Ireland’s First Surfer

Surfing is and always will be associated with the Hawaiian Islands, it was first observed there by Europeans during the Captain Cook discovery voyages of 1778 and 1779.

A time when the histories of Europe and North America were entering a more turbulent period.

Joe Roddy with a replica of his original board

“The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves
flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs
close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, thye wait the time of
the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to
keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art
is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the
Swell, & as it alters its direct.”

James King, First Lieutenant of the ‘Discovery’ as recorded in the ship’s log in 1779, the first written description of surfing in Hawaii.

Within 50 years of this description, surfing had undergone a cultural shock and approached near extinction, after the arrival of well meaning European missionaries.
They disapproved of the traditional sports and lack of dress, they encouraged the native Hawaiians to work more, wear more and play less.
William Ellis, a more open minded missionary, tried to describe surfing and was one of the first Europeans to treat the subject in depth circa 1820.

“The higher the sea and the larger the waves, in their opinion the better the sport. They use a board, generally five or six feet long, and rather more than a foot wide, sometimes
flat, but more frequently slightly convex on both sides. After using, it is placed in
the sun until perfectly dry, when it is rubbed over with coconut oil, frequently
wrapped with cloth and suspended in some part of their dwelling house. …Few
ships leave without being accompanied part of the way by the natives, to see fifty
or a hundred persons riding on an immense billow, half immersed in spray and
foam, for a distance of several hundred yards together, is one of the most novel
and interesting sports a foreigner can witness in the islands. ”

Describing surfing is like trying to define a wave, no two experiences are alike.
Besides the excitement and thrill, of riding a fast moving force of nature, where for a brief moments the surfer achieves something like a oneness with the nature surrounding them.
This often results in an instant and irrevocable addiction for the surfer, committed to repeating that experience into their old age.

Surfing began to expand again in the early decades of the 20th century, it was brought to Australia in 1915 by Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku.
He is considered to be the father of modern surfing.
Besides, demonstrating the ancient Hawaiian board riding technique in Sydney, he was a 5 times medal winner in Olympic swimming. He developed the flutter kick in the freestyle event.
Living in California, in 1925, he popularised the multiple uses of surfboards, after he helped rescue fishermen when their boat sank. This inspired the Californian lifeguards to begin using surfboards as part of their own beach rescue equipment.

However, in Ireland of 1925, news of surfing had yet to glide into these shores, it was not until 1949 that this state of affairs was beginning to change.

The young Joe Roddy had been born into a family of lighthouse keepers, just as his father and grandfather had been and he went on to become one himself.

 

Joe with his original board in the 1950’s

This was an industry, blessed, not only by many brave souls but also a good number who had an inventive turn of mind.

Was that was a requirement to enter the service or how many more were inspired by the work from the likes of Alexander Mitchell, the blind engineer, born in Dublin and based in Belfast. He observed the amount of force needed to open a bottle of wine and how the corkscrew achieved that purpose. It led him to develop a series of screw piles as a foundation for lighthouses, built on a sand base.
It was in one of Mitchell’s lighthouses in Dundalk Bay where Joe Roddy’s father worked in the 1940’s.

The family lived in the Lighthouse-keeper’s cottages upriver from the lighthouse at the Point Road, Dundalk. Across the Castletown River was the Point Road, Bellurgan where his own grandfather was born and raised .

In his father’s workshop beside their house, the 9 year old Joe, had earlier designed, built and paddled his own canoe. He based it on a concept he had remembered after observing fishermen in Clifden, as they built and repaired currachs.
His father’s tools and his mother’s gift of a discarded roller blind created the finishing touches for a canoe frame. He made it from local ash and hazel branches and then he sealed his creation with tar to ensure a watertight exterior. It worked.

As part of the lighthouse service, Joe and his family travelled around many of the lighthouses of Ireland. Their travelling depended on what his father’s role was at the time and what the service required.
Sometime, in the winter of 1948 or early 1949, once again back in Dundalk, the 14 year old Joe, found a picture of a surfboard in what may have been a copy of Readers Digest or something similar.
The picture was of a surfer using a paddle, at full speed on a wave, just like a modern paddle-boarder. This apparently, was the traditional Hawaiian surfing method for the larger solid wooden boards. Some of these, extended up to 7m in length and it took more than just the power of a man’s arm to get those out through the bigger swells.

These were an inspiration to the 14 year old, where running the sandy lanes in good weather, was normally what all the youngster’s had to look forward to.

He measured, he designed, he planned all that he needed to create one for himself. The resources came in as they were located, four 15cm x 6m floorboards, some tea chests and a chest of drawers. Varnish, nails and glue were collected as required.

Once again, his father’s workshop and instruction from the woodwork class in the Technical School Dundalk were put to good use. The boards were cut, trimmed, planed and glued. Sections of the tea chest were fixed as strengheners across the width of the boards. Panels of the tea chests added to the frame, followed by more shaping, glueing and varnishing until the final, waterproof version emerged to take it’s maiden voyage.

Sometime in the summer of 1949, when school holidays combined with good weather, the big day approached. It was a day when his father consented to towing the surfboard behind his boat. Rowing out to the lighthouse in advance of an incoming tide, young Joe prepared himself mentally for that maiden voyage.

Testing for balance, with the aid of his long home made paddle, he set off with a farewell wave to his father. The incoming tide gave him a little speed back upriver along the estuary.

In the distance he could see the town of Dundalk. Delighted with his novelty, he spotted a potential audience for his news at Rockmarshall beach, not far from Bellurgan Railway station.

In the distance along the estuary, several families, were on the beach with their children, building sandcastles or having a picnic, as people still do, on a day at the beach.

Speeding along on the current, Joe realised his opportunity to break the news of his invention, so he altered his course slightly to make that his first landing.
On his approach, he became aware of all the faces gradually turning to face him, yet a concern entered his mind, when no one ventured down to the water’s edge.

After three kilometres at sea, it was only when he could see, what he described as the whites of their eyes, and they his, that the families began to get up from their knees.
It was later admitted, that they believed the approaching apparition, was actually walking on the water. Indeed, a few moments of prayer were uttered in the time as they awaited him, in the expectation of witnessing a miracle.

In the same circumstances today, there is a ubiquitous access to social media. No real record, describes the impact of Joe’s landing at Rockmarshall, which has remained one of the almost forgotten moments of DeValera’s Ireland.
Would one mobile phone have declared his moment of fame to the wider world?.
The families hadn’t expected to witness the first surfer in Ireland and the board was only about a hand’s width in thickness. They could only see the front of it, less than a metre wide in the distance.

Needless to say, but Joe Roddy was by a long margin, also the the first surfboard maker in Ireland.
Since then, Joe went on work for many years in the lighthouses himself, inventing
items as they were needed and unavailable through cost or access. In the process, he represented his country in diving and spearfishing events, often training with equipment he had created himself.

Having travelled a good portion of the world, he finally returned to live in Ireland in the company of a lovely lady from Valentia Island. Over many years, he established a business carrying passengers to the Skellig Michael off the coast of Portmagee in Kerry. A place made more famous in recent years with it’s connection to the Star Wars films.
Somehow, I wonder if anyone will ever do that journey on a paddle-board or surfboard.

 

Surfing in Ireland has undergone huge changes since 1949. It has become a popular venue in the world of cold water surfing. Surf schools and legendary waves augment this growing leisure industry. There are dozens of surf clubs in Ireland today.
Nowadays, academic experts create reports on the economic impact that surfing activities have in coastal areas.
Irish surfers, regularly offer substantial expertise on tidal and current movements, regarding the environmental effects of marine developments.
A far cry from when a young boy in 1949, paddled his board up the Castletown Estuary, not knowing where it would lead.

Kahuna is a word in popular slang, which has a generally negative description on a person’s reputation.

I prefer, the original Hawaiian word, defined as a priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, or expert in any profession.

I think, any of those words, are appropriate to describe Joe Roddy.

 

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About Liam McCauley

Irish Guided Tours was founded by Liam, from a concept born of a desire to share Irish heritage with the widest possible audience. Born in Wexford, raised in Donegal and now living in the Cooley Peninsula with his family, Liam has always had a passion for travelling, touring and storytelling. The first experience in Professional Tourism was through the City Sightseeeing Tours with Dublin Bus as one of their many acclaimed guides. Training through Failte Ireland brought new insights. Now, by providing Coach Tours or Walking Tours means the flow of stories can continue to entertainingly inform both locals and visitors, while new stories continue to unfold.
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