Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, June 2 2012

Surf, sounds and Michael D by the sea

It’s just after midday on Saturday at the Sea Sessions in Bundoran and a handful of revellers are purging their hangovers by surfing the furious Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the conditions that make this town a Mecca for surfing are, for the moment at least, rendering it unsuitable for doing just about anything else.

There’s a gale blowing up from the sea and, at the ticket office, a dreadlocked member of staff has mounted the portcabin roof in a desperate attempt to reaffix a torn away sign. Oh dear. We could have a Rod Hull situation on our hands here.Now in its fifth year, Sea Sessions is a unique festival that combines live music, surfing and beach sports. Unfortunately, due to the inclement weather, Saturday’s entire programme of (non-musical) activities has had to be cancelled.

Alas then, none of the high octane sports the Features Editor had so gallantly volunteered me to participate in – tag rugby, Olympic handball, BMX stunt biking, motocross et al – will now be going ahead. “Gutted”, I believe, is the word I believe that athletes would use to describe my reaction to the news.

Down at the beach, only a hardy band of beach volleyball players have ventured onto the sand. The teams are drawn from all over Ireland but the players, for the most part, are natives of continental and Eastern Europe.

There is a rather farcical nature to the proceedings. Experienced players are seeing their services fall as much as a metre short of the net. “Only in Ireland,” laughs American Megan Burgdorf, “is beach volleyball an extreme sport.” Are the players worried about getting blown into the sea? “Not at all,” she replies. “We have stones in our pockets!”

Joining me on the sidelines, a young man, who may or may not have been up all night, is offered a massage by a pack of roving masseuses. He ponders his response. “Is this a charitable service?” he asks. It isn’t.

Where are the rest of the previous night’s punters hiding out, I wonder? Seeking respite from the wind, I make for The Kitchen Bake Cafe, a converted Methodist church on the town’s main street. It’s 1.30pm and a queue of older ladies has formed outside. “It’s like trying to get into a nightclub,” one of them chuckles.

Eventually, the proprietor opens the front door to let a small group of customers out. But he locks it again behind them, telling us that we will have to wait a little longer. The grumbles outside are getting louder now.

The apple crumble crowd didn’t come to town looking for trouble. But push us too far, sir, and things will get ugly.

I duck into The Kicking Donkey pub across the road. The place is heaving. There are lots of standard issue florescent festival wellies and preternaturally bronzed female thighs. But there are also plenty of beach bums and Patagonia-clad outdoorsy types too.

In Surfworld next door, one of Ireland’s best known big wave surfers describes how the surfing has helped to change Bundoran’s grim image as the dilapidated Las Vegas of the North West. “Aesthetically, it’s not a very beautiful town,” admits Richie Fitzgerald. “But what we do have are fantastic beaches and great surf.”

In recent years, it has become fashionable for people from the east coast to come to Bundoran to surf. But Fitzgerald is keen to stress that surfing has longstanding roots in the town.”The surf club was set up in 1961. Our shop has been here since 1990. As townspeople, we would have grown up with the sport.”

“We’re busy in the summer. We’re busy in winter. The only day we close is Christmas Day. Surfing doesn’t need Sea Sessions. But it’s great for the town. It brings in a different demographic.”

Back at the festival site, Sea Sessions organiser, and local bar owner, Declan Madden echoes those comments. “Traditionally, Bundoran was known for slot machines and country and western music. But a different crowd began coming here to surf. We wanted them to keep them here and maybe bring along some of their friends too. I suppose, we wanted to make Bundoran cool.”

They seem to have succeeded. With 4,500 tickets sold, only 500 walk-in ticket sales are required tonight to make the event a sell out.

At 5pm, the motorcade of Uachtarán Michael D. Higgins arrives at the site. Michael D. and wife Sabina are greeted by Bundoran Mayor Philip McGlynn and tonight’s headliners The Coronas, who happen to be standing next to him.

Candidate Higgins had attended Sea Sessions last year and promised to return as president. Making good on that promise, he escorted on a tour of the festival ground by organiser Daniel Browne. Playing at the bottom of the bill on the Main Stage, upcoming Irish act The Young Folks get the surprise of their lives to see the President and First Lady standing in the front row and visibly enjoying the band’s set closer Way Down South.

In his speech to a group of invited guests paid tribute to a “special” festival, that attracts visitors from abroad. “They come to experience not just the unpredictable Irish weather, but also the very predictable Irish hospitality.”

Almost on cue, the wind picks up a notch. Irish music festivals have been struck by all sorts of meteorological calamities down through the years. But this is surely the first ever to be struck by a sandstorm.

As he mingles with artists and guests, I inform the president of UEFA’s plan present a special award to Irish fans to recognise their contribution to Euro 2012. Have been part of that award-winning effort in Poznan, along with the President’s sons John and Michael, I ask for his reaction to the award.

It is well deserved, he thinks. That one Polish newspaper chose to print the words of The Fields of Athenry, he says, is a testament to the good impression Irish fans made. However, he expresses the hope that some of that fan enthusiasm will rub off on attendances at Ireland’s domestic leage.

By seven o’clock, the President and First Lady have departed. Donegal have just defeated Tyrone in the Ulster championship. Crowds begin spilling out of the pubs and making their way towards the site, where the music is getting underway in earnest.

Among them is a hen party and young couple who have just gotten engaged. I bump into those roving masseuses again and ask how much they’re charging for their services. Five euros, I’m told. But for The Irish Times, it’s on the house. It’s a tempting offer, but by now her services are surplus to requirements. New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band have arrived on stage with a joyous sound to put a smile on even the most wind-ravaged of faces.

Rain begins to spray the roof of the main tent, but no one seems to mind. The party is just getting started.

July 2nd, 2012.

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