Above: In what was one of the largest dive recovery operations in West Cork, 96 volunteer divers from all around the country carried out over 244 dives in 36 hours off Baltimore, all driven by a common desire to return the young man, Barry Davis Ryan, to his family. Photo: Emma Jervis
Aodh O’Donnell is a man who wears many hats. A founding member of both West Cork Rapid Response and West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue, Aodh has helped to save many lives in West Cork. The MD of O’Donnell Design Ltd in Skibbereen recently received an award of ‘Excellence in Volunteering’ from the RNLI, acknowledging his commitment to the Union Hall RNLI and West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue unit.
Aodh is currently a helm on the RNLI’s Atlantic 75 RIB based in Union Hall, Chairperson of the West Cork Rapid Response and Dive Officer with the West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue unit. He talks to Mary O’Brien about his involvement in his local community and steering a business through two recessions.
In 2007, Aodh, along with several other people, founded Ireland’s first voluntary medical emergency response unit, the West Cork Rapid Response Unit. A massive fundraising drive is currently underway to equip volunteer responders, including paramedics and advanced paramedics, all around West Cork. “Our response time will be massively improved as a result of this initiative,” says Aodh. When we first started, we said wouldn’t it be great to save a life or two. We never imagined WCRR growing into what it is now. Since it started, I believe that on average two lives have been saved every month.
The West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue unit was originally established in response to the Tit Bonhomme tragedy off Union Hall, in January 2012. Captain of the Tit Bonhomme, Michael Hayes, was a close friend of Aodh’s, whose boat was the first on the scene that morning. After the first week, a group of local divers, including Aodh, were allowed to join in the search. “This was the largest civilian dive search ever undertaken,” he explains. “We were determined to get Michael and the others back. We had to keep trying to recover the bodies…it was so important to the families,” he says emotionally. “That was the seed that started West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue unit.”
Today, the dedicated unit of highly trained and experienced divers, mariners and shore support volunteers based in the area, provides an emergency service along the West Cork coastline. The core objective of the unit is to search for missing people underwater and recover them for their families.
Working closely with other underwater search and rescue organisations including the Naval Service and Garda diving teams, the unit also closely liaises with the Irish Coast Guard, RNLI and Civil Defence search teams during call outs in a range of situations, including water rescues and searches for missing people.
“Unfortunately suicides are a big part of the rescues,” says Aodh. “I think the Government could have played a lot bigger role in preventing the banks putting individuals and families under such pressure. It’s still happening today, with banks selling off debts to vulture funds.”
The West Cork Underwater Search and Rescue unit is solely funded by donations from the public (westcorkunderwatersearchandrescue.com for more information on donating or fundraising).
O’Donnell Design is a West Cork success story in itself. Surviving two recessions, the resilient company now employs 45 people at its 65,000 sq ft manufacturing premises in Skibbereen.
The business was started by Aodh’s father, Jim O’Donnell, in a shed in Ballydehob, in the mid-seventies, however the family trade can be traced back as far as four generations, to 1902, when Aodh’s great-grandfather made a chair from a local ash tree. “Sawdust is in the blood,” says Aodh smiling.
Aodh joined the business in the mid-eighties. “We were working with a Danish marketing company and with exports of occasional furniture to the US and UK increasing rapidly, we were fast outgrowing the premises in Ballydehob. In 1989, we arrived at the new location in Skibbereen on a high,” says Aodh. “We went from 5000 sq ft in Ballydehob to 25,000 sq ft here in Skibberen. And…we went from shipping 13 container loads in 1988 down to one-and-a-half!
“At the time we scrambled around for whatever work we could get and that’s what got us into the hotel sector,” explains Aodh. O’Donnell Furniture is now a market leader in hotel refurbishments, including the likes of the Marriott, Crowne Plaza, Double Tree and Hilton in their portfolio.
In 1996, when Vogue magazine published an article listing the top 10 hotels in the world, the Metropolitan Hotel in London and The Clarence in Dublin were both on it – two hotels that O’Donnell Design had refurbished.
“It took us from banging on doors to pushing open doors for us,” says Aodh.
The company started growing again and in the mid-noughties expanded its premises in Skibbereen to 65,000 sq ft.
“We were building up towards the 2012 Summer Olympics, as the hotel growth in London was predicted to be colossal. Of course this never happened with the recession,” says Aodh.
Jim retired in 2008 and Aodh took over as MD, just before the next recession hit. “There were a lot of very lean years and as MD, my first job was to let people go.
“There were times when there was only one or two of us here to answer the phones. But we prevailed, making the right decisions at the right time to be able to survive. “
In 2013, things started looking up again for O’Donnell Design when the company was contracted to outfit Sea Containers House, a luxury hotel in London. “It was the largest refurb in Europe at the time,” says Aodh. The design was based on the interior of an old style cruise ship with eight-and-a-half thousand curved panels.”
Today, O’Donnell Design has over 500 projects in its portfolio, manufacturing, supplying and installing hotel, high end residential and cruise liner furniture and accessories in Ireland, the UK and mainland Europe. The company has just completed its biggest project to date, an extensive refurbishment of the Royal Lancaster London. Current projects include Dromoland Castle and Stephens Green Hotel Dublin.
When Aodh isn’t busy at O’Donnell Design or volunteering in the local community, he enjoys spending time with his family at their home in Glandore. His three daughters share his passion for the sea.
When asked about his commitment to volunteering in the community, he says simply “I’d prefer to do someone a good turn rather than a bad turn.”