. I tried to get its anemic heater to wheeze out more BTU’s. He stuffed Cadbury’s chocolates into his mouth, and calculated his odds. Matty pushed his bearded visage into the window on Eric’s side. .
“You got ahead by one point in your heat. You went through! So it’s Discombe from Britain, Eoghan Pearsons from Ireland, Babcock and you in the finals. It’ll start soon. Eat! Eat! And drink, too. You want an injection?” .
Eric smiled wanly. He slid another hunk of candy into his mouth and gulped it down with water. “Looks tough,” he said. “Babcock’s only lost once in this contest. Pearsons pulls great enders, and Discombe’s good at snaking the critical part of the wave. But I can do roundhouse cutbacks, and they can’t. That’s my edge.” .
Eric left the car and headed for his boat. Soon, sharp lines of his Perception Sabre cut through the chaotic storm seas. Amazingly, he followed his game plan, even after one huge swell snatched him up and hurled him into the seawall. Bruised and battered, he pushed himself back out through the breakers and scored his third big ride of the heat.
It became apparent Hanscomb would win. He was letting every last scrap of his talent and drive emerge, as he displayed consummate mastery on cutbacks. He would poise his speeding boat just below the lip of a pitching wave, then use its curling foam to knock the bow around through a fast, 180-degree course change, over and over. Yet by the heat’s end, he looked physically beaten as he paddled up to a patch of sand that lay exposed by the sea wall, in between the larger wave sets. Matty stripped to his briefs and ran into the cold water to help Eric land.
Babcock was already on shore — spare energy always seemed to course through that massive frame. Together they caught Eric’s boat. He fell out of it and rolled, kneeling on the sand, limp with fatigue. Matty helped him to high ground before the next high waves bashed into the rocks. He held Eric up, hugged him, and told him he’d done fine. Harry Babcock grinned as he approached from the rear. Then he yanked Matty’s underwear all the way down to his ankles, putting his plump buns on display to all the spectators from town.
Our final, triumphal bash for all contestants was held at Brewster’s. This was a theme pub right on the Lahinch waterfront. Named after an American bar, it featured a big screen video where old California surf movies, such as “Big Wednesday,” showed in constant rotation. We fortified ourselves with the customary pints of Guiness, then thrashed our way through the awards ceremony. There were honest cheers — especially for Eric’s heroic victory — yet also some gnashing of teeth.
The Welsh launched a swashbuckling assault on the trophy table, bashing tin bar trays against the foreheads of all comers. A special teddy bear consolation prize was given the English coach, as he’d pitched the best temper tantrum at the judge’s stand. But once all ribbons, plaques and trophies were distributed, matters having to do with victory or loss swiftly faded into the background.
Kayakers of all nationalities mingled on Brewster’s dance floor. There were impromptu conga dance lines, an Irish woman dancing with her dog, clog dances to a disco beat, dances done while sitting down on the floor. Shouts and laughter ricocheted around the room like light from a mirrored ball.
I’d expected there would be a residue of bitterness, that might stem from fights over judging, or the historic antagonism which had been the contest’s subtext. Yet something else displaced those things. I was a beat behind in my awareness of what that might be.
Noise and fatigue finally forced me off the dance floor and out into the pub stairwell, to take a breather. I found one of the Brits already out there, taking his own break from the dance floor, letting his sweat cool. I recognized him: Babcock, the lad with the physique and fire of a medieval warrior. It was a bit of a let-down to find out that he worked as a functionary in a London brokerage. As we chatted, he shared his doubts about the equities of Thatcher’s England.
“I spend my life getting other people money. Numbskulls wind up with thousands and thousands of pounds. And there you are with a degree you’ve slaved to get just so you can serve them, while you make bloody nothing!
“That’s why I’ve got to find a place to let it rip. That’s why surfing’s so important to me. When you’re on a wave, you can completely let loose, and not think of anything else. Surfing itself is a lot like traveling to Ireland. Combine surfing and Ireland, and you’ve got something! Over here, you can really let your hair down. We English are so bloody stiff. An Englishman is so reserved, anything vibrant makes him feel unsettled. Threatened, somehow.”
Tongue loosened by pints and the party’s power, Babcock vented on. “I really like the Irish,” he confessed. “Sometimes, if they’re in a group and you walk by as a Brit, they make you feel damned odd. But once the craic gets rolling, you are welcome to join. You do song after song with them, it’s an incredibly warm and human experience. Sort of thing you can’t find anyplace else in the world. You must love them, as a people, for making their land a home for that. . .”
I gazed at him, sympathetically. Perhaps he hadn’t grasped all the history, didn’t know that the English had spent centuries trying to rub the good craic out of existence. Likely, he had no clue the English team had been deliberately excluded from our foray to that rural pub, as well as our expedition to The Burren. Maybe knowing that wouldn’t have made a difference. Our risk sport, and the joy of its adherents, had already taken him a down a path leading away from ancient enmities. As I looked at Babcock, I thought, here’s one Maggie will never get to shoot at an Irishman. And none of these Irish, who’ve shared the sea and the pubs with him, shall ever be able to raise a hand against him.
Eventually, I left Babcock and got outside. Wind shrieking off the sea nearly tore the pub’s outer door from my grasp, and even tried to yank it off its hinges as I opened it. The gale plastered clothes against my body as if I’d been shrink-wrapped. As I stumbled along, I had to lean well forward into the spray that bounded over the seawall and blasted the streets of Lahinch. I felt if spread my arms, I could rise up on these gusts like a seagull.
As I gazed out on the dark and turbulent Atlantic, my thoughts began to coalesce. Like many other high-risk sports, surfing in heavy swells must bear some resemblance to combat. There’s the hiss of incoming rounds and the thunder of explosions. You teeter on a thin line between getting hammered or achieving evasion — and sometimes, even victory. It’s most like it, perhaps, because the sea can absorb every iota of your physical strength, each aggressive impulse, then invite you to reveal a little more.
Combat compels release of aggressive emotions that run as deep as tribalism, or deeper. . . eventually attaining the sort of savagery which unites a posse of chimps, scampering through the Tai Forest of West Africa, seeking a way to tear a red colobus monkey from the trees so they can devour its flesh.
However, a risk sport — and especially competition in a risk sport — summons this energy, only to transform it. One gains catharsis in emerging from full release of ultimate aggression, only to make the charming discovery that you’ve not hurt anyone else, or even yourself.
Matty Kinsella, the third order Franciscan monk who was our team coach, was well out in front of me on this. Before we had even left the U.S., in fact., he had told me, “I’d like to see activities like surf kayaking replace sports like boxing, that pit the primal nature of men against each other.
“Humans, males in particular, seem to need intensity. But here in this crowded, modern world, we should find adventures for our bodies other than wreaking violence. Surfing contests are a great alternative. It provides an outlet, without letting aggression devolve into that tribal identification and blind rage which leads to war.”
Women tend to loathe football — at least, those who don’t play on female rugby teams themselves — without realizing the vital role it plays in sublimating, then dissipating, aggressive social urges. The true goal of the game is not found in the score, or an ostensible victory. Its ultimate achievement is the camaraderie, demonstrated when players on opposing sides pat each other after a play is whistled dead, hug or shake hands following a game.
That’s when demons of war, and elements of the military mind become sublimated. There’s a chance to grasp the light of a higher nature, a more benign style of living.
Standing out by the Lahinch seawall, I looked back at Brewster’s. Light, laughter and music spilled out from the pub windows. I noted how soon it got swallowed up by the stormy night. All the noise and warmth a hundred rowdy paddlers could make was just a hiccup between storms, a gasp between the stars. A ribbon of light, amid history’s dark cascade.
Each other, I thought. That’s all we’ve got.