When I went to Ireland for a second time three years ago, I was tracing my family ancestry. I was seeking some sort of “a-ha!” moment; a monumental link to my Walsh family’s mysterious past in Newfoundland.
Instead, I found something very different.
I had spent four weeks in Ireland when I called it quits on the endeavor. My research was coming up empty-handed. I had traveled the Copper Coast, checked into libraries in Waterford, met with historians, and connected with other Walshs. The closest I came to finding my past was when I met Elizabeth in Lismore, a woman with shocking blue eyes and a face so familiar she could have been my grandmother.
But there was little evidence to point me anywhere, and so I admitted defeat and went to Galway for a few weeks.
While in Galway, a friend of a friend got wind of me traveling around Ireland. He invited me to Sligo, a small northwest county on the Atlantic. My Galway friends at the time laughed about it.
“Who goes to Sligo?” they said. “Don’t go there. There’s nothing.”
But David O’Hara, the Sligo enthusiast, told me he’d arrange everything for my stay. So I thought, “Why not?” My friend Julia came along for the ride, and what a ride it became.
Sligo has a huge surf history. For years it’s been the surf capital of Ireland, inviting professional surfers from all corners of the world. Hawaii, South Africa, and Australia. Just this year, Sligo held an international Surf Summit. Most of the surfers congregate in Strandhill, a small town exposed to the Atlantic, where surfers never seem to care about frigid temperatures. Surf is life.
But increasingly, there’s more to the adventurous side of Sligo than just surf. There’s exceptional hiking, coasteering, and of course, stand-up paddling (SUP).
When David picked Julia and me up in his ’83 Land Rover, we knew we were in for a good time. He was instantly welcoming, and oozing eccentrics. I still have yet to meet someone who feels so passionate about a particular place like David does about Sligo.
David’s lived all over the world. After being away from Sligo for years, he began recognizing his hometown’s real value. So he came back, set up a small stand-up paddling operation, and has worked hard ever since to secure Sligo as Europe’s adventure capital.
I had never tried stand-up paddling before, so I was nervous. We wouldn’t be riding any waves – we were paddling down the River Bonet, towards Lough Gill, where the Isle of Innisfree sits. (Yes, the same island encapsulated by W.B. Yeats in his poetry.) Even so, I have the grace of a buffalo, and standing atop a flimsy piece of board while jetting down a river seemed risky in March temperatures.
But we geared up in dry suits, and took to the river anyway. Within minutes, I had a steady stroke and strong legs. The river was smooth, like glass. It carried me forward without much effort. The whole way, our little group chatted amiably. We were paddling with some new friends – two handsome Irish lads, a former surfer, and a young mother. There was such a sense of peace and well-being; I was awash in glee. The lush Irish countryside complemented the experience perfectly. Whenever our chatter ceased for a moment, you’d only hear the dip of paddles into water.
Until we emerged onto Lake Gill, and a gust of wind sent me reeling, and we all collapsed onto the Isle of Innisfree in fits of giggles. Later that evening, we all gathered at a small pub for the kind of impromptu Irish music session that dreams are made of. It’s still my favorite travel memory today.
Sligo made a lasting impression on me. Nearly three years later, I found myself boarding a plane from Berlin to Dublin once again, for a reunion with Julia and my Sligo pals.
This time I was worried. Would my experiences be the same? Should I have left a good thing as it was? But the minute my bus turned down the hill into Strandhill, and I saw Julia’s blonde head as she stood waiting at the bus stop, I knew I was home.
Most of our time was spent wandering the streets of Sligo during the Fleadh Cheoil music festival. We were sharing an apartment with some locals, who quickly became our new family. In true Irish hospitality, we spent evenings being fed barbecue and large pots of tea. They wanted nothing in return.
Later in the week, Julia and I headed to the river where David had given us instructions to look for our taxi boat to his SUP place. This was new – David hadn’t had a “SUP place” on my last visit. We puttered along, a fine mist clinging to our sweaters, until we neared the opening to Lake Gill and spotted a large camp set up. There was at least a dozen children rushing about, tipping each other off their SUP boards and into the water, or gliding alongside our boat. In the camp, we could see a large fire, a few scattered tents, and several teenagers and adults. There was no doubt that stand-up paddling had grown into (quite literally) a community.
It was like a mini reunion – David was there, and Paul, as well as David’s family. We all hugged and cracked open beers and put the kettle on the fire. Julia and I settled into our chairs like we had always belonged there. We cheered on Paul’s young, five-year-old son who was testing his shaky legs on a SUP board. It was refreshing to see so many children embracing the Irish outdoors.
After a while, David’s young daughter took us out on the lake to the Isle of Innisfree. We ran through the forest in our bare feet to a clearing where David’s daughter recited the entire “Isle of Innisfree” poem without stumbling once. We clapped and cheered, then made our way back to the fire and the beers. I remember looking around at all these smiling, familiar faces and thinking, “This is community.” And who would have thought it all started with an eccentric Irishman and a few SUP boards.