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Aran Islands RNLI Coxswain Retires After 21 Years Saving Lives at Sea

31st May 2023
Aran Islands RNLI lifeboat Coxswain John O’Donnell who has retired
Aran Islands RNLI lifeboat Coxswain John O’Donnell who has retired

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

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 a 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.

John O'Donnell with his son Ciaran, who is also a volunteer lifeboat crew member for Aran Islands RNLIJohn O'Donnell with his son Ciaran, who is also a volunteer lifeboat crew member for Aran Islands RNLI

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 the 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.’ Team

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Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) in Ireland Information

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is a charity to save lives at sea in the waters of UK and Ireland. Funded principally by legacies and donations, the RNLI operates a fleet of lifeboats, crewed by volunteers, based at a range of coastal and inland waters stations. Working closely with UK and Ireland Coastguards, RNLI crews are available to launch at short notice to assist people and vessels in difficulties.

RNLI was founded in 1824 and is based in Poole, Dorset. The organisation raised €210m in funds in 2019, spending €200m on lifesaving activities and water safety education. RNLI also provides a beach lifeguard service in the UK and has recently developed an International drowning prevention strategy, partnering with other organisations and governments to make drowning prevention a global priority.

Irish Lifeboat Stations

There are 46 lifeboat stations on the island of Ireland, with an operational base in Swords, Co Dublin. Irish RNLI crews are tasked through a paging system instigated by the Irish Coast Guard which can task a range of rescue resources depending on the nature of the emergency.

Famous Irish Lifeboat Rescues

Irish Lifeboats have participated in many rescues, perhaps the most famous of which was the rescue of the crew of the Daunt Rock lightship off Cork Harbour by the Ballycotton lifeboat in 1936. Spending almost 50 hours at sea, the lifeboat stood by the drifting lightship until the proximity to the Daunt Rock forced the coxswain to get alongside and successfully rescue the lightship's crew.

32 Irish lifeboat crew have been lost in rescue missions, including the 15 crew of the Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) lifeboat which capsized while attempting to rescue the crew of the SS Palme on Christmas Eve 1895.


While the number of callouts to lifeboat stations varies from year to year, Howth Lifeboat station has aggregated more 'shouts' in recent years than other stations, averaging just over 60 a year.

Stations with an offshore lifeboat have a full-time mechanic, while some have a full-time coxswain. However, most lifeboat crews are volunteers.

There are 46 lifeboat stations on the island of Ireland

32 Irish lifeboat crew have been lost in rescue missions, including the 15 crew of the Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) lifeboat which capsized while attempting to rescue the crew of the SS Palme on Christmas Eve 1895

In 2019, 8,941 lifeboat launches saved 342 lives across the RNLI fleet.

The Irish fleet is a mixture of inshore and all-weather (offshore) craft. The offshore lifeboats, which range from 17m to 12m in length are either moored afloat, launched down a slipway or are towed into the sea on a trailer and launched. The inshore boats are either rigid or non-rigid inflatables.

The Irish Coast Guard in the Republic of Ireland or the UK Coastguard in Northern Ireland task lifeboats when an emergency call is received, through any of the recognised systems. These include 999/112 phone calls, Mayday/PanPan calls on VHF, a signal from an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) or distress signals.

The Irish Coast Guard is the government agency responsible for the response to, and co-ordination of, maritime accidents which require search and rescue operations. To carry out their task the Coast Guard calls on their own resources – Coast Guard units manned by volunteers and contracted helicopters, as well as "declared resources" - RNLI lifeboats and crews. While lifeboats conduct the operation, the coordination is provided by the Coast Guard.

A lifeboat coxswain (pronounced cox'n) is the skipper or master of the lifeboat.

RNLI Lifeboat crews are required to follow a particular development plan that covers a pre-agreed range of skills necessary to complete particular tasks. These skills and tasks form part of the competence-based training that is delivered both locally and at the RNLI's Lifeboat College in Poole, Dorset


While the RNLI is dependent on donations and legacies for funding, they also need volunteer crew and fund-raisers.

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