2023 marks the 140th year of there being a lifeboat and volunteer crew saving lives on Arranmore Island.
The first volunteer lifeboat, Vandeleur, as well as a arrived on the island on the 1st of September 1883, funded via a donation made to the RNLI by Richard Vandeleur of Dublin – also establishing a volunteer tradition on the island.
Recalling the most notable rescue by the Arranmore RNLI, former crew member and deputy coxswain from 2000-2011, Jerry Early, said: “my father Andrew always remembered watching the lifeboat go out and thinking that the crew and lifeboat would never return, such were the horrendous conditions of the sea and storm force winds.”
The Dutch merchant ship, Stolwijk, had lost power and went on the rocks off Tory Island in Donegal. Ten of the crew were lost with eighteen survivors clinging on to the stern as huge waves washed over them. It took the lifeboat four hours to reach the stricken ship and a further four hours to rescue the remaining eighteen sailors. A breeches buoy line was utilised in the rescue and unfortunately it broke several times.
With the survivors on board, the lifeboat made its way to Burtonport, again another four-hour journey to drop off the rescued sailors and refuel. The lifeboat had to stay at Burtonport harbour overnight as the crew were exhausted and the weather conditions were still too dangerous to return to Arranmore.
In all, the lifeboat and crew spent twenty-two hours rescuing the crew of the Stolwijk. The lifeboat crew were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals from the RNLI and similar awards from Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands for the rescue of her countrymen.
These events are recalled in a tribute by Jerry Early who shared that “listening to my father talking about the men who went out on that call inspired me to write the song, ‘I’ll Go’, with my cousin, John Gallagher.” The lyrics of this song honour the brave lifeboat men who risked their lives to save fellow sailors. The hopeful tone of the chorus, “I’ll go and do the best I can, I’ll do what must be done, I’ll go cause I’m a lifeboat man, I am my father’s son,” evocatively sums up the dedication of lifeboat crews throughout the service.
Brian Byrne can trace his family’s service on the lifeboat back to 1883 when his great great grandfather, Brian O’Donnell, was appointed the first coxswain on the Vandeleur. His grandfather, father, uncle and brother, John, all served on subsequent lifeboats. Brian’s father, Neily Byrne, and uncle, Phil Byrne, were awarded bronze medals for their part in the rescue of the Stolwijk crew. Furthermore, Phil Byrne was awarded a silver medal for leading his lifeboat crew on a successful medical evacuation from Tory Island to the mainland in raging north-westerly gales to save the life of a seriously ill young boy. Brian recalls being on the rescue mission to Tory with many members of his family: “I remember being on the lifeboat that night; my uncle, Phil, was the coxswain, my father Neil, my brother, John and cousin, Bernard O’Donnell were also on board.” As context, Bernard’s grandfather, Paddy O’Donnell, was one of the recipients of the bronze medals for the rescue of the Stolwyjk crew as were his uncles Phil and Neily Byrne. His brother, John also served as mechanic/coxswain on the lifeboat.
Brian continues, “Because of the bad weather we couldn’t land the lifeboat at the pier and the yawl bringing the boy to the lifeboat got into difficulty after getting the boy on board the lifeboat. We got the yawl safely back to the island and then took the sick boy to Burtonport. He was taken to Letterkenny Hospital then.”
Describing his first shout, Brain says “I think I was in my early teens when I went out on my first lifeboat call. It was to a yacht anchored off Arranmore with the anchor drifting and we had to stay out all night until the yacht set sail the following morning. As a young fellow I don’t think I was ever really thinking about how dangerous it was to go off out on a shout in stormy weather. I suppose it’s just part of your life when you live on an island, it’s what you do.”
Philip McCauley has been the Arranmore RNLI mechanic/coxswain since 1996. He was appointed after his cousin, John O’ Donnell retired from the position. It’s clear to be seen that the lifeboat runs in the blood since Philip’s great-great-great grandfather was Vandeleur first coxswain, Brian O’Donnell and it was Philip’s grandfather, Phil Byrne who was awarded silver and bronze medals for the Tory and Stolwijk rescue respectively.
When islander, Mark Boyle, returned from America he promptly joined the lifeboat crew. Mark’s father, Charlie, had served as mechanic while his grandfather, Jack, who had served as coxswain, was awarded gold medals for the Stolwijk rescue.
In the early years of the Arranmore RNLI it was local men with a knowledge of the sea who went on a call for the lifeboat. Prior to the first motor boat in 1902 boats were open to the elements, powered by oars and sail with speeds of up to 3-5 knots and the crew relied on long oilskin coats and sow westers to protect them from the wind and rain. Today’s lifeboats are state of the art vessels, equipped with advanced technology, capable of speeds over 25 knots on the all-weather lifeboats and 35 knots on the inshore rigid inflatable boats. Crew members come from all walks of life and are trained in all aspects of boat handling, on-board equipment, technology, first aid and everything involved in saving lives at sea. Arranmore crew are also getting a purpose-built boathouse, which will be operational next year and will cater for on-site crew training, housing boarding boats, launching vehicles and adequate facilities for the crew.
So many things have changed over the last 140 years for the RNLI on Arranmore but the one constant theme is the volunteer ethos. One thing that never changes is the courage, dedication and selfless instincts of lifeboat volunteers who, without a thought for their own safety, go to help their fellow sailors.