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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
# Between Land and Sea
A stunning new Irish film looks at why Co Clare is a Mecca for the world's top surfers
And how its fulltime surfers dedicate their lives to their craft.

True Films / Vimeo

AT ONE POINT in Between Land and Sea, a new documentary film about the surf town of Lahinch, local surfer Ollie O’Flaherty speaks about the addiction to having “your head messed with” by 30-foot waves at the Cliffs of Moher.

These particular waves are known as ‘Aileens’ and are as famous among the global surfing community as the cliffs that provide their dramatic backdrop.

The film, shot over the course of a year by Irish filmmaker Ross Whitaker, deals largely with the challenges big wave surfers face when tailoring their lives to maximise their time on the sea.

And challenges there are.

As well as the dramatic and at times thrilling shots of some of the world’s best surfers doing their thing along the Irish coastline, the film also shows the work that goes into building the lives that make such dedication possible.

surf 1 Motive Films A friend of Mayo native Fergal Smith who moved to Clare and has built a yurt to house his family. Motive Films

From literally building a transportable home and cultivating crops around it, to selling homemade craft soap from your kitchen, Whitaker says the film is about the sacrifices people make to live beside the sea.

“Once they put that at the centre of their life, everything else has to fall in with that, because if the waves are good they surf,” he says.

But what happens after that? Ten years later, fifteen years later when you have to start making the next decisions in your life. When you’ve already plotted one course, how does that influence things you want to do later in life? Like having children or having somewhere to live and having a job that pays enough to support those things.

That message is reflected by the surfers themselves who speak about a realisation that things have ‘slipped by’ as they spend early adulthood thinking of little else but surfing.

The town

Lahinch itself is at the centre of the story too. A town that used to be a haven for golfers has been transformed in the past 20 years to be synonymous with surfing, drawing thousands of young long-haired surfers to the town each year.

“They keep us young,” an elderly local woman who’s observed the changes says to the camera.

Sixty-year-old Pat Conway swims across Liscannor Bay for his 43rd time and speaks about the connection he feels with the sea.

PastedImage-45379 Motive Films Pat Conway after reaching Liscannor after swimming from Lahinch. Motive Films

Other locals speak about the seasonal changes the town goes through over the course of the year and how, for surfers especially, making your money during the 10-week summer period is vital.

But for Co Clare big wave surfers, what’s off-season for most people is precisely the time they want to be free to catch any swell that’s going.

The film runs from January to December and it’s clear both how locals adapt to the changing seasons and how much they’re at the mercy of the Atlantic.

At its heart though, the film has some spectacular surfing footage that will either make you terrified or envious depending on your point of view.

These sequences are shot by drone, from the overlooking cliffs and from above and below the surface of the water. The waterbound shots were filmed by local surfer and cameraman Kevin Smith.

15418465_10154986457249170_321172442211366447_o Motive Films Some of the world's best big wave surfers make the pilgrimage to Co Clare for the huge swells. Motive Films

To the uninitiated who may think of surfing as a purely beachside activity, some of the most striking images show the surfers resembling mountain goats as they carefully make their way down steep paths, surfboard in hand, to the cliff base below.

When this was happening, Whitaker says much of his time was spent wrapped up on a rock waiting to catch the moment the surfers caught a wave.

“I’ll be on the cliff, on the edge of a cliff, huddled into the cliff with all my clothes on, every bit of clothing I can find. Sitting on a rock with a huge long lens filming out at the guys on the waves.”

Really, the biggest thing is about being in the right place at the right time. And a huge thing is concentration, because these guys are only on a wave for ten seconds and if you’re looking away or you’re admiring a flock of birds going past or looking at your phone and you’ve missed it.

On the surf map

While the film focuses on the people who dedicate their lives to living near the west coast waves, it also gives a sense of the place as a Mecca for surfers worldwide.

At one point, Hawaii-born surf superstar Shane Dorian arrives in Lahinch and the locals give him a guide to the best spots.

Despite describing him in the film as the “Lionel Messi of big wave surfing”, there are no airs or graces on show from the locals as Dorian is taken aback by waves and the natural arena in which to surf them.

Ollie Rileys Motive Films Ollie O'Flaherty surfing Rileys. Motive Films

“We were there at the Cliffs of Moher waiting to film the lads because there was an incredible set of weather coming in. Aileens are kind of one of the most famous waves in Ireland, probably the most famous,” Whitaker says.

“The next thing Shane Dorian and a crew of professional international surfers arrive down to surf with the lads. You see it in the film, one lad says ‘this is like a movie’ and it’s Shane Dorian.”

Between Land and Sea was premiered at the Cork International Film Festival and is being shown at selected theatres across the country. Details of the venues and tickets are available at  

Read: Donegal surfer in the mix for global award after tackling this huge wave in Sligo >

Read: Surfing, skateboarding and baseball among the new sports added to the Olympics >

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