Five years ago, an Atlantic storm would have meant only one thing for former Irish surfing champion Fergal Smith. But in February this year, with Storm Imogen having freshly ragged the west coast, Smith hasn’t a drop of seawater on him. Instead, he’s out and about in County Clare, replacing election posters torn down by the winds.
The 28-year-old is standing as a candidate in the general election for one of the county’s four parliamentary seats. Asked by the Green Party to stand, he accepted – because he wants to leave a better world behind for his one-year-old daughter. “If the politicians were talking about real solutions, I wouldn’t have to,” he says over the phone in a soft-but-sure Gaelic lilt, “but they’re not.”
It’s the latest step in an transformative period for Smith, in which he abandoned the cushy life of a professional surfer, returned to the land, and became a father and now, potentially, a TD (an Irish MP). The Damascene, or rather the Polynesian, moment came in 2011 sat on a friends’ couch in Tahiti, laid up with a knee injury. “I sat there, watching the news about Fukushima [nuclear power plant] sinking into the sea, and I’m on an island in the same ocean, going, ‘This isn’t good, like.’”
He had already started to feel uncomfortable about his high air-mileage lifestyle. “But I decided that was it – I was tapping out. And I told my friends and family and sponsors. They said I’d lost my mind, and I needed to appreciate how lucky I was.”
Smith pared down to one sponsor – Cornwall’s Finisterre – and returned to west Ireland, where he had made his name prospecting the big-wave break Aileen’s, off the cliffs of Moher. Five kilometres to the south-east, he set up the Moy Hill community garden, a two-acre, volunteer-run farm. His father was a pioneer in organic farming in Ireland, and Smith was keen to return to his roots. But more importantly for the planet, his new career was putting his money where our mouths are: “The biggest thing we need to do is educating people in the importance of paying for quality food that’s not harming the environment.”
Local residents, Smith’s surfer mates and anyone who fancies dropping in have been benefitting from that education – and the old panier of free veg – since then. Moy Hill is entering its third summer, and Smith is expanding operations to a 17-acre patch of land he has bought nearby for a fully fledged community supported agriculture (CSA) farm.
He’s hoping to link into his former profession by asking surf companies to plant a tree for every wetsuit sold, and Finisterre have already got behind the idea.
“Surfing’s just as much a part of the system as everyone else,” Smith says, “The top surfers could make a decision to only wear ethically produced clothes, and only travel if they have to. And the companies would have to respond to that.”
If Smith gets elected, overturning received thinking will become a full-time job. He says no one disagrees with the broad strokes of his environmental platform, but politicians are rarely willing to take action in the here and now. He’s brimming with ideas: converting the local coal power station to renewable energy, pre-emptively reforesting the uplands instead of mopping up with flood-relief cash, paying farmers fair prices to discourage over-exploitation of land.
He’s tackled the scariest waves on the planet, but he’ll need his self-assurance for a far bigger challenge: reforming an economic system that seems geared to frustrate any long-term thinking. The spring in Smith’s voice makes you think he can have an impact. He knows he’s on a time limit: “Our kids are going to have to deal with a screwed-up world as it is. We have to show them the solutions, so they can implement them. If they have to invent them themselves, it’ll already be too late.”
Follow Fergal Smith’s campaign on Twitter @fergalsmithcl and Facebook
Photography: Calum Creasy
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