Biggest Ireland Ever: The Untold Story of What Went Down

Dylan Stott

by on

Updated 12d ago

Big Wednesday - Midday: While Conor Maguire is supposed to be fixing his foot strap, broken when he got clipped at the end of his last wave, the boys take turns looking after the skis in the harbour.

Usually, even on big days, we leave the skis gently lolling on the sand in the harbour. But this swell is filling it all up like a toilet bowl, then flushing out toward the outer harbour, walled in on three sides, where three foot surges are race across a new dry sandbar, right smack in the middle, redirecting all swell out, driving everything in that section toward destruction on the surrounding breakwaters.

You can hold two jetskis against the torrent, as long as you keep your footing, but the surges went up so high you’d just find yourself floating, heading out to Thunderdome, uselessly holding on to two skis, triple-ups coming at you, trying to slam everything back into rocks.

Forecast: UK + Ireland

Your author, Dylan (left), Barry Mottershead (ski driver) with Conor Maguire.

Your author, Dylan (left), Barry Mottershead (ski driver) with Conor Maguire.

© 2020 - Gary McCall

Conor, meanwhile, is not fixing his strap, is posing for photos with some groms. All flying cloud nine, high on Conor’s waves. The biggest anybody had ever seen. Conor and the groms all have the same face on. One of satisfied amazement. “Will somebody go take Conor to fix his strap?” Barry yells, while getting sucked out the harbour with another flush. “Just take him and get it done.” I obey Barry. I even say “yes captain” as I run up through seaweed and loose rocks and pluck Conor away from the admirers, with apologies, leaving my ski to the suck of the harbour.

This is how stoked the groms were, FYI.

Friday - 5 days before Big Wednesday: I’m driving to work, I’m teaching intro horticulture today. It’s a long drive and I call Barry. The swell is still six days away. Enough time for the swell to disappear or the wind to switch to horrible onshore gales.

I’m on my way to Mayo, a county a hundred kilometres away. I hardly even stop for checkpoints anymore. I just slow down, pull my mask up over my nose, and wave a letter written by the department of education which says I am an essential worker. I’m waved through while Barry describes his shaking. His shakes audible in his voice, even on the handsfree.

Maguire on an earlier one.

Maguire on an earlier one.

© 2020 - Gary McCall

“I’m not cold,” he says, “I’ve been shaking all morning, but I’m not cold.”

If I were to pick the top ten best waves of my life, Barry Mottershead has been involved in all of them. At Mullaghmore on huge days or on a road trips to the lesser surfed bits of the coastline, we’ve scored and gotten skunked in ways that has become familial. Barry is responsible, capable and cool under pressure while at the same time being passionate, daring, and at times quite emotional.

Related: Exclusive Conor Maguire interview

While Barry shook like a cold, wet puppy in his kitchen, thinking about what was to be, I drove on to my class and giggled a little. Barry thinks too much… I’m thinking about lesson plans. I’m thinking that the wind would turn ugly like most of the early season big swells. I’m thinking it’ll come in a lot smaller. I’m thinking of all the ways it won’t happen.

"Yea,” Barry says. “I don’t think so, not this one.”

“We’ll see.” I say. Even with all that black on the charts, I’m thinking, it’s still far enough off to change completely. Also, the storm started as a hurricane, and extratropical storms that venture up in the North Atlantic are very unpredictable. This morning, Ireland went into the highest level of Covid 19 restrictions, including limiting travel to within five kilometres of your home with the exceptions of people like me, teachers or health service or other essential work. What if the charts hold true? What if this is the biggest swell ever to meet clean winds at Mullaghmore? What if? What if? I started taking deep breaths and breathing out slowly. I start shaking. I am not cold. I’m thinking

Here in Bundoran, Donegal, we are ten kilometres away from the reef at Mullaghmore. But two counties over, double the distance for our exercise limitations, putting me and everyone out of bounds. Part out of social responsibility, maybe part of assimilation into Irish society, is realising the possibility that the government is in place and in power to help and protect. Barry was shaking in his warm kitchen that morning because he had a sense of things aligning while ended up dismissing possibilities.

But I am settled. Satisfied in an uncomfortable way with what is to come. Confident it would be too scary to consider surfing anyway. Then a part of my brain that realises things says to the other parts, “What if the charts hold true? What if this is the biggest swell ever to meet clean winds at Mullaghmore? What if? What if? I started taking deep breaths and breathing out slowly. I start shaking. I am not cold. I’m thinking.

Sunday morning - 3 days before Big Wednesday: The swell isn’t downgrading on the charts. And the wind, which I was hoping or fearing would go light offshore, was stabilising at a moderately to strong side-off. Not terrible, but not enough to mould that size of swell into safer, more predictable barrels. The ocean I imagining we would see on Wednesday would be so scary, and crew non-existent. The more I thought about it, the more I relaxed I got.

This swell was too big to freak out over even without restrictions, to messy to worry about missing it. And, without our usual support like Peter Conroy, expert rescue driver, fireman, paramedic. Without the support of the emergency services, without backup skis. I was confident it would not even be an issue, and we would stay at home by the fire, dry as a bone, tails happily between legs.

Sunday evening - 3 days before Big Wednesday : Redbull calls me.
Hello? Dylan speaking.

Hi. This is Redbull calling. We are making an edit featuring Conor Maguire riding the swell from the storm of the century. Would you be able to provide safety cover should we decide to shoot this?

Sure, but I’m only part of the team, I’d need to have some people with me specifically…

Peter Conroy? We just got off the phone with him, he is keen.
I’m pretty sure I can… but we’d have to have Barry Mottershead with us too.

As long as they’re qualified, you choose who should help. Peter is doing the same.

Say all that again please?

(Deep breath) We have spoken to the relevant authorities regarding permission and will have ambulance ashore, safety team of five skis with qualified operators in the water. We’ve got spotters on land and you will have both UHF and VHF communication available. Is this acceptable?

Um… Yes.

And just like that, we have corporate support. I start taking deep controlled breaths to try to stop myself from shaking. I am not cold.

Tuesday: I spend trying to breathe in a way to stop my heart from leaping out of my chest. I double and triple checked equipment I haven’t used since before the first lockdown. Fins (screwed in), straps (screwed in) board (intact), impact vest (intact), inflatable vest (for leaks) cartridges (unpunctured), booties (one right one left), radios (charged), ski (oil, petrol, battery), trailer (lube bearing), my condition (don’t ask me now I’ve more stuff to triple check).

Big Wednesday - pre-dawn: I don’t know if I’m the first here but I’m definitely first at the harbour. On big days I don’t look at it from the bluff. My brain cannot accept what I see from that angle. I prefer to wait to see from the channel, looking into it. It’s a more acceptable first sight, avoids deer-in-the-headlights-‘itis or sudden and uncontrollable projectile fear-vomiting.

I take my dog with me for company, and after I get out of my truck and start walking out along the 8m breakwall next to the hotel, when a piece of water about the size of my small pickup, falls from the top of the wall. The amplified smack scares both me and the dog. We quickly retreat. Hell I nearly parked there. Water streamed around my wellies and a half a dozen boulders settled on the asphalt as the water that had carried them over the thirty foot wall drained away.

© 2020 - Gary McCall

I let my scared dog back into the truck and watch the surge that shoved boulders over the wall come up to lick my wheels and the door of the hotel, then drain away, boats settling roughly on the harbour floor, waiting for the next surge. Four meter water level changes happen every five minutes.

I start changing in the dark as the rest come down from the bluff. As I struggle into my gear, people tell me details of exactly what I don’t want to imagine. Watching fifty foot waves at Mullaghmore, from the bluff, at dawn. I try to be polite and not listen. Which isn’t easy.

Big Wednesday - mid-morning : The team situation plan of me and Barry, Conor and Gearoid, Peter and Fionon, falls apart as soon as we get out there. Thirty foot (Hawaiian measure) inbetweeners line up on the reef like airplanes did at airports before Covid, one after another, bottoms turning to tops in half a second billowing avalanches out of black tubes, the outer reef, well covered on even the lowest of tides, is intermittently exposing bare sharp rocks we’ve all touched during wipeouts. Hundreds of tons of water moving at speeds that would snuff out life.

The lagoon, as we call it, the usual safety area between the outer and inner ledges, is gone, a maelstrom of rip and foam rushing into the inside exposed ledges, stacked like bungalows, the last barrier before the shoreside rip, all undulating under a meter deep layer of dark brown foam. Every wave is shutting down, barrels end in collapsing closeouts as the wave falls off the reef into deeper water.

Oh here's Maguire on the biggest wave ever surfed in Ireland.

Oh here's Maguire on the biggest wave ever surfed in Ireland.

© 2020 - Gary McCall

Usually, I can see a safe line through big waves out there, but mindsurfing, even looking from the channel, chances of making waves was twenty percent. The prospects of surviving a fall in the pit would be 50/50, hit by the lip, zero percent. The sets are fifty to sixty foot, Hawaiian, standing tall, doubling up, opening then shutting down, a swell too raw and interfered with to be predictable.

The water colour is different too, bruised, for a reason I would not grasp till later. Conor is alone in wanting to surf. Barry, is the man for the driving job, with the most experience and most time surfing with Conor in serious waves, they both organise themselves, arranging themselves in position organically.

Off they go. Hunting something rideable. Hunting satisfaction and vindication, joy and closure, and living. All things we have been so insulated from. While we all stay and oogle at black mutant slabs that shake my vision.

Big Wednesday - early afternoon All morning Peter I are taunting each other. While Barry and Conor were out back letting go ugly, bottomless, boiling, thirty foot waves “do ya want one?” After every wave Barry picked and Conor rode. I would say to Peter or Peter would say to me “do ya want one?” By the end of the morning, I’m pretty sure I don’t.

I had seen too much. Imagining ways to surf successfully and, failing that, imagining what it would it be like after a fall. I failed to imagine good things happening. Conor’s surreal performance didn’t make it seem any more possible. What Conor and Barry achieve out there is mystic synergy, an Atlantic ocean gone haywire, a sharp jagged edge of a mountain in the middle of deep trench, and them.

Gearoid McDaid, from the paddle day the day before the big one.

Gearoid McDaid, from the paddle day the day before the big one.

© 2020 - Gary McCall

All elements working together. We were watching the best of the best. Witnessing history. Like Muhammad Ali, they float lightly and strike just when everything is right. Two elite and talented athletes with intrinsic knowledge of their natural surroundings, sparring, politely and expertly with monsters.

I’m spending the whole time being dazzled by Barry and Conor, I spend a significant amount of time in barely contained psychological agony. I want one. I don't want one. I should get one! Like Peter, I’m a semi-responsible married man in his forties with a kid, and, should certainly not get one. Another sixty foot dump womp closeout wave comes through, rocks visible in the barrel.

“Still want one Peter?” He gives me a look that means, yes – no (I’m about to go insane.)

“Yes,” he says, “but I want Barry to put me into it.”

Barry, as if he heard this, is back with Conor on the sled. They’re done. Conor succeeded. Barry was just about to find out he was going to put two more friends is harm’s way. Me and Peter.

“I feel sick.” Barry says. He looks green.

“I’ll drive,” I say.

Noah Lane, again, on the paddle day.

Noah Lane, again, on the paddle day.

© 2020 - Gary McCall

A pause. Barry looks exhausted, but as good and experienced a driver as I am, Barry had been out there already. Gaining knowledge every second. I had been sitting on the inside, dwelling on impossibilities. Everybody knew, especially Barry, who the man was to drive out there, to keep driving out there on the scariest of all days. Seasick or not. If it was reckless to switch surfers, it would be more reckless to switch drivers.

“Ok,” I say, “can you get Peter one then get me one?”

Barry takes a deep breath and waves Peter over, Peter hesitates for a split second.

“Get me one then get Peter one?” I say.

Barry shrugged, then nodded his head.

Yeah, here's your author Dylan on a bomb.

Yeah, here's your author Dylan on a bomb.

© 2020 - Gary McCall

Epilogue Of course Barry picked a good one for me. He knew I didn’t want a session, just a taste of all this energy. I laugh at Peter’s bug-eyed face, being towed off into the abyss of fear and trust. Knowing, like me, Peter would marvel at the distance covered from the channel to the takeoff zone, the giant swell dwarfing distance perceptions. It’s a long way out there. Going and going and going and you think we can’t possibly be in the right place.

But Barry had it covered. Peter would be sitting there, like I just did, holding on to the rope and breathing up, as columns of sand, dredged up from the bottom thirty meters down, shot up underneath like jets, which explained the water colour. Peter, like me, would have so much fear and adrenaline in his blood he’s hallucinating flying bats all around him.

Peter, like I just did, is probably thinking “I could just say no, I don’t want to do this,” end it, back to the channel, but he won’t. When sets come it looks like war. Bombs throwing up sea in the air and suspended water obscures everything, all points of land, for minutes, making visual lineup references useless.

Peter's ride. Hoooeee.

As I watch and wonder and marvel at how Barry held together, remained concentrated and patient under the highest kind of pressure the surf world can offer. I wonder and marvel at how Conor went through the day keeping his skip happy beat, about how the two as a team worked perfectly together with an angry ocean in a world gone crazy.