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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 24 November, 2014

How one man’s shop made skateboarding an Irish passion

Clive Rowen set up Clive’s on Hill Street in 1978. Now the owner of Skate City, he helped foster the burgeoning skate scene in Dublin.

‘If a few people get into skateboarding because of this documentary, then my job is done’ – Clive Rowen


CLIVE ROWEN IS bashful when asked about his contribution to the Irish skateboarding scene – but he’s known as the Godfather of the sport here.

He set up Dublin’s first dedicated skateboarding shop, Clive’s, on Hill Street back in the late 1970s, and now runs Skate City in Temple Bar. Over the past three decades, he has helped bring skateboarding from a nascent pastime to a passion for thousands of people.

The story of Hill Street

Now Rowen’s contribution to the sport is explored in a new documentary, Hill Street, which even features the legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk singing Rowen and Ireland’s praises.

Hawk’s endorsement shows that the passion Irish skateboarders have rivals anything you’ll find abroad – even if we don’t quite have the same level of facilities, or number of skaters. (City Councils have started to open public skate parks in recent years, however)

Hill Street looks at the evolution of skateboarding culture in Dublin since the late 1980s to today, showing how Rowen single-handedly progressed the scene through the building of primitive ramps at the shop before graduating to a temporary skate park in the Top Hat Ballroom in Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin.

Director JJ Rolfe was called in by Dave Leahy, the producer, to work on the film. He’s not a skateboarder himself – “I was interested in skateboarding and was never able to do it, I always fell off” – but he’s very into surfing and snowboarding.

Through the documentary, he learned that the public image of skateboarding in Ireland has changed over the years.

“Tony Hawk told a story about how when he came on a trip to Ireland he was going through customs in Heathrow and they asked his occupation. He said ‘skateboarder’ – and they said ‘that’s not a profession’. Now, it’s a legitimate one,” he recalled.

Early on in the shop’s history, Clive convinced the Powell Peralta ‘Bones Brigade’ Team, including the legendary Hawk, to visit the skate park for a now historic demo.

Clive’s story

Hill Street - Clive Rowen (1)

Clive Rowen

It was a “fascination with wheels” that first got Clive Rowen skateboarding.

“We were brought up with motorcycles,” he said, thanks to his similarly-obsessed father. “We always made little buggies and go-karts as a kid, with pram wheels and things like that. It went from that to building skateboards out of bits and pieces.”

Even a few decades on, the sport has not lost its allure for him:

There’s something magical about a skateboard. When you get on your skateboard you get a smile on your face.

It was just a picture in a magazine that sparked his interest, but “over the years as the world became a smaller place”, he found out more about the sport.

Creating a scene through the shop

He opened Clive’s – a former bicycle shop – in 1978.

The shop was situated in a “rough part of town”, where skaters were sometimes targeted for muggings. “A lot of them took their life in their hands in Hill St, but they knew when they got to the door they were safe,” remembered Clive.

He would play videos at the shop all day long. “Just to push the scene, to encourage it. I though skateboarding was such a good thing I wanted everybody to enjoy it”.

In the early days before YouTube or anything like that you’d catch a video to see how something was done, and then try, and find eventually you could too. It was educational.

People came from all walks of life to the shop. “The thing about skateboarding is it’s not a competition. Whether you were good at doing tricks or not it didn’t matter. You were an accepted part of the community,” enthused Rowen.

When he saw a rough cut of the film, he was initally a bit wary of how he was portrayed. “I though ‘shit, this film is more about me than about the way I push skateboarding’,” he said.

“But I’m kind of chuffed that I can see it was appreciated.”

Hill Street directed by JJ Rolfe copy

These days his customers include children as young as four getting their first skateboard, to men in their 40s who are still enthusiastic about skating.

“My dream would be to see a skatepark in every town in Ireland,” said Rowen, explaining that it gives children something to do, particularly teenagers.

“The only negative view is really by people who don’t know anything about skateboarding,” he contested. “They might see people trying to make a trick on a ledge or a bench and decide in their mind what are they up to.”

While the influx of people from other cultures and countries has seen a resurgence in interest in skateboarding, said Rowen, he feels that in Ireland there can be a negative attitude towards it.

We live in a pub culture. There’s nothing wrong with going to the pub at the weekend and getting a bit hammered, but if you do something like get on a skateboard people tend to point and laugh.

But he concedes that in recent years “it has got a lot better for anyone who is into anything a bit different”.

Figures like Hawk, for example, have helped to popularise skateboarding, particularly through things like his Playstation game.

Hill Street - Skateboarder on the Liffey

Subcultures

“A lot of guys we talked to in the 80s said growing up in the 80s it wasn’t very accepting of people who wanted to do something a bit different,” said director Rolfe.

“Whereas now, it is celebrated more when people want to do stuff that is away from the normal. They would have experienced a hostile reaction, skateboarding down the street.”

He discovered that a lot of people who weren’t into team sports “found somewhere where they felt at home” on Hill Street.

“30 years ago they said it will be gone in a year,” said Rowen of his beloved sport. Nationwide, we now have about 44 public, council-run skateparks. “Now that is progression”.

While about 95 per cent of his customers are male, Rowen says the number of females is increasing. “On average it has been about 5 per cent and I can see that starting to grow”.

He has two daughters and a son, and the son still skates. And as for Rowen himself, “I still do skate a bit” – when he’s not working. Even if it wasn’t for a documentary like this, he’d still be incredibly passionate about what he’s doing.

I’m happy enough to keep plodding on and keep selling skateboards – I won’t get rich doing it. I love coming into work on Monday morning. I am happy as a pig in the proverbial.

Hill Street - Skateboarders at Sunset

Hill Street opens in select cinemas on this Friday and will be available to buy worldwide on DVD/VOD through www.hillstreetdocumentary.com and via iTunes from 2 June 

Read: Irish company wins world distribution rights to skateboarding doc>

Read: This old man skateboarding will make you feel seriously uncool>

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