Aran Islands RNLI Coxswain retires after 21 years saving lives at sea

Lifeboats News Release

Long serving lifeboat Coxswain John O’Donnell retired today (Wednesday 31 May) after 21 years saving lives at sea on the west coast of Ireland.

Aran Islands RNLI Coxswain John O'Donnell

RNLI/Nigel Millard

Aran Islands RNLI Coxswain John O'Donnell

Born and raised on Inis Mór on the Aran Islands, John has been Coxswain at the lifeboat station since 2003. For his last exercise at the helm on Tuesday evening, the lifeboat was joined by members of the Irish Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue 115, from Shannon.

John O’Donnell was born and raised on Inis Mór on the Aran Islands. He started his working life as fishing crew on his father’s boat in 1976, fishing out of Killybegs and then on both, the east and west coast of Ireland. In 1983, he finally got his own fishing boat before deciding to return home to the island, to build his own home and raise his family with his wife, Nora. While on his way over to the island from Galway in 2002, he met with members of the RNLI and on hearing he was coming home, they encouraged him to join the lifeboat crew on Inis Mór. The Coxswain, Paddy Mullen, was due to retire in the next year or two and there would be a chance to become a full-time Coxswain onboard the lifeboat. John became the Aran Islands Coxswain in 2003 and has remained in the position since.

During his time in charge, John has been on many callouts and saved countless lives. The call out that stands out in his mind came during one of his earliest days on the lifeboat crew. A trawler with four crew onboard was lost. One of the crew was John’s cousin and the other, his best friend. The men had all fished together and were close, sadly all four crew were lost. John had been away when the call came in but arrived into Galway a few hours later and immediately took over the search. In the days that followed, the lifeboat was out searching and John remembers lifeboat crew coming from Ballyglass and Achill to help.

Another call out he remembers was to a 24-metre trawler which nearly ran aground at the North Light lighthouse on the west side of the island. The seas were enormous and when the lifeboat arrived on the scene, the trawler was nearly up on top of the rocks. The crew had one chance to get a rope from the lifeboat to the crew of the trawler, or it would be lost. In those seas, it was hugely challenging but John’s crew got the rope across to the trawler while he manoeuvred the lifeboat into position. Thankfully the lifeboat was able to tow the trawler away from the rocks and bring all crew safely home.

Commenting on his life with the RNLI on his retirement as Coxswain, John said, ‘I’ve spent all my working life at sea. I was never afraid; I knew what to do and I knew where to go and I never refused a call. After 21 years, I can honestly say, I’m still learning. You might think you know it all but there are no second chances with the sea and every decision you make, there are five or six lives depending on you. I will miss it but I’m also ready to go. I’ve a wonderful family and my wife Nora is a huge support to me. She raised our children, and understood that when someone is in trouble, you’ve got to go. Having that support was everything.’

He continued, ‘One person doesn’t run a lifeboat, it’s the whole station. The team on the Aran Islands are fantastic. I have huge admiration and respect for the men and women in the Irish Coast Guard too. Here on the Aran Islands, we work closely with the team in Valentia MRSC and Rescue 115, who are based in Shannon. On a bad night, you would look up and they would be there overhead. We have a close working relationship with them and that makes all the difference when you need to make split second decisions that could save a life. I would also like to thank my lifeboat colleagues across the Institution and in particular, the team at Galway RNLI, who we often worked with on a callout and looked after us during a long search.’

Speaking on John’s retirement RNLI Area Lifesaving Manager Rob King said, ‘It represents the end of era with John’s retirement. He is hugely respected and admired in the lifeboat community and it’s been an honour working with him. I think anyone who is involved with the sea or search and rescue will have heard of John or met him over the years. He has put saving lives at sea to the fore and has always been source of help and encouragement to his colleagues. He will be missed, and we wish him and Nora and the family, the very best for the future.’


Coxswain John O'Donnell and his son Ciaran

RNLI/Nigel Millard

Coxswain John O'Donnell and his son Ciaran
Last exercise for retiring Coxswain John O'Donnell

RNLI/Ciaran O'Donnell

Last exercise for retiring Coxswain John O'Donnell

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The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.

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