Pray for us Sinners Now…

Nothing from this world can help you when Crab Island is exploding onto the reef...

The day before Good Friday, and the tiny village had virtually closed down for Easter. Our chances of finding a B&B were looking increasingly slim until an enquiry in a pub lead us here. That’s the thing about Ireland. If you want to know anything, ask the barman.

The place wasn’t supposed to be open for another few weeks, when the season’s first golfers were due to arrive. We’d knocked hesitantly, thinking the sight of six salt-encrusted surf bums would be enough to make the landlady shoo us away through the letterbox of the closed door. Instead we found ourselves packed off – literally – every morning with homemade soda bread, and every evening to the clandestine after-hours sessions at the local bars.

Good Friday evening and our landlady thinks for a minute before saying conspiratorially, “The first pub on the High Street. It’ll look closed, but just knock on the door and tell them I sent you. Oh, and tell Sean that my husband will expect a little extra in the collection box on Sunday.” Actually, if you need anything in Ireland, it helps to be in with the clergy’s wife.

Easter Sunday morning and the swell had risen again. Groomed Atlantic lines arrived in Doolin Bay. We left the harbour entrance, not aboard one of the tourist boats departing for the Aran Islands, but paddling our boards through the eerily calm waters of the blue black, deep water channel. Twenty minutes later and we were approaching the near side of Crab Island. The frothy foam travelling in the rip gave a clue as to what was waiting for us as we rounded the corner. From the shore it looked small but I’d been advised to take my semi-gun and wear my helmet. Now, staring down the throat of Crab Island, I was glad that I had.

The ocean’s power had been compressed by the reef and magnified from jacking, sucking take-off to stand-up barrel. The jagged limestone reef takes no prisoners and the only other guys in the line-up were a couple of local bodyboarders, one bleeding heavily from a newly acquired cut on his forehead, the other sweating profusely despite the frigid waters. We’d been sent on our way this morning with the usual little homemade packed lunch and a smile. “You boys have fun now,” she said with a wave – a jaunty Californian point break kind of a wave, the kind you could ease onto with a Skip Frye fish and just cruise. Not this Irish raging bull of a wave I was now confronted with. This wave would like to pin you to the lacerating reef and gore you until you gave up all atheist thoughts in your spinning head and prayed to one of the many Virgin Marys that peppered the coastal road home.

The quiet in the line-up was a stark contrast to the smoky music that swept through the Doolin pub the night before. It was the kind of scene you only see in a movie – beautiful young girls singing along to the wizened old guy with a penny whistle buried beneath a huge hedge of beard. There had been a lunar eclipse and everyone had wondered outside, gazed at the sky for all of five minutes, before returning to the peat warmed fireside to continue their set – the kind of set that lulls you into a warm world of sweet harmonies and soothingly cold Guinness. Not the kind of set that was exploding on the reef, setting pulses racing like a shot of adrenalin injected straight into the heart of someone entering anaphalactic shock.

From the line-up I could see the huge vertical plunge of the Cliffs of Moher. They drop surgically 700ft into the Atlantic, as if someone had cut off a chunk of the Irish coast with a huge cheese-wire. Looking over the precipice the day before, I’d felt the pull of vertigo and wondered out loud, “If I fall, will I clear the rocks below?” Paddling into the rising peak of the next wave I looked down, felt the world start to drop away and through the crystal clear water I saw the warping Burren limestone shimmering below. As I popped to my feet and angled right, down the face, a little voice in the back of my mind was calculating “If I fall, will I clear the reef below?” I knew there was one person who would know for sure. He was 63, wore tweed, and his accent was so strong I only understood every third word.

That’s the thing about Ireland. If you want to know anything, ask the barman.