Brian Britton at home in the surf at Rossnowlagh. Photo: Matt Britton
The 48th Inter Counties Surf Competition takes place this weekend in Rossnowlagh. The event coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Surf Club of Ireland when then became the Irish Surfing Association and is now known as Irish Surfing.
Known to his many counterparts at home and abroad as the “Godfather of Irish Surfing”, Brian Britton is looking forward this weekend to celebrating the 50th Anniversary of surfing in Ireland.
Brian took some time out this week to speak to Donegal Life as he recalled the pioneering days of Irish surfing.
“I grew up in the Sandhouse Hotel on the edge of the ocean in the days of Cavan Cola and Perri crisps. As a family we didn't really have a home as such. The hotel was our home and I can remember sleeping in 12 different bedrooms in 14 different nights. The guest always came first.
“It was an idyllic childhood for us all but we worked hard in the hotel from cleaning windows, sorting bottles, lifting the rubbish and eventually promotion to an actual barman.
“If the hotel was full, we were all shifted across the road to the building behind the old tea rooms which was known as 'The Shack' for obvious reasons.”
At the end of his primary education, Brian went off to what he described as the “very Catholic Gormanstown College” for his secondary education.
“The reason I mention this is that Rossnowlagh was known as a 'Church of Ireland resort' with its 12th of July celebrations and Bundoran very much Roman Catholic. This background provided me with a very balanced attitude to both cultures, something that has stood to me both in the business and sporting . As I started surfing, I fully realised that ocean knew no borders, no colour, no creed. It made me immune to many of the differences and respectful of all traditions.” he commented.
When did the surfing start?
“My mother Mary had been very involved in the tourism promotion with Bord Fáilte and spent considerable time promoting the country in the US. She had seen people surfing in California and recognised the potential of it straight away. It was a similar beach to Rossnowlagh and her attitude was, if it could be done there, it could be done at home.”
Mary managed to buy two boards from the Kevin Cavey, and so it all began.
Brian continued, “Of course we didn’t know what they were. We actually thought they were good but unusual boats. A well known surfer, Roger Steadman, was visiting and when he saw us he shouted, 'You guys have to stand up on those'. So there we all were standing up on those boards in our Donegal football jerseys.”
The Rossnowlagh man went off to Dublin to further his education in Trinity College and later joined the international accounting firm KPMG, which eventually brought him to Zambia, where surfing opportunities were minimal.
“It was a landlocked country but I did manage to get the odd break in Mauritius,” he said.
Surfing had fallen into the doldrums in the early 70’s with so many either at college or working abroad but by ‘78 it was really starting to take off.
“We started organising competitions and I can tell you that this was not without controversy. People like myself wanted to grow the sport and others, even my brother, were regarded as 'soul surfers', they wanted to keep our waves as the worst kept secret in the surfing world. My attitude was that the ocean was a place without borders and something that could be enjoyed by all. It also afforded the Northwest a great marketing opportunity as one of Europe’s best outdoor activity playgrounds. However, I would stress that it had to be monitored and controlled in terms of safety and overcrowding.”
What is your proudest moment ?
“I go back to 1985 where we hosted the European Surfing Championships in Rossnowlagh. I can see it clearly to this day. We were led across to where the surf club is now by the Ardaghey Pipe Band, the Minister Ted Nealon on one side and my father Vinny (who had just recovered from his second heart attack) on the other, and surfers from all over Europe with us.
“To see my father raising the Irish Flag is a memory that will remain with me forever.
“Mind you, I must mention that the first five days of the competition were totally flat and, to avoid the embarrassment with the European media, I spun them a yarn saying that the dolphins had just been in and that there would be waves the next day. They fell for it hook, line and sinker and thankfully the waves did appear the next day.”
Brian has occupied practically every administrative position not only in Irish but International surfing. He is well recognised as one - along with his brothers, Barry, Conor and William - and Rocci Allen, Grant Robinson, Richie Fitzgerald, Easkey Britton, to name but a few who have fostered the growth of surfing to a mainstream sport and recreational activity.
After such a career are there any disappointments ?
“Well probably just one. I had worked hard at bringing the World Surfing Games to Ireland, had organised the television rights and sponsorship ,but the proposal was rejected by the surfers of Ireland by 54% to 46%.
“I feel that this was a major missed opportunity but I am a democrat and I accepted their decision.
“My life in the water has given me great pleasure. All my family, Neil, John and Naomi are deeply involved and one of my highlights of this summer was surfing with the fourth generation of the Britton family on Rossnowlagh Beach.
“I have memories that just cannot be bought and there are so many people who have travelled this journey with me. Too many to mention but I am looking forward to meeting them all once again at the weekend.