Originally from Sydney, Paul O’Kane grew up at Bondi Beach surfing the same era and waves with local luminaries Cheyne Horan, Richard Cram, and the Corrigan brothers. Paul earned a crust working as a carpenter at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. But busy city life wasn’t for him or many of his contemporaries. Most of his Bondi surf mates eventually moved out of Sydney to find solace, settling in rural coastal surrounds elsewhere along NSW. Paul had his eyes fixed on far greener pastures. He’d met an Irish gal, Sharon, at Bondi and was smitten with her charms and common sense. In 1995 they travelled to Ireland to meet her parents. They planned to check out England too then travel down through France, Spain and Portugal before ending up at the Canary Islands and Morocco for winter, a typical European tour for surf-mad Aussies. When they arrived in Ireland it was a few days before Christmas with bollocks-freezing winter weather. Paul wasn’t expecting what he saw at Lahinch in county Clare. Loads of reef breaks with perfect waves were reeling with hardly a sinner to be seen. He knew he had to get out there and catch a few, even though he was ill-prepared for the terribly cold water in these higher North Atlantic latitudes.
“All I had was a 3/2mm steamer for winter in the Canary Islands and some flimsy Indo reef boots. I didn’t have gloves or a hood, just a helmet. But the waves were so good I just had to get out there. I caught three before I totally numbed out. I lay prone on my last wave all the way in so I wouldn’t fall off and drown with the cold. I had no feeling left in me at all, was shivering like mad and couldn’t get out of my wetsuit. Sharon was trying to yank it off me, but all she was doing was dragging me around the car park for half an hour. I thought I was going to die from hyperthermia that day.”
Despite his ordeal Paul knew he’d found a proper wave-laden place to relocate, settle down and start a family. He and Sharon sold their house in Sydney and moved to Ireland permanently not long after. Paul looked around and decided the reefs around the village of Easky in county Sligo was his best choice, mostly because Ireland’s warmest offshore wind, the Southerly, blows perfect offshore there. There still wasn’t much of a surf scene in the mid 90s when Paul began exploring more of the Irish coastline. Other things he had to get used too, including where to get hold of equipment.
“Richie Fitzgerald’s surf store in Bundoran was still his Mum’s gift shop for tourists then. I had to travel all the way to Andy Hill’s surf shop, Troggs, in Portrush up in Northern Ireland to get gear,” Paul recalls fondly.
“One thing I first noticed, with the lack of exposure to intense UV light back in Oz, was my pterygiums disappeared. But these were soon replaced with exostosis from all the cold wind and water getting in my ears. The thing that really blew me away most was how dark it was inside the tube here. Sometimes it was if the lights were turned off, like riding with your eyes closed. My appreciation of fifty shades of grey[KH1] and the joy of diffused light has certainly been enhanced since moving here.”
While Paul can chuckle about certain things unique to Irish surfing, he is deadly serious when it comes to charging big waves here. In October 2001, I was standing alongside Paul and a few Irish surfers on the grassy cliff at Mullaghmore. Californian film maker Dana Brown was in Ireland with the Malloy brothers to shoot a segment for his film ‘Step Into Liquid’. Brown had asked me to organise some Jet Skis for his cast. Tow-surfing technology was ready to make its mark on the Emerald Isle. Ireland’s small surf community grew intrigued because word was out. Chris Malloy was on a mission. He was intent on being towed into the immensity of mighty Mullaghmore. Ireland’s behemoth that warped and thundered over a shallow limestone ledge had never been surfed at size before. Everyone thought riding mega tubes there was impossible. Irish surfing was about to be forever changed. In the months and years that followed Paul and his tow partner, Mickee Hamilton, were among the first Irish surfers to pioneer Mullaghmore and other bombies. Along with guys like Richie Fitzgerald, Gabe Davies, Peter Conroy and Al Mennie, they laid the groundwork for safety protocols and what was possible for tow-surfing in Ireland while figuring out what equipment to use, when to ride and numerous other trial-by-error unknowns. Paul is still at it today, keen as anyone when the surf’s up, and ready to help others while catching some bombs himself. There is much he can be proud of, though modest Paul insists he’s just an ordinary surfer from Bondi. That’s nonsense. He is, in fact, living an extraordinary surfing life. Good on him.