21 July 2017

The RNLI and the GAA: Saving lives in Ireland

This summer, the RNLI has made a perfect match with the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) - Ireland's biggest sporting body. Both organisations rely on the commitment and dedication of community volunteers, and there are plenty of local links already, as we found out in one parish in west Cork.

'Communication is huge ... Supporting each other ... Working together ... Training and practising.'

Donal, Billy, Conor, Ciarán and Evin (pictured left to right above) are not just discussing what helps them save lives as part of Courtmacsherry Harbour lifeboat crew. These are also the things that help them win matches with Barryroe GAA Club.

The lifeboat station and the GAA club are central to life in this coastal community - and in towns and villages all around Ireland.

And now the relationship between the RNLI and the GAA has been made official, with the sporting organisation getting behind the Respect the Water drowning prevention campaign. People are excited about this partnership, both on the big stage and at a local level.

'It's a brilliant idea,' says Billy O'Donovan, Chartered Accountant, Barryroe Goalkeeper and former Lifeboat Crew Member. 'When you think about it, there's such a connection. And if you want to get any messages across in Ireland, the GAA is a great place to start.'

Left to right: Courtmacsherry Harbour Lifeboat Operations Manager Brian O'Dwyer, Education Presenter Angela Veldman and Press Officer Vincent O'DonovanPhoto: RNLI/Nathan Williams
Left to right: Courtmacsherry Harbour Lifeboat Operations Manager Brian O'Dwyer, Education Presenter Angela Veldman and Press Officer Vincent O'Donovan

Highs and lows

Lifeboat Press Officer Vincent O'Donovan is Billy's dad. He was on the crew himself for more than 27 years, while playing and coaching with Barryroe.

'About 14 years ago we pulled a single sailor off his yacht in the worst weather I've ever seen. We got the greatest pasting we ever had in our life, and we only had one chance to lift him off. So to know we saved his life, that was a highlight of my time on the crew.

'But we don't just think of the high points. We think of the low ones. There have been a few terrible nights that stick in our minds, that we'll never forget.

'I have no doubt that campaigns like Respect the Water can prevent some of these tragedies. It's the absolute priority that people know more about the dangers of water, and that they get that knowledge at a younger age.'

Spreading the word

Angela Veldman, the station's education presenter, takes that mission to schools and youth clubs around the area, and is excited about reaching more young people through the GAA.

The next generation: RNLI volunteers' children and grandchildren are ready to take to the field (and probably join the lifeboat crew when they're old enough)Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams
The next generation: RNLI volunteers' children and grandchildren are ready to take to the field (and probably join the lifeboat crew when they're old enough)

'We'll be getting to older children, and we'll be going inland as well, which is brilliant,' explains Angela. 'A lot of children by the coast know about the sea, but rivers are deadly dangerous and we really need to get that message across.'

Crew Member and Marine Engineering Student Evin O'Sullivan, also a club player, agrees: 'Every kid here grows up hearing the warnings, but some inland don't. And the GAA is in every nook and cranny on the island of Ireland. You won't find a patch that's not associated with some club.'

The lifeboat comes first

Lifeboat Operations Manager Brian O'Dwyer sums it up: 'You can get involved with boats without being part of the community, and you can get involved in sport without being part of the community. But both the GAA and the RNLI are more about community than specifically sports and boats.'

So are there any downsides to the two organisations being so closely linked?

'It was always expected that once you were on the lifeboat crew you could vanish any time,' Vincent says. 'And for the coach the biggest problem was: "Will there be a lifeboat call now before the big match?" Because the lads would be gone. The lifeboat always came first. And the young fellas today are the exact same.'

Speaking of young fellas, Conor Tyndall, at 18, is Courtmacsherry's youngest crew member, and a Barryroe club star in the making.

'My first call was late at night so I got the next morning off school, and I did get out of doing my homework! It was to a trawler with dirty diesel and we escorted it in to Kinsale.

'The GAA keeps you fit, and you'd want to be fit to be on the crew. And all the lads help the young crew out when we're learning.'

Lifeboat Press Officer and former Crew Member Vincent agrees: 'You do have to be pretty fit. But what the lads also learn at the club is discipline, being a team player, not getting too excited. And respect for the referee, the captain and the coach, which is much like respect for the coxswain, who's the boss at sea.'

Conor Tyndall (right), Courtmacsherry RNLI's youngest crew member, pictured with fellow Crew Member and Barryroe GAA Club Player Ciarán HurleyPhoto: RNLI/Nathan Williams
Conor Tyndall (right), Courtmacsherry RNLI's youngest crew member, pictured with fellow Crew Member and Barryroe GAA Club Player Ciarán Hurley

Adrenaline and pride

'The proudest memories you can have,' says Billy, 'are winning matches with your friends, and saving lives with your friends. It's a similar feeling, but there's more adrenaline when you're called out with the lifeboat, and that's as it should be when someone might be in danger.'

His clubmate and crewmate Donal O'Dwyer, son of former Coxswain and Barryroe GAA Coach Dan O'Dwyer, adds: 'There's more of a sense of urgency. For Billy anyway because he's especially lazy on the field, so the fastest you'll ever see him run is when the pager goes off!'

With that, the crewmates and clubmates are off to their Thursday training session at Barryroe pitch. There's a big championship match on Sunday. And the coaches are hoping for a quiet Saturday night off the coast of west Cork.

Respect the Water

Each year an average of 28 people drown accidentally around the Irish coast.

Through our Respect the Water drowning prevention campaign and the support of the GAA, we hope to reduce this number.

We want people to know what to do if they get into trouble in the water, what to do if they see someone else in trouble in the water and how to avoid getting into trouble in the first place.

See our lifesaving advice at RespectTheWater.com.

As part of our partnership with the GAA, four GAA athletes experienced what it's like to be plunged into cold water. They met cold water shock expert Professor Mike Tipton at Portmouth University who explained the effects cold water has on the body.

The athletes, along with other GAA representatives, also took part in rescue scenarios at the RNLI's sea survival pool at RNLI College in Poole where they learned vital sea survival techniques - information and skills they can now share in their communities to help save lives in Ireland.

See how they got on in our video above.

You can help save lives too

The more people we can reach with our water safety messages, the more lives we can save.

  • Then share it with as many people as you can. #RespectTheWater