Belonging in the Ocean: Surfing, ocean power, and saltwater citizenship in Ireland

  • David Whyte
Keywords: Ireland, saltwater citizenship, surfing, water, belonging


In 2016, the Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in southwest Ireland sought permission to erect a boulder wall along the entire length of a beach to protect its golf course from erosion. This beach happens to be home to a good-quality surf break and, accordingly, local and international surfers quickly mobilised resistance to the plan. This paper investigates how Irish surfers’ relationship with different water flows have been (re)producing and transforming these political narratives, both in relation to this dispute and in the State more generally in the 2014-2018 period. Through their politicised associations with waves, Irish surfers enact “saltwater citizenship”, a political status that grounds its legitimacy not only on its relationship with state power but also (and primarily) with ocean power. I explore how this specific form of citizenship has three defining features: 1) It multiplies authorities of political legitimation; 2) its struggles against Irish state-corporate entanglements take place predominantly as right-of-access and right-of-ownership disputes; 3) because it is based on surf-specific notions of belonging and relies on contemporary global flows of information and people, it disarticulates and reconfigures elements of citizenship (territoriality and entitlements, for instance) in ways that complicate traditional distinctions between localism and cosmopolitanism.