It is hard to put into words just how influential the Britton family to Irish surfing history is. With surfing 'first ascents' to recognition across seas, Barry Britton, his parents and now his daughter, Easkey are held in the highest regard back home and further afield; many would say pioneers.
Following the release of Barry's beautifully informative poster book, Ambassador, Noah Lane dropped in to learn more and help paint a picture with one of the founding fathers of Irish surfing.
NOAH: What was your first introduction to surfing?
BARRY: My mother was in California in the sixties and she was working for An Bord Fáilte, the Irish tourist board, and it was just at the start of, or during the middle of the big surfing boom in the early sixties over there. And she was in California and she was looking out the window of this hotel, and she was looking at all these surfers on the beach and very little waves, and this whole surf scene going on and she said ‘what’s all this about? There’s better waves at home on my beach in Rossnowlagh.' So she ordered up two surfboards. We lived in the hotel there, on the beach in Rossnowlagh, and she ordered up two surfboards for the hotel guests to use. She thought it would be an attraction but little did she know she was creating a monster. She always regretted buying those two surfboards because she had five sons and once we saw the surfboards it was like, ‘What are we going to do with these?’ She instantly turned us from young gentleman into beach bums.
NOAH: Had you seen surfing then?
BARRY: We didn’t know what to do with them for a bit. We knew you did something in the sea with them. So we were lying on them and kneeling on them and stuff like that, and then one day we saw this guy, Clive Davies, from Enniskillen. He had one of them kit surfboard, a wooden kit one that he made himself and he had obviously seen surfing. He was from Enniskillen but he was the size and colour of a genuine Hawaiian surfer, and he didn’t use a wetsuit or anything like that. We saw him standing on this wooden thing and we were like ‘Fuck, look, you can stand on these things!’ So we were up and away then.
NOAH: So that was the first time you saw someone standing up?
BARRY: Yeah, it was like ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do with these things.'
NOAH: What year was that, roughly?
BARRY: ’64 maybe, something like that. Maybe ’65? Round about that time.
NOAH: I guess it was just you and your brothers really back then but did you have anyone you looked up to?
BARRY: Well, Clive obviously. Clive was our hero, because he could surf. He was a majestic kind of a surfer. Real style. I remember when shortboards came in and my brother Willie got one; his shortboard was 8ft 6in I think, so he was onto Clive; ‘Clive go on, go on, try this, try this one’. So Clive paddled out on it ok… I remember it was pink as well, which probably didn’t help. He paddled out on it ok and then he took off on the wave. But Clive was this big huge guy whereas Willie was this skinny little rake, and the board sank. The whole board sank when he was doing his bottom turn. Because he was used to riding these big logs, you know? He was so disgusted that he swam in with the board under his arm, there were no leashes then, and he wouldn’t get on it again. And he handed it back. That was Clive’s one and only experience with shortboards. That was it. He stuck to the longboards then.
NOAH: So that was probably the late '60s?
BARRY: Probably ’68 or ’69. Whenever the short boards started to appear.
NOAH: Around the time when (Bob) McTavish was starting to mess around with them. What about now? Is there anyone you look up to now from a surfing point of view?
BARRY: My brother Willie. We’ve still got the sibling rivalry going. If I hear he’s been surfing, or if I see him getting a good wave I say ‘Fuck, I better get a good one now’. So we keep each other going.
NOAH: Do you still surf together a bit?
BARRY: Yeah, when we can. We surf together a fair bit.
NOAH: Tell us about the Irish Inter-counties contests. When did they start?
BARRY: It’s 50 years now, this year. My dad had this idea, and my older brother Brian, they had this idea that they would do something at the end of the season to close down the hotel. The hotel closed in September usually, in those years, and they thought it would be a great idea if they had a big weekend party. Empty out the kegs in the bar, no point sending them back with beer in them. So that was the kind of idea, a surfing party. So they came up with this Intercounties idea. So it’s going 50 years now… 1968 was the first one. Unfortunately, my brother Brian died earlier this year – he died in February. He’d love to have been here for the 50th and he’d love to have seen himself on the surfing poster…. We have him on the surfing poster this year. Unfortunately he didn’t live to see it.
NOAH: It’s a great poster…. And sorry to hear that. So your Mum brought back the first boards and your dad started the Intercounties?
BARRY: Brian did a lot of organising for all the surfing stuff all over the country back then. He was into promoting surfing and competitive surfing and surfing teams, and all the stuff that I think is wrong. He was pushing that stuff. But we still got on well, though we differed in opinions. Early on we realised we were going to be, well we probably came to fisticuffs way back then, you know? But we realised ‘this is not going to work too good.' So after that, from then on we never discussed anything to do with surfing together. We went surfing together. We went for pints together – we got on really good then as long as we didn’t talk about any of that surf business. We just left it to one side: I had my opinion; he had his… and we just left it like that. We never brought it up between ourselves.
NOAH: Easkey wrote a piece about the Borderlands and she referenced the cross-border safaris. I guess what I'm getting at is The Intercounties is all the counties of Ireland?
BARRY: Yeah, it’s an all Ireland thing. Antrim have won it quite a bit, actually. I remember back in the early days when we were learning to surf ourselves, this van appeared on the shore. It had a big sign painted on the side of it, and at this stage we’d got a few Surfer magazines and realised ‘Oh, Hawaii… This is where it all goes on, in Hawaii’. And we‘d figured out the North Shore and things like that, we’d heard of it, like. So this van arrived down with this big sign on the side of it - North Shore Surf Club or something, written on it. And it was the guys from Antrim – around Portrush. And we were going ‘ah, look at that, North Shore!’ They were good surfers, those guys. So they might have been at it before us, because they were pretty good.
NOAH: Was that Andy Hill's dad?
BARRY: No, it would have been Charlie Adjie, Alan Duke, Davey Govan, Brian Farthing, those kind of guys…
NOAH: Were they the guys that you did the safaris to Morocco with?
BARRY: No actually. Well they were guys from the North. They were guys from Enniskillen. Grant Robinson, you know him – Davie Pearce… a guy from Sligo, Noel Sexton, myself and Rocci Allan. We were in one little van. We were away for months and months and months. That changed everything. I was saving up to go back to college at that stage. I had this money gathered up and Grant says ‘I’m thinking of going on a trip and I need somebody to share the petrol costs and all.' So I had this money and I was looking at going to college and I was looking at him going to Morroco and I was like ‘OK, I'm in.' I never went back to college after that and I never wanted to either, because I realised there was a whole other way of living and that surfing was what I wanted to do and fuck everything else, basically.
NOAH: But you did still become an architect though?
BARRY: Yeah, I mean I had to make a living. When I came back I worked in an architect’s office for a while, and I definitely learnt more there than I would have learnt at college. Eventually I pulled the plug on Dublin because there was too many good pubs in it and I was spending a lot of time in them. But I was away nearly every weekend. Actually, we had a great arrangement. It was… the lads from Enniskillen would head for Easkey every weekend – we’d discovered Easkey at this stage, so we’d go to Easkey every weekend. So I’d get the train to Sligo, they’d be coming from Enniskillen and they’d pick me up in Sligo. Then we’d go out to Strandhill and Stan Burns had a jazz band playing – they were playing at night. So we went on the piss, enjoyed the jazz thing and then we’d stay with Stan, in Stan’s house on the floor, or the couch or anywhere we could find. Stan and Nina looked after us great. And then the next day we’d go to Easkey. We had a tent and we camped out in Easkey and surfed it for a couple of days. And then they’d take me back to the train on Sunday evening. It went on for a few years – every weekend, the same routine. It was great.
NOAH: Sounds amazing.
BARRY: I had to pull the plug on Dublin because I was getting too fond of the Guinness. Lovely Guinness down there, you know? Ended up living back up here and doing whatever I could. So I ended up architecting again.
NOAH: So architecture leans on drawing pretty heavily...
BARRY: Especially back then, the pen work, because there was no computers. That’s probably why I went from the pencil to the pen – because I was using the pen so much.
NOAH: So were you always drawing, from when you were quite young?
BARRY: Yeah, from when I was a child, I would have been drawing. The only art education I got at school was a slap for drawing on my copy book.
NOAH: Art’s accepted now. Was drawing and making posters 'cool' back then?
BARRY: Not at all. Nobody knew what I was doing. Back then there was no art education, for instance. Not at any of the schools I went to. There was no art classes, nothing. So I just did my own thing. I think once I started to produce the posters, probably in the early 70s, people could see ‘oh, right, posters’ - they could connect with that ok. It was for something. Before, it was just drawing pictures. They can connect with that, sort of thing. So I’ve been doing surfing posters since 1971. And then I got into doing folk music posters – I’ve been doing the Ballyshannon Folk Festival posters since 1980. So even when I was doing the architecture I always had to do those two posters every year. The funny thing about it though, you can understand why, in the late 70s I’m missing a lot of posters from my archives – I can’t find them.
NOAH: I wonder why that is..
BARRY: I’ve no idea what I did, but I did one every year. It’s a bit hazy...
NOAH: I’m sure you’re not the only one.
BARRY: When I was researching for my poster book I realised I don’t have any from the late '70s much… what happened there?
NOAH: I bet you had a good time. Did you have anyone in the art world you looked up to?
BARRY: I admired greatly Rick Griffin – he would have been the surf cartoonist for Surfer Magazine - Murphy would have been his cartoon strip. I was a great admirer of his. I still am. If I’m drawing a wave, I very often pull out my Rick Griffin book and look to see what way he drew it. Nearly every time I do that when I’m drawing a wave – see what did he do? And then of course, I’ve always been an admirer too of Jim Fitzpatrick, the Irish Celtic artist. I love his warriors and stuff, you know?
NOAH: It’s nice, the blend of the Celtic with the surf. I always liked the borders with the hidden messages. You can look closer and closer and you always find something that you didn’t see last time.. So how has it been watching Easkey grow up here and watching her connection with the sea?
BARRY: You can’t really push your kids into doing anything. In reality you can’t. I suppose they were on the shore a good bit in the beginning, when I was out surfing…. Both Easkey and Becky gradually got into getting into the waves. Then it gets to the stage that you realise your daughter’s getting better waves than you’re getting – it’s kind of going ‘ah right… we’ve kind of changed the dynamic here’, you know?
NOAH: It’s not easy here for kids either because it’s so cold..
BARRY: She was cracked on surfing, even at school. She’d be going into school late with her hair wet, telling them she was at the dentist or the car broke down or something else. I always thought the surfing was more important than the education, you know, the school part... I thought she got more education out surfing. Some days I’d call in, if the waves got really good in the middle of the day, and pick her up at lunchtime and tell them ‘oh, she’s got a dental appointment, did she not tell you?’ and grab her and just get surfing.
NOAH: She must have had a few fillings back in those days. She’s definitely got the best of both worlds now…
BARRY: She’s been into the big wave surfing then, in the last few years. She was after tow surfing with her cousin Neil. Tow surfing Mullaghmore. I could never watch her doing that, it looks too crazy, you know? I couldn’t watch my wee girl getting out into those big huge waves and what was going to happen to her, so I’ve never watched her doing that.
NOAH: Moving on to your new poster book.. Actually, when I was looking through the book the other night I saw on one of your Inter-counties posters, the 1984 one, there’s a picture of a guy dropping in on a right-hander. There’s a note saying it was Wayne Lynch.
BARRY: It was based on a picture of Wayne Lynch, yeah. I liked Wayne Lynch – his style of surfing and style of living. He was a fantastic surfer.
NOAH: Anyone else?
BARRY: Way back in the beginning, I really liked what Barry Kanaiaupuni was doing – he was a Hawaiian surfer. I think he rode red boards too, incidentally. But all these guys doing all this manoeuvre stuff – he just went like a bullet down the line as fast as he could, power turns, climbing and dropping. I always admired his style – he went so fast, you know? I’m in to the speed. For me with surfing, it's about getting the speed going. I just love it… You’re flying down the line.
NOAH: It feels like you’re flying, doesn’t it?
BARRY: In Ireland, a surfer I always admired would be Alan Duke. He’s a very underestimated surfer – none of the younger people would know anything about him. But he was fairly inspirational to all of us in the late 60s, early 70s. That guy was doing things you would never dream of, on a surfboard. When we were all riding big logs, he was on a 5ft nothing board that he made himself. A twin fin. They were always black, because he made them himself and he made them out of polystyrene or something so whenever you put the glass on it the whole thing turned black. He was a fantastic surfer to watch. The stuff that he could pull off, we were just going ‘woah’, you know?
NOAH: Was his nickname the Flying Wellington?
BARRY: His board was called that. And he dishes out the deck so his chest fits into the deck. So it looks a bit like a boot.
NOAH: Like the (George) Greenough spoons?
BARRY: Yeah, but I think he was doing it before Greenough did. He would have had them all beautiful colours because he was an artist, still is, and next thing they turned brown and then they turned black. So they just got christened the ‘Magnificent Flying Wellingtons.’ That’s what we called his surfboards.
NOAH: So moving on, the Wayne Lynch story is touching on your new poster book…. I really like the little envelope anecdotes next to each of the posters. You’ve got some really interesting stories…
BARRY: I had an exhibition a few years ago and I put up a little story about each painting that was in it, these were all original works, and I noticed people spent a lot of time reading the little stories, which I just wrote on the back of an envelope, so I thought ‘ah right, I could do that’. I didn’t realise how long it would take me to write 94 of them. There’s 94 posters – folk festivals and surfing ones, 50 years. I would have done hundreds…. So I culled, or as Easkey says, I “curated” my work and put in 94. So they either had to be my favourite posters or a really good story.
NOAH: Yeah, that’s what it feels like when you’re looking through them… I really like the “Invasion cometh” theme that runs through a few of them.
BARRY: Yeah, yeah, I’ve done that a good few times. They’re very popular the Invasion ones, especially that first one - the 1985. Because they were having the European Surfing Championships that year and I was pissed off that they were going to hold it at The Peak. So I made the poster to show what I thought of it. It’s still a nice poster though. That’s probably the most popular I’ve ever done. So I’ve put it on a t-shirt now.
NOAH: Then you did the Vans Hawaiian Pro ones through Randy Rarick?
BARRY: Yeah, well my dreams finally came true when I got asked to do the Gerry Lopez Pipeline Masters Contest. That’ll be another man I admire greatly is Gerry Lopez, again for his style of surfing and his lifestyle. So I got to do that. Actually, that was on the back of another protest poster that I put out, in 2001 or something like that. That they were holding that Quicksilver Masters, the world one, in Ireland, and I was imagining them getting great waves in Bundoran at the time, and next thing it’s going to blow the lid on Bundoran and we’re going to be inundated with foreign surfers. So I produced a poster about that – a protest one. That’s the SickQuilver one. But Randy Rarick was here as one of the Masters. And Randy Rarick lives in Hawaii and at that time he was running the Triple Crown. He was the organiser, or the head honcho running the show. But fair play to him, he would organise different artists to do the different posers. So they would have the three different posters for Pipeline, Haleiwa and Sunset – the three contests. He’d have different artists every year employed doing posters, which was great for artists. So he asked me to do one and I said ‘I’ll do one on one condition – it has to be the Pipeline Masters’. Interestingly, he insisted I had to have colour – I hadn’t done much colour… very little at that stage. I did another Hawaiian poster after that, so I have to thank Randy for getting me in to doing colour. I’ve been adding more colour since... I got more colourful.
NOAH: Yeah, because the Intercounties poster last year was really colourful. But you prefer black and white?
BARRY: To me, when I’m finished drawing the black and white drawing, it’s finished. The colour’s just another tint thing, you now, that I do. It does transform some of the paintings alright. I have drawers full of them in black and white and whenever an exhibition comes out I’ll pull them out and tint them all up. But black and white’s the thing with me.... I love drawing.
NOAH: Where can people find the book?
BARRY: First of all, Finisterre helped with the book by sponsoring trees for Hometree.ie, a native Irish forest that’s been planted down in County Clare. You can get the book by emailing me: email@example.com it’s also available in Local Hands arts and crafts co-op shop that we set up a few years ago – lots of different arts and crafts people. You can go in and pick it up there.
Images by Mikey Corker and Jack Johns | Posters by Barry Britton