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Richie Fitzgerald shares the triumphs and tragedies of pioneering Ireland’s big-wave surf scene in his new memoir, Cold-Water Eden.
By Kevin Miller
Light / Dark
As a 9-year-old with wool gloves duct taped to baggy wetsuit sleeves, Richie Fitzgerald was introduced to the cold craic of the Northern Atlantic by his oldest sister, Frances. Her surf lessons set him on a wave-riding path that would lead to pure joy and, at times, the depths of misery. Set in the coastal town of Bundoran in Ireland’s County Donegal, which hosts a smorgasbord of pointbreaks, Cold-Water Eden is Fitzgerald’s firsthand account of how Emerald Isle surf culture came to be.
With only a few boards and wetsuits available in Bundoran, Fitzgerald made friends with eager surfers from nearby towns to pool resources. As the local scene grew in the early 1990s, international contests attracted visiting pros, who handed down more gear. During this time, Fitzgerald became a significant point of contact in Ireland and eventually converted his mom’s gift store into Donegal’s first surf shop, Surfworld. Perched nearly 50 yards from the Peak, one of Europe’s finest waves, the family’s shop became a beacon of Irish surfing and a hub for traveling surfers.
“I took a bad wipeout and ripped my suit on the rocks,” Jamie Brisick says about visiting Donegal. “I told Richie about it in the store, and he asked me for the suit. I woke up the next morning to really good waves at the Peak and a hand-stitched wetsuit at full strength.”
Surfworld blossomed, as did Fitzgerald himself, who became a competitor for the Irish team. In a jersey, he relegated enough countrymen and foreigners to fill a Dublin-sized pub with pints full of tears. Meanwhile, he hosted crews from ’90s and 2000s surf films like Litmus, Thicker Than Water, and Step Into Liquid, in which he brings the children of his country’s warring Protestants and Catholics together for surf lessons. These productions introduced him to surfers like Tom Curren, the Malloys, and Jack Johnson. While his role in these films helped solidify him in Ireland’s fast-growing surf culture, it was his exploratory adventures in the slabs of Mullaghmore that put him over the top.
Fitzgerald recounts early big-wave missions where he and tow partner Gabe Davies would putter through fog, wind, and rapidly changing conditions at first light on an old, unreliable jet ski. The duo’s tenacity and dedication put them on the heaviest waves ridden in Europe at the time. Fitzgerald’s harrowing description of arriving at the harbor on the biggest day of his career serves as the book’s introduction and its finale.
The death of a family member would eventually send Fitzgerald into reckless behavior: On a windy day in 25- to 30-foot seas, he bailed mid-face on a wave out of anger to grab at the collar of whatever force took his loved one away. (He and his friends had always mused at the lunacy of the film Point Break, especially how big-wave surfer Darrick Doerner was paid $10,000 to intentionally wipe out on a Waimea bomb for the final scene.)
From coping with death and heartbreak to winning contests, entertaining guests with gut-busting banter, and pioneering heavy Northern Atlantic waves, Fitzgerald tells his story with the warmth, humility, wit, and charm only an Irishman can.
[Cold-Water Eden is published by HarperCollins and available for order at harpercollins.com]