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North by North-west: Come for the surf, stay for the community

Seaside towns like Bundoran and Enniscrone used to hibernate during the winter season. But the lure of the Wild Atlantic Way, promises of good surf and beaches are bringing people all-year round. Kathy Donaghy reports

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Cafe owner Fiona Dolan in Buoys and Gulls in Bundoran. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Cafe owner Fiona Dolan in Buoys and Gulls in Bundoran. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Claire O'Reilly and Sr Florence Hutchinson. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Claire O'Reilly and Sr Florence Hutchinson. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Anne Gilroy from Enniscrone. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Anne Gilroy from Enniscrone. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Seaweed bath: Kane Kilcullen in Enniscrone. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Seaweed bath: Kane Kilcullen in Enniscrone. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Heading for the peak: Paul Gallagher. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Heading for the peak: Paul Gallagher. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

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Cafe owner Fiona Dolan in Buoys and Gulls in Bundoran. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

It's the kind of cold winter day that is at once noiseless but seems to carry the slightest sound from afar. Even though the sky is bright blue, the cold is biting and nips to the bone. Across the beach, black neoprene-clad figures emerge from the waves picking their way across rock and seaweed like survivors from a shipwreck. In Bundoran - even on the coldest of days - surf's up.

In recent years, the town has been shedding its reputation as a country and western/gambling-loving hub to one that is embracing a cooler surf vibe. Visitors from all over the world come to surf 'The Peak', one of the country's most famous and biggest waves. While the slot machines are still pinging in the summer, the winter brings the diehard surf lovers and it's clear their influence is bringing big changes to the seaside town.

At its west end, Fiona Dolan is making coffee in her café, Buoys and Gulls, one of the most recent additions to the townscape. The 29-year-old, originally from Dún Laoghaire in Co Dublin, first came to Bundoran as a 16-year-old on a surf trip - but was not initially smitten.

"I hated the sound of it. I didn't want to go and get into a wetsuit, and I hated it when I got here," she says. But over the course of those few days, something changed and Dolan moved to Bundoran after she left school, working two jobs to support herself and her passion for surfing.

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Claire O'Reilly and Sr Florence Hutchinson. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Claire O'Reilly and Sr Florence Hutchinson. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

She recalls not even having a car at the time and walking with a board all the way to the beach and back just to be able to surf. She took on work as a surf instructor and waitress, flitting back to Dublin when the leaner winter season arrived.

But as the years passed, the shoulder season became narrower and the town's reputation as a surfers' mecca grew. The place got busier in the winters and Dolan looked for something more permanent. She'd been thinking about the café for years before she finally found the perfect location for Buoys and Gulls.

Overlooking The Peak, the town's famous reef that breaks over shallow rock, her café has become a hub for hungry surfers, locals stopping on their daily promenade, as well as artists whose work is on display on the café's walls. It's a dog-friendly place so locals pop in while walking their dog for a coffee and greet Chewy, Fiona's puppy, the café's resident canine.

"There are so many people in town who are creative, but who had no outlets. A hub for people was the main thing I wanted - there's art studios downstairs so people can work together," she says.

With the kind of outdoorsy golden glow that cosmetic companies would bottle if they could, Dolan says while she came for the surf, the community and the way of life in Bundoran are the main reasons she stayed.

"When I'm back in Dublin, it stresses me out even walking through town. I'm just generally a slower person. If I'd never come here on that surf trip, I couldn't imagine what I'd be doing," she says.

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Anne Gilroy from Enniscrone. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Anne Gilroy from Enniscrone. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Vigorous good health

After her morning walk, 95-year-old Sister Florence Hutchinson regularly stops for coffee at Buoys and Gulls with her friend Claire O'Reilly, who runs the Nesbitt Arms Hotel in Ardara, a 50-minute drive away.

While she spent most of her life in Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh when she entered the convent, Sr Hutchinson retired to the town where she was born. She credits the sea air and a daily walk for her vigorous good health and longevity.

Throughout all the societal changes the years have brought, she believes the sea is still the main draw for people coming to Bundoran. "When I was young, you'd have farmers coming when they got the turf and the crops in. They'd come to build themselves up for the winter and have a seaweed bath. Jack Philips had baths and people thought it was just wonderful to get to Bundoran," she says.

And while she doesn't mind sharing her home town with the tourists who still make it a busy place in summer, she prefers it in winter. "It feels like we have it to ourselves now," she says.

At the table opposite, grabbing some hot food before they take to the ocean, Californian surf friends Skye Hawkins, Brennan Howard and Brian Paullins from Santa Cruz chat about how they've been planning their trip to Bundoran for a long time.

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Heading for the peak: Paul Gallagher. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Heading for the peak: Paul Gallagher. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

"Our schedules never lined up before but this time we just pulled the trigger," says Paullins, a firefighter. While the three have surfed all over the world, from Chile to Hawaii, they rate the waves in Bundoran as thrilling enough to bring them back. "In Hawaii it's warmer but it's more crowded - and you have to wait for waves. It's been great here," he says.

At the car park of Waterworld, the town's indoor waterpark, surfers gather to take on The Peak 150 yards off the shore. This one is for the experienced only. From land, the surfers look like tiny black dots in the jaws of a big beast.

After he's finished his day's work as a primary school teacher in nearby Kinlough, Paul Gallagher jumps in his car with his 6ft 2in board on the roof and heads for The Peak.

"You always know someone out there. I've surfed all over the world but these are some of the best waves - and they're the least crowded," he says before zipping up his wetsuit and dashing into the ocean.

From a high vantage point overlooking the surf, Kildare man Darragh Gorman is taking photographs of the action. Part-time mechanic, surfer, carpenter and photographer, Gorman first came to Bundoran over 30 years ago as a child. Six years ago he moved back to Ireland after travelling, and decided to head back to Bundoran. Being flexible in his work-life means he can surf as much as he likes.

Some of his dramatic surf photography is hanging on the walls in Buoys and Gulls. "This is the best base I could ask for. I've got everything I love and there's a really cool community. When you're a blow-in - and a lot of the people I spend time with are blow-ins - you might come for the surf, but you stay for the sense of community and the lifestyle," says Gorman.

"It's a good standard of living here. It's that simple. That's what keeps me here, that and the slower pace of life. The surfing is the icing on the cake, but it wouldn't be enough on its own," he says.

Further along the west coast, Enniscrone in Co Sligo is also embracing the winter in a way that seaside towns wouldn't have believed possible some years ago. The opening up of the Wild Atlantic Way is bringing new visitors to these towns and the small villages and inlets between them.

Hugging the coastline between the two bigger seaside towns, signs appear for remote townlands and piers off the beaten track. At Donaghintra Pier, a single fisherman toils alone. He is in no rush. At Aughris near the Beach Bar, a surfer emerges from the tide carrying his board on his head. There isn't another person around for miles.

Further along the coast as Enniscrone comes into view, a lone paddle boarder has this piece of ocean all to himself. A handful of dog walkers muffle up against the bright blue cold of the day and walk headlong into the breeze along the town's long sandy beach.

At Gilroy's Bar in the centre of Enniscrone, publican Anne Gilroy is preparing for the evening's trade. The bar is open every night while it's restaurant, Áit Eile, is open from Thursday to Sunday. After 22 years as a publican, Gilroy used to see her village literally close down from October to Easter but not anymore. Now people come all-year round for weekend breaks, to play golf, to surf and even to get married there.

Letting more people know they're open for business is proving tricky, and townspeople are fighting to have a plebiscite held to officially recognise the town's name as Enniscrone. It's name is listed as Inishcrone on official road signs making it hard for visitors, according to Gilroy.

"They can't find the town because they are looking for Enniscrone, the name all the locals use, but the signs all say Inishcrone and this is a problem, particularly for foreign visitors. It will need a change in legislation to let us have a plebiscite, but we're working hard to get this changed," she says.

Community projects

Apart from its tale of two names, the town is working hard to encourage more people to visit in the off-season. While Gilroy says there are not enough beds in the town to cater for the visitors in the summer, the local community council is planning to extend a sea walk down by the pier which it hopes will be popular with visitors all-year round.

A local enterprise centre is also encouraging more entrepreneurs to the town by keeping rents low. Money from rents is then re-invested back in community projects like the sea walk extension, Gilroy explains.

However, even with more people around, Gilroy says the winter allows people in the tourist industry to take a breath. "I suppose we all like it in winter because you get to enjoy a walk on the beach yourself. We work hard in the summer. For six to eight weeks, you put your head down," she says.

Along the pier, her cousin Kane Kilcullen is holding the fort at the family seaweed baths business. He's the fourth generation of Kilcullens involved and stepping inside the building is like stepping into a piece of history.

There are 12 bathrooms with the original Victorian tiles and fittings. Fresh seawater is pumped into a tank in the roof and each room has a steam box where guests first immerse themselves before plunging into the seaweed bath.

Kilcullen, a 33-year-old avid surfer, explains that the steam opens the pores making the seaweed bath treatment more effective. One of his daily tasks is to collect fresh seaweed from the beach just across the road for use in the baths.

"People come from everywhere for the baths. The benefits are endless and people swear by it for skin conditions. I put it under hot steam for about 20 to 30 seconds as that releases all the oils before it goes in the bath," he says.

Having competed as a surfer, Kilcullen says if he goes away from the coast for even a day, he starts to feel landlocked and longs to get back to the coast. His work and his life may have taken many of his school friends away from Enniscrone, but he believes there is no better place to live and work.

Father to Finn (11) and Indie (5), Kilcullen says while the summer season used to end like the flick of a switch, now people are travelling well into September and October from all over Europe.

"The summer is busy - it brings an influx of people, but the winter is brilliant because I can slow down a little and surf every other day. There's a different energy when you head out on the ocean. I wouldn't change a thing," he says of the place he calls home.

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