Meet Clive: The Godfather of Irish Skateboarding

We drop into Dublin's Skate City to meet Clive Rowan and get some Irish Skate History

We meet Clive Rowan© Fergal Rice

“Does Tony Hawk use scooters?” a customer asks Clive Rowen, owner of Skate City in Dublin’s Temple Bar. “Hmmm… not really,” he says, guiding the customer over to a set of scooters. The customer’s son, who looks around 6 years old, points to the wall and asks, “Is that a longboard?” He gazes in awe.

It’s quite clear his mother has other plans for him: safer, scooter activities to be exact, but you can tell he really wants the longboard; this boy will never survive in a skatepark on a scooter. If Clive had the choice, he wouldn’t sell scooters, his real passion is skateboarding but business is business.

Clive has had a skate shop since 1978. His first store opened on Hill street, which is now the name of a documentary about the Irish skateboarding scene. Last month, Hill Street was acquired by a film distributor. “It was announced at the Web Summit, so it’s going worldwide in 2014,” explains Clive. Documenting skateboarding in the 1980s, in which Clive played a big part, it also has interviews with the legendary Tony Hawk, who Clive brought over to Ireland when skateboarding was a “minority sport”.

“In Ireland, skateboarding was just starting to break. Anything with marble and hand rails attracts skateboarders like flies. Security guards don’t like anyone skating on nice shiny marble so it lead to a lot of confrontation. But that’s part of being a skater, you get used to it. It’s like a hit-and-run: you skate a spot for 5-10 minutes and then you move on to the next stop. That’s the way it works in Dublin.”

Inside Skate City© Fergal Rice

Clive spent 20 years trying to convince authorities to build skateparks. It became a fast-growing sport, and with US magazines seeping into Irish culture, skaters could see the progress abroad. “They [Dublin City Council] told me ‘it was a passing fad and it would disappear in a year.’ They said ‘there were plenty of pitches for people to play football. Why would people want to skateboard?’” Eventually, authorities built a skatepark in Bushy Park, and now there are 35 skate parks throughout Ireland.

It’s still not enough in Clive’s eyes, he thinks every town in Ireland should have its own skatepark. “When you see Tony Hawk on the X Games and look at the Red Bull events, you see the skill of what skateboarders can do. But unless you’ve got somewhere to practise, you’ll never make it to the X games.”

Clive shows me a picture of him and Tony Hawk taken last month. It was Halloween so Clive is dressed as Heisenberg from the TV show Breaking Bad. I’m confused because I haven’t seen the show yet; Clive is in shock. Now, after googling Heisenberg, Clive proves he’s quite an impersonator, and it’s not the only photo of him with skateboard hero Hawk.

Skate City© Fergal Rice

Hawk first stepped foot on Irish soil when Clive put on a demo in the now defunct Top Hat Ballroom in Dun Laoghaire. “It had a nice, big wooden floor and a viewing gallery. I used to rent it every two weeks, we’d build ramps and put on a show,” he says, while adding that Hawk is shy, “he’s a bit quiet, he’s hard to figure out, but he’s a gent. In any sport you get arseholes, but he’s at the other end of that. He has the clean-cut, All American hero image, he’s a nice ambassador for the sport.”

On Skate City’s walls is a luge board, pictures of him and Hawk over the years, skate posters, and a Red Bull trophy, which is over a decade old. Clive won the trophy at a Red Bull skate competition in which he came second in the stand-up longboarding. “I can honestly say I have never went so fast on a skateboard in my life, we were hitting speeds of 50 miles an hour on Howth Hill,” he says. Clive put his back foot down to stop, which he soon discovered doesn’t work at that speed. He got a board wobble and went through the air “like superman”.

“I was in black leathers with a full-face helmet. The leathers burst open when I hit the ground like a sack of spuds. Some smart arse in the crowd shouted, ‘Will you do that again? My mate didn’t see,’ Clive says, smirking. Despite a broken wrist, he went on to compete and came third in the street luge competition. “I could have done better if I had two good wrists,” he says. Today, you can see Clive cruising through town. “I try to skateboard from time-to-time, I get out and hurt myself,” he says, laughing.

Clive Rowan© Fergal Rice

Before I go, he asks me to promise that I start watching Breaking Bad. Then, stepping out onto noisy streets of Temple Bar, I imagine Clive bombing down Howth Hill dressed in his black leathers, lying back on his luge board full of adrenaline and with the pain of his broken wrist, walking home that day holding his Red Bull trophy, gleaming. I’m sure he would do it all over again had he the chance.

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Photos by Fergal Rice

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