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“Keep It A Secret” is a compelling look at the growth of Irish surf culture (Lighthouse International Film Festival ’22 Review)

Image courtesy of the Lighthouse International Film Festival

As we kick off our coverage of Long Beach Island’s Lighthouse International Film Festival this year, I thought it would be appropriate to begin with a film about surfing. Keep It A Secret tells the story of the early surfing scene in Ireland through the 60s and into The Troubles. 

Keep It A Secret opens a window into the surfing world through Kevin Cavey. Cavey’s family ran a successful hotel that catered to British and Northern Irish tourists in Bath, a coastal town south of Dublin. A chance encounter with a 1961 Reader’s Digest drove Cavey into a curiosity about surfing and eventually an effort to help bring the sport to Ireland. Over time, Cavey found a number of like-minded individuals and slowly a community is formed around surfing the Irish coast.

Cavey is perhaps the perfect point of entry into this story – he’s the Irishman who doesn’t want to keep it a secret.  He not only wants to share the great Irish surfing spots, but to make the island a national power in sport surfing. It’s a tension that will permeate the narrative.

Surfing, like skateboarding in more recent years, has always had the vibe of a place where outsiders can find kindred spirits. And so it should be no surprise that the surfers in the film come from all walks of life, rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, North and South. Much of the story focuses on The Belfast Crew, Northern Island surfers led by Bo Vance, who discovered Van Morrison in his day job running a recording studio. The Belfast Crew originated new wetsuit and surfboard designs while attempting to build out wave prediction tools. Some of the surfers are family men, some are counterculture, some have a more athlete mindset. Yet together, there’s a bond over a shared passion.

The specific slice of life details director Sean Duggan infuses into the storytelling helps bring the world to life. When Cavey travels to America, he uses a $99 unlimited Greyhound bus pass to travel the country. A woman named Vivienne Evans speaks about how her father used to surf with Cavey and that, as a kid, all these men accepted her as just another surfer. The soundtrack, which includes The Beach Boys and The Pogues, makes for a perfect scene setter.

The late 60s sees the rise of The Troubles and the tension that arises as a result of the two Irelands – Northern Ireland, British by rule and primarily Protestant, and the Republic of Ireland, primarily Catholic. As one surfer describes there was no sectarianism in surfing. Rather, the Irish surfing community faces its own unique tension over the growth of the sport that just happens to dovetail perfectly with the broader cultural milieu. Should Ireland open itself up to the global surfing community? Or should it, ahem, keep its excellent surfing locales secret from the masses?

Duggan is particularly smart in the way he depicts the tension within the surfing community. The surfers are focused on their own growing sport, but the broader societal tensions of The Troubles cannot be escaped. As surfboards are investigated for potentially concealing contraband at border stops, it’s impossible to avoid the strife of the era. On some level the core tension of this store barely rates compared to Bloody Sunday, but for the young men involved it was the primary driving force of their life. The reality is that even in the most perilous of times, people need outlets and passions to survive.

I don’t want to leave a mistaken impression – Keep It A Secret is a fun watch. There are touching and funny moments here. The tension arises now out of malice, but out of passion for a shared athletic, and perhaps spiritual, experience. The film nicely shines a light on the beauty of Ireland’s shores and manages to effectively deploy a wealth of still photography, archival footage, and old clippings to create an interesting visual portrait of the era. It’s far more about the passion that can still grow even in lands racked by societal turmoil.

Keep It A Secret will play at the Lighthouse International Film Festival on Saturday June 4. Tickets are available here.