People are often surprised to learn that Ireland has some of the best waves on Earth, due to its exposed location on the turbulent Atlantic seaboard, and has become increasingly known as a surfing destination. With a growing surfing subculture to accommodate the increased interest in the sport, Ireland has proved a popular choice with filmmakers making movies about surfing over the years.
‘Waveriders’, for example, released in 2008, featured the famous Aileens Wave at the Cliffs of Moher, a behemoth that has been taken on by some of the world’s best-known surfers. Mikey Corker also turned the lens on his own country in a three-part series, ‘Made in Ireland’, that followed big wave surfer Conor Maguire and examined the extreme challenges of surfing through an Irish winter.
Directed by Ross Whitaker (‘Unbreakable’, ‘When Ali Came to Ireland’), the new surfing documentary ‘Between Land and Sea’ focuses on Lahinch in West Clare, a sleepy coastal town in Liscannor Bay. Once renowned for its golf courses, since the turn of the century it has become a beacon for those wishing to tackle the big waves. Baggy golfing shorts have been replaced by Billabong T-shirts and surfing now plays an integral role in the local economy.
Taking place over one year, Whitaker begins his film in January, during the depths of winter. The beachfront shops are closed. Surfers repair their boards. Dexter McCullough, who runs the van-based surf school, thinks about how he’s going to stretch his grocery budget with months still to go before the 10-week summer rush (“the bills come in in wintertime, as they do in summertime,” he muses). Time rolls on and the torpor is shaken. Then unseasonal foul weather sets in.
Like ‘Waveriders’ before it, ‘Between Land and Sea’ places a large amount of focus on Ireland's most iconic big wave, known as Aileens, after the nearby Aill na Searrach cliffs. Although a popular location for tow-in surfing and championed by many as a “perfect wave”, Aileens is not an everyday occurrence, as it requires stormy conditions and strong east winds offshore.
Ironically, while the nature of the local weather is responsible for creating a Mecca for surfers worldwide, it also makes it a struggle for people trying to make a living in the area. Whitaker follows the lives of a few of the residents, attempting to eke out an existence in an unpredictable and hostile environment, whether that’s as a professional surfer, instructor or simply someone who wants to live near the water (a surfer quips, “it’s like having a playground on your doorstep – except my playground is the ocean”) and be self-sufficient in the face of the elements.
Kevin Smith’s waterbound photography is pristine and the sequences shot by drone (from the overlooking cliffs) show off West Clare’s beautifully rugged coastline.
The surfers have dedicated their lives to the ocean, consumed by the excitement and beauty on offer but, conscious too of economic realities, they live frugally, eschewing the luxuries of city life.
We meet a clutter of these wave enthusiasts. Local surfer Ollie Flaherty dreams of being fully sponsored. Tom Doige-Harrison is a rather glum engineer and surfboard shaper whose wife sells homemade craft soap from her kitchen. We watch Fergal Smith, formerly Ireland’s most prominent surfer (he quit the sport in 2012 when he stopped flying due to its impact on the environment), construct a yurt for his family and attempt to build a sustainable agricultural project in a muddy field. We learn about a religious revelation experienced by the mild-mannered John McCarthy, a pioneer of Irish surfing who is credited with naming the gargantuan Aileen’s Wave. A visiting surfing superstar (Hawaiian surfer Shane Dorian) refers to the distant cliffs of angry water as being “like something out of a movie.” 60-year-old Pat Conway swims across Liscannor Bay for his 43rd time and speaks about the connection he feels with the sea.
Some of these interview subjects are more interesting than others but, when interspersed with some awe-inspiring surfing footage, the pace of the documentary only sags towards the end. Kevin Smith’s water-bound photography is pristine and the sequences shot by drone (from the overlooking cliffs) show off West Clare’s beautifully rugged coastline.
Part insight, part tourism campaign, ‘Between Land and Sea’ is by no means the typical adrenaline-fuelled surf film. Instead, it presents the audience with an immersive and thought-provoking portrait of a people and a place.