Each year on the wild west coast of Ireland, the surfers of that ragged battered shore descend on the small town of Bundoran for a contest, a party and a general letting loose that would make festival goers to Coachella blush.
It’s been taking place for the last five years, known as “Sea Sessions” and it is literally what the world might look like if surfers took over. This year’s event will be held June 21-23, 2013.
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the three people who came up with the idea and currently run the event, Daniel Browne.
Europe Travel: How did the Sea Sessions Surf & Music Festival come about?
Daniel Browne: Well firstly, it is safe to say there was drink involved; each year at the end of June the three surf shops in town used to get together and run a little contest for the local kids. We’d have a bit of music on a truck on the beach and a barbecue for when they got out of the water. It was after one of these when a few of us were having a pint in the Bridge Bar and said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a proper band playing.”
My cousin who is a bit of a muso said ‘yeah but you’d have to have a tent to cover the sound system and and the speakers etc’. By the time we did the math on getting a band from outside of town and the price of a marquee we figured out we’d have to charge people to come. It was that organic.
The first year we had no clue, we lost our shirts and basically had no choice but to try and do it again and better. Six years later we are still at it. It has become a bit of a monster considering where it started but it is still quite small and boutique by Irish Festival standards.
Europe Travel: Has the event changed much since it began?
Daniel Brown: Yes it has morphed and evolved into something of its own. I don’t think you could really set out in a commercial way to try and create an atmosphere and buzz like we have for that weekend. As it’s become more successful each year in financial and numerical terms there has been a lot of pressure on us to book bigger and bigger acts and make it a bigger festival.
Last year we had the Kaiser Chiefs, The Happy Mondays, The Coronas and lots more in a bill that cost us nearly a quarter of a million euro. That’s a hell of a change from the first year when the Asian Dub Foundation agreed to pay for their own rider after the lead singer lost a push up competition at 4 a.m.with one of the festival organisers.
As it’s become bigger we have had to make sure we bring in the right expertise from a health and safety and logistical perspective and that has changed how we run the event, I suppose you could say we do it properly now!! A lot of big brands have wanted to come on board and get involved and we are conscious about it not becoming just another cynical marketing exercise that tips its hat to the environmental side of things and the issues that are truly important to us. As a matter of fact, our whole ethos this year is to very much bring the event back to its roots. We have kicked out one fairly high profile corporate brand that just didn’t get what we are about and are concentrating on a lineup that reflects a real beach party and not just what’s most popular or trendy or available.
Europe Travel: Is there anything in particular you’d like to accomplish through holding the festival?
Daniel Browne: It would be nice if it made some money! We never would have done this if we had known what was involved, but none of us would change the fact of our involvement. There have been so many special memories.
I’ve seen Paul Weller and my 11 year old son standing back stage and watching the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble together. Last year The Hot Eight Brass Band from New Orleans were threatening to kidnap our back stage grill chef Rosie and bring her home with them but they settled for serenading her, it was hilarious.
We’ve also have had the President of the country come and make an official visit to the event, which as an Irishman makes you proud to the core. But honestly the best experience of the whole this has just to see people come and experience the town where we live, to see people coming from around Europe and Ireland to party and surf and generally have fun and hang out is amazing. It’s not something I thought I’d ever see. I mean this was an area ravaged by the troubles, it was run down and depressed and pretty bloody dodgy. Now it’s a cool place to live and work to surf and play and to raise your family. I love it and I love sharing that with other people.
Europe Travel: As Ireland’s “The Gathering” is taking place this year will there be anything special related to that?
Daniel Browne: Yep. This year we are upping the ante in the water. We have got the Association of Surfing Professionals Europe to Sanction the Barefoot Expression Session. The main sponsor, Barefoot Wines from California, have increased the prize purse for the event making it the biggest cash prize in the history of Irish surfing. Last year we had pro surfers from around Europe come to take on the Irish lads, this year I think we are going to have guys from all over the world.
We are talking to the surfing community internationally a lot about it and want to make sure that we are keeping the roots of the festival strong and firmly planted in the sand.
Europe Travel: Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Daniel Browne: Well there are three of us involved. Myself, Declan Madden and Pete Craig. Declan owns and runs Bundorans main surfer pub and restaurant, The Bridge bar, that’s sort of headquarters. Pete is the co-owner of Bundoran Surf Company along with my brother Aidan. He is also involved in a few other surf businesses in Bundoran and elsewhere. We are all still in our thirties and all have kids. Both myself and Pete are keen surfers, while Declan is a distance runner. I think because of this we have always kept the healthy lifestyle ethos of the event.
Professionally I work for a regional media company that has six local newspapers and seven radio stations. I am the Operations Director for the newspaper side of the group and the commercial manager of one of the stations, ironically called Ocean FM.
As my background is journalism I still do a radio program on the station, but just once a week and focusing on business issues I also arrange a lot of events for the media group including car shows, award ceremonies and concerts. I have traveled extensively through Africa Asia and the Americas chasing waves. I am a father of one and live with wife on the outskirts of Bundoran about five feet away from the best surf breaks in Europe. I consider myself to be a very fortunate person.
Europe Travel: For travelers coming from outside of Ireland, what might they see or do other than experiencing the festival in Bundoran and County Donegal?
Daniel Browne: The faster you move through Ireland the less you see. It’s something you could say of any country, but nowhere is it more true than Ireland and in particular Donegal. There are a thousand sights to see and places to visit in this county alone but in reality the most precious asset we have is our people.
Donegal is a county of wide open spaces and breathtaking scenery. It is beautiful beyond words but equally harsh and has bred a certain kind of person. Pass through on a day and people will smile and be kind and nice. Stay for a day and you can have a beer and a bit of craic in the local pub with people you have never met and will never see again, it is totally open. But stay for a week, or a month, stay for a year and you will see that the simple kind hearted people of the hills run deep and true. Each one is a source of natural born wisdom and folk philosophy that you will be enthralled.
Whenever there is a referendum on giving more power to Europe, bailing out banks or whatever, you can be assured that the man cutting turf in the fields in Donegal is extremely well informed and will usually say ‘No’.
There’s a lot to see and do in Donegal, but its people are its real treasure. As a matter of fact I don’t know if you’d get away with having an event like Sea Sessions anywhere else. In Bundoran the little old ladies and more conservative residents of the town will have no prejudged view of the festival crowd, they will judge them by their actions, and so far so good six years later the festival loves the town and the town loves the festival.
Europe Travel: What do you most enjoy personally about the Sea Sessions Surf & Music Festival?
Daniel Browne: I love the fact that we take some responsibility for enjoying life where we live. There is no doubt that it’s been a game changer for Bundoran and that people from all over Ireland now look at this as a desirable place to live. It’s amazing to have watched a simple idea over a few pints evolve into something so big and so dramatic even if it means you have to do a lot of work to achieve it. To me it is a kind of alchemy to take a few wistful sentences and create something real and tangible, something good and exciting out of that. In short what I love is making the world a better place one party at a time.