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Meet the man who made Ireland’s very first surfboard back in the 1940s

Joe Roddy is the subject of a Newstalk documentary this morning.

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SURFING IS AN extremely popular pastime in Ireland right now, with western coastal towns boasting some of the best waves in the world.

Did you think that is a fairly recent phenomenon? Or something linked to the hippy freedom of the 1960s?

Both would be incorrect. The sport in Ireland actually dates back to the 1940s.

A documentary airing on Newstalk this morning delves into the birth of surfing on this island, tracing it back to a 14-year-old water lover almost seven decades ago.

Joe Roddy, now 80 years old, recalls building a surfboard with old wardrobes, floorboards and tea chests. The cobbled-together wood is now regarded as Ireland’s first surfboard.

The Surfing at the Crossroads documentary makers tracked down Roddy and brought him to Valentia Island where he told them his fascinating life story.

At 10, he started building canoes from sally rods. By 12, he realised his wish to go snorkelling by adapting an old pair of shoes for flippers, a World War II gasmask as a snorkel and long johns for a wetsuit.

By 14, he was ready for surfing.

“[To make the surfboard I used] Two big long floorboards…and more wardrobes and chests of drawers to get the cross-pieces to make the skeleton, and then laminated top and bottom with ply and plenty of heavy paint on it to waterproof it,” he remembers.

When I came in from two miles at sea, people lined the beach – they didn’t know what was coming in because I had a paddle and I was standing on something they couldn’t see. It was only about four inches thick and with me standing on it. I could see the whites of their eyes before they realised that this thing had length to it.

“They could only see the front width of it – about two feet broad. It was a big novelty because it was different to a canoe. It couldn’t sink. The fishermen were very annoyed with me because I’d be out when it was rough and they used to say ‘you’ll get drowned one of these days and we won’t come out for you!’.”

One of those onlookers remembers the day well.

Martin Cullinane of the Irish Surfing Hall of Fame – to which Roddy was inducted in 2009 – describes “this guy [that] came out of nowhere”.

“How did he even dream up this board?” he asked.

He paddled it out to sea. He was like an apparition. If you can imagine 1940’s… You’re standing on the beach and you see this guy standing on a board with a paddle. In the history of surfing, it’s a big event.

Roddy wasn’t finished though. When a spear-gun was required, he as an older teenager gathered a wooden dowel and rubber bands to make one. (In Cuba in 1967, Roddy represented Ireland at the World Spear-fishing Championships where he recorded a dive of 32 metres (105 feet) – the depth of an 11 storey building).

To this day, he continues to travel to Skellig Michael regularly. Over the years, he has ferried tens of thousands of pilgrims to the medieval monastic settlement.

“I’m coming here over 50 years. I’ve landed on the place about 20,000 times. If they were all in the one boat, she’d have to be a cruise liner to carry them because there’d be a 100,000 in it!” he says.

Surfing at the Crossroads is written, edited, and produced by Brendan Daly. The executive producer was Daithi McMahon. Listen this morning at 7am or at 10pm tonight. You can also hear it on Newstalk online. 

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