Dr. Easkey Britton is a surfer and environmentalist from Rossnowlagh, Donegal. With a love for the water that dives deeper than simply riding the waves, she has travelled the world exploring the connection between humans and water. Alongside being a professional surfer, Easkey is an academic whose work delves into the restorative power of water and its importance to health and wellbeing in Irish communities.
We venture to the outskirts of Donegal to meet Easkey, meeting just off Rossnowlagh beach where the 50th anniversary of the Intercounties Surfing Festival is currently underway. The competition was started by Easkey's grandparents all those years ago and is the oldest ongoing surfing competition in Ireland.
Easkey arrives with her hair still damp from the sea and we head to her house, only minutes away. Settling in with cups of tea and a view of the nearby Durnesh Lake, it is apparent that the surfing community in Ireland is close-knit. The paraphernalia of previous Turf & Grain interviewees Fergal Smith and Tom Doidge-Harrison are scattered about the house - a surfboard bearing Tom’s DH Surfboards logo and, from Fergal, a splintered fraction of a board broken on Aileen’s.
Born into a renowned surfing family, she blends a deep, fostered love for surfing with a world-changing outlook. Over the next hour, we chat with Easkey about a little of everything - from her upbringing in Ireland, her work in Iran and her recently released short film, a Lunar Cycle. Her passion for water flows through our conversation, and her belief in the healing power of the sea is apparent. Maybe after reading you will be inspired to brave the cold swells for a swim, as I was.
“The sea is the single greatest force in my life. The more I reflect and look back, the more it seems that my whole sense of belonging and identity is because of my relationship with the sea. It felt like a great playground, a place where I was most at home and I got the sense of who I am, even from a very early age. Growing up in Donegal is pretty isolated; it’s rural and there’s not a lot going on but I was always excited waking up first thing in the morning to check the surf. After school that excitement turned into me getting out of my uniform as quickly as possible and into my wetsuit. I loved to get in the sea for that half an hour before it would get dark in the winter.
It just felt like a natural way of life for me - I’ve always felt more at home in the water than on land. The sea is a space that’s without judgement - it can be unforgiving but allows you to simply feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Some of my most powerful memories are going down to my namesake wave, Easkey in County Sligo. That was always a thrill as a kid - to go to a place that has the same name as me and has a castle! In many of the earliest photos of me I’m playing in rock pools, so I’ve always been aware of the life that exists within the sea. Often unseen by a lot of people, those pools felt like my wonderland as a child. I became really obsessed with that life, which gets so under your skin that you can’t live without it. In that way, the ocean has shaped and determined my life.”
In 2010 Easkey travelled to Iran in search of surf. Stemming from an idea Lonely Planet writer Stuart Butler initiated, Easkey and filmmaker Marion Poizeau ventured off, completely unsure of what they might experience. During that trip, Easkey became the first woman to ever surf off the coast of Iran. In the years that followed she pioneered several major projects installing surfing as a mainstay in Iran, which still continues to grow and spark opportunities in communities today.
“I never thought that I would end up there as Iran is not really a typical surf location. I got one of those crazy emails with the idea, where you’re like this is so far out there that I have to say yes! I knew so little about Iran and was shocked at my own ignorance; there was this whole part of the world that I knew nothing about. Even just trying to research what to wear or how to stay covered as a woman in Iran was new to me. Everywhere we surfed it was the first time the people there had ever seen surfing so we attracted a lot of curiosity - but thankfully no negativity. It was just the two of us, myself and Marion, the rest of the crew kind of fell by the wayside. We were bonded by that sense of misadventure from the start.
Interestingly enough, social media was the game changer that made us realise there was an established youth culture for board sports in Tehran. We felt like there was a real developing energy and desire to try out surfing for the first time. There was no type of mission driving it, we just thought it was a story worth telling!
The surf culture in Iran was kind of written when we went back in 2013, shaped by the fact that women were the first to initiate the sport in the country. In a fishing community the sea is often tied to the loss of life, but now little kids are learning to surf which helps combat that fear. The local community really embraced us and we were able to share skills through workshops on water safety and lifeguarding, which are broader skills for a fishing community to have anyways. Surfing really acted as a facilitator to bring in these other opportunities. It was incredible how it all came together.
Waves of Freedom then came about as a vehicle to generate funds for basic surf development. The question came up that if this was going to take off, how could we make it sustainable so it wouldn’t need us to drive it on. We ran surf workshops every year that focused on mentoring, leadership and coaching for women to teach women. Eventually, we decided to develop the program for a wider audience by means a new platform, Like Water, developed by Iran’s first female triathlete Shirin Gerami and I.
Led by women for the benefit of women, the focus of Like Water is on facilitating a safe and trusting environment in the water. We decided we wanted to create an enabling environment, more than just jumping in like ‘here’s a surfboard, there’s a wave, everyone’s watching you!’ We started off with wave play and learning how to move with the waves which built confidence allowing us to move from the pool to the sea in a short space of time. These experiences changed my relationship with surfing and showed me how it could be done differently. In a way, it’s a more relational and feminine approach to learning to surf; an approach centred on engaging all your senses and moving with water as opposed to attacking the wave. Growing up on the Irish surf team, it was emphasised that in order to be successful you had to take on the masculine traits of being more aggressive in your manoeuvres. It may not be all that different now, though there is a desire for more balance and seeing surfing in terms of how we tell stories.”
What do you think it is about surfing that has the power to create community?
“It’s interesting because surfing becomes different things for different people. In Iran, it was originally a very grassroots-type movement. The developing surf culture seemed to open up opportunities that didn’t exist before - changing the relationship people had with the beach and the coast in a more positive way. The very nature of being in the sea and the surf makes it such a great leveller. It doesn’t matter what your status is on land when you get in the sea for the first time and get smashed around by waves - it really equalises everyone. It’s also really playful as at the core there are no real perks to surfing except that it feels good. For all the effort you put into struggling your way out there and finally catching a wave, it’s just a fleeting moment. You’re left with nothing to show for your effort except how it made you feel.”
In September, Easkey released her short film, A Lunar Cycle, made in partnership with Finisterre’s Matt Smith and Australian filmmaker Andrew Kaineder. Set during the bleak winter months that accompany life in the West of Ireland, A Lunar Cycle combines poetry, surf, and dance to explore the importance of cycles in living a healthy and balanced life.
“A Lunar Cycle, in a way, was my personal experience with the sea. With regards to surfing, storytelling is often expressed through a male lens or renders females invisible, which is a big barrier. The actual theme came about through my own awareness of the effect of cycles in my life; of finding balance and rhythm and flow. I was a competitive surfer for a really long time and now I’m an academic in that world. The emphasis is on being driven and always being ‘on’. I have that energy and drive anyways, but I’m really bad at slowing down and finding stillness sometimes. I came to realise that my body has a great way of being able to tell me when it was a good time to rest and when it was a good time to go for it, I just hadn’t been listening. So, the question was how do the cycles of surfing in cold water as a woman and the inner cycle within my body interact with each other? I became aware that there are certain times in my own cycle where I am able to be in that space where I can give more energy, and that there are times where it’s better if I rest and tap into that creative flow. Rather than resisting what my body is yearning for, I’ve tried to honour that a bit more.”
How did your love for water and the environment transition into the academic world?
“I was always more interested in being in the sea than being in school, even though I did quite well academically. It was always in my mind that I was never going to go straight to university, so I spent three years after I finished my Leaving Cert travelling around the world by myself. I travelled alone mostly because I was restless and impatient and wasn’t going to wait around for anyone to decide to come with me - I just wanted to go and do it! What became apparent to me on my travels was how critical the human component was when it came to looking at environmental issues. I felt like that human element was lacking in the conversation - what our relationship with the sea and the environment was and the importance of that. I just found it increasingly superficial, this veneer of perfection when you went to these tropical destinations on surf tours when beneath the surface there were these huge environmental issues. I realised that I had spent so much time away seeing what was happening elsewhere that I had completely ignored what was happening at home in Ireland. I felt like I needed to save my own sea. That made my decision to come home and study Environmental Science at Ulster University in Coleraine. It gave me a strong understanding of what was going on in my own backyard. My current research at NUI Galway is focused on how nature and environment can help restore health and wellbeing to communities in Ireland and across Europe. We are trying to conclusively figure out what enables and keeps people from engaging with nature. My contribution to the field is looking at how people relate to water, specifically the therapeutic benefits both psychologically and physically.
An understanding of the sea’s influence on our lives translates to a fluency in the language of the sea or ‘ocean literacy’. Because the ocean is a place of both healing and loss, it’s very powerful in terms of the emotional effect on us and in the memories it lays down in our bodies. If you have a negative experience it tends to lay down a real barrier, creating a culture of fear instead of an appreciation of the healing and wellbeing that can come through the sea.”
How do you feel growing up in Ireland shaped you as a person?
“What I’m most grateful for is my deep sense of rootedness and connection to Ireland, and how much the coast here has shaped who I am and provided this opportunity for a global focus. I have the desire to both go out and experience more of the world tempered with the very strong call to return home. In surfing, there’s a real sense of global community so I never really felt isolated being from the outskirts of Donegal. Being from Ireland and looking out at the world has given me a different perspective as well - we have something pretty unique to offer. There’s huge potential in Ireland with that connection between the ocean and health, so I’m curious to see what will happen next. It’s that local-global mix, I feel connected to both the sea and the land. It’s been the greatest opportunity for me, where I’m from.”
“I had spent so much time away seeing what was happening elsewhere that I had completely ignored what was happening at home, in Ireland. I felt like I needed to save my own sea.”