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Meet Aileen: One of the World's Biggest Waves

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The colossal surf churned up at the spot known as Aileen's has become the source of serious pride for in-the-know locals. 

Just offshore from the popular Wild Atlantic Way tourist destination Cliffs of Moher, a giant is sleeping.

The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare

Known to inhabitants in ancient times as Aill na Searrach (Foals’ Leap), Aileen’s was long said to be the spot where seven Celtic gods transformed into seven foals and leapt into the afterlife, furious at St Patrick for bringing Christianity to Ireland. Rarely spotted, the wave has remained enigmatic - the stuff of legend, inspiring tales of peril and supernatural courage down through the ages.

If you visit the area from which Aileen’s can be spotted today, you’ll find droves of holiday makers and sightseers at the Cliffs of Moher, wandering the paths atop the sheer 214m cliffs and snapping selfies with the vast silvery ocean stretching out behind them. It’s this same patch of ocean that, under the right conditions, can roar into life, throwing up one of the world’s most fearsome - and now, most sought-after - waves. 

  • Big wave surfing on Aileen

“It’s the last place in the world we would have expected to go surfing, you know, down a 7-800 foot cliff,” says Irish surfer Bill Keane in Sam Gentry’s award-winning short film The Waves of Western Ireland. 

“Most people just go up there and look over the edge and that’s enough of a thrill for them, you know? Can you imagine hiking down the cliffs and trying to tackle some of the biggest, most powerful waves in the world?” 

But tackle the wave is just what one man finally did in 2005. 


Ride of a Lifetime

After the discovery of Aileen’s, many who had seen it were left in doubt as to whether it would be possible to ride at all. But Lahinch surf school owner John McCarthy was undeterred; he became the first surfer to take on the colossus of Clare, and his experience has since pried open a world of possibility and helped put Irish big wave surfing on the map.  

“The wave itself is one of the most terrifying waves in the world that you’ll see,” McCarthy says, “so when you go out and you see a wave like that...your initial feeling is just absolute fear and...you know, you’re scared for your life. It took quite awhile before we could ride it successfully.”


"The wave itself is one of the most terrifying waves in the world"


Mechanics of a Monster

On par with the likes of Teahupo’o in Tahiti or Pe’ahi in Maui, Aileen’s, which sits just a little more than 3km from shore, can produce waves as tall as 12m that pitch forward into monstrous barrels weighing more than 400 tons at the falling lip - no mean feat even for the most experienced big wave surfer.

But to get worked into this kind of frenzy takes a very specific set of conditions, one that locals have only recently begun to understand.

In fact, so remarkable is Aileen’s Wave that what started as an undergraduate paper at the National University of Ireland Galway turned into a full-blown scientific study – all to examine what makes her the ‘perfect wave’. 

Most often seen in stormy seas with howling easterly winds in the freezing depths of winter, Aileen comes alive much like many big waves at the edge of a jagged, shallow reef formed out of sandstone sea beds. All around the reef, shelves of soft, eroded shale drop off quickly into deep, cold North Atlantic water. 

But what really makes her rock is the combination of concentrated energy from storm swells rushing in on the warm Gulf Stream, the pull of the tide as it moves away from land and a stiff easterly offshore wind. This is how Aileen really begins to strut her stuff. Great height and an impeccably clean face are her hallmarks; the steepness of the resulting drop-in gives surfers the supercharge they need to speed through her huge vortex - or tube - letting them ride in the barrel.


Sparking a Craze

Since John McCarthy’s 2005 ride at Aileen’s, the surfing community along the Wild Atlantic Way has experienced an incredible uptick, with more surf shops and schools opening along the shores of Clare, Sligo and and more than ever before. International surfers, too, have sat up and taken notice, many arriving with their quivers, hopeful for at least a glimpse of Aileen and curious about the surf potential of spots all along the coast. 

Many of the waves to be found there have become legends in their own right - from Mullaghmore to Inch - but none quite possesses the intrigue of Aileen’s. 

Aileen may need perfect swells, winds, and tides to pump - a combination that often leaves enthusiasts waiting quite a long time for her to show - but the die-hards say that waiting for one of the stars of Wild Atlantic Way wave-riding makes it all the sweeter when she does appear. 

“One of these days the biggest wave of the year is going to be ridden in Ireland,” pro surfer Keith Malloy remarked in the 2008 Irish surf documentary Waveriders

Perhaps, at Aileen’s, silently and without fanfare, it already has. 

Want to know more about the Wild Atlantic Way's waves? Read more about watersports on the Wild Atlantic Way with Best Places to Learn to Surf or Learning to Surf on the Wild Atlantic Way or Best Surf Spots on the Wild Atlantic Way.

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