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How an Irish tragedy unfolded on the Greek island of Ios

Two teenagers who did their Leaving Cert at St Michael’s College in Dublin died within a day of each other on post-exam holiday

WK ios

During the day the view from the top of the hill on Ios is breathtaking, panning out across the beach and bay of the picturesque Greek island.

At night, however, the dirt track along the top of the steep slope is poorly lit, making it difficult to see the rocky terrain below.

It was near this spot on the outskirts of the picturesque island’s main town of Hora where it is believed Andrew O’Donnell (18) died, after falling while walking home from a night socialising last Friday, having become separated from a friend.

The young man was part of a large group of more than 80 students from St Michael’s College, a south Dublin school, which had travelled to the island on a post-Leaving Cert summer holiday.


The group had been on Ios for less than a day when O’Donnell went missing.

It is believed O’Donnell had decided to walk back to his accommodation early as he was tired, according to one source who spoke to others on the trip upon their return home.

When O’Donnell did not return to his accommodation his classmates became worried and began searching for their friend. Messages were shared on Snapchat asking if others on the island had seen O’Donnell, while missing person flyers were printed out and handed around to local businesses.

It was Sunday morning when his body was found on the rocky terrain of the hill, to the shock of his friends, classmates and students from other Irish schools on Leaving Cert holidays to Ios.

Ios map

The tragedy continued to unfold as just a short few hours later Max Wall (18), a St Michael’s classmate who had been part of the group searching for O’Donnell, collapsed on a street near the island’s port.

The port was busy that Sunday afternoon, as throngs of people arrived by ferry at the start of their holidays, while others were departing and heading for home.

One member of staff working in an ice cream parlour in the area said he recalled seeing police and emergency services, but did not think much of it at the time amid the wider bustle.

Wall was taken to the island’s medical centre down the road by ambulance but was pronounced dead.

One source in the local police maintained the response from emergency services to reports the young man had collapsed was rapid.

It is understood Wall previously had health issues related to his heart and had undergone a successful heart operation three years ago.

Initial results from postmortem examinations found O’Donnell died from a blow to the brain after a fall from a height, while the death of Wall was linked to a heart problem, according to Greek police.

The pair were well liked, with O’Donnell having a gregarious nature and being a keen rugby and football player, while Wall was known as a bright young man and a also big rugby fan.

The small Cycladic island of Ios, located far off the Greek mainland, has been a hugely popular destination among students finishing secondary school this summer, particularly those from South Dublin.

There were an estimated 1,000 Irish teenagers holidaying on Ios last weekend, with news of the deaths spreading quickly by word of mouth and on social media.

On Sunday night many people stayed in and the pubs and clubs were notably quieter, with some closing as a mark of respect.

They all became one big homogenous group and family. It’s very traumatic

One Irish student on the island last weekend said there was “no one” in the clubs that night, in stark contrast to the party atmosphere of the days before.

Among locals, there was universal sympathy for the friends and families of the two deceased boys.

The young men had travelled to Ios to have great experiences, said Sofia Toka, who works in a ferry company’s office at the port. News of their deaths was “very, very sad,” she said.

“For the children this is very bad, but also for the parents. You send your child … I have two children, I think ‘oh my God’,” she said.

The owner of a small clothes shop on the island, who did not wish to be named, said the tragedy had shaken Ios. “It’s exceedingly sad,” she said.

One young local woman working in a bar said the fact the two boys had died while “on vacation” was awful.

The island has a surprising number of Irish people who have made it their home, and who sought to rally around those affected by the tragedy.

Eight years ago, Gary Ruddock (29), from Donnybrook, south Dublin, came to Ios on a holiday with a group of friends for his 21st birthday.

While the others packed their bags and went home at the end of the trip, he decided not to get on the ferry and stayed on the island for the summer.

“I went back to the hotel and I was like, ‘I haven’t left, do you have a room for me? I have no money’,” he told The Irish Times.

He worked behind the hotel bar for bed and board, and then returned to the Greek island for the summer every year he could since then.

Ruddock now works with a travel agent, Life is a Beach Party, which books various aspects of Leaving Cert holidays and hosts bar crawls and other events for students when they arrive.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the company’s bar and function room in the centre of Hora – previously the starting point of many great nights out – was turned into a space where Irish students could come together in their grief.

Several hundred Irish students came out to line the road from the port to the medical centre, where the bodies had been kept, to silently pay their respects

Life is a Beach Party had closed its bar and let students gather in the building on the day news of the deaths broke. “There was just you know 40, 50 people crying,” Ruddock says.

“We wish we could do more but we’re just trying to do everything we can,” he said. “I would hope anyone would do it anywhere in the world. It has not just been us by any means, there’s been other local businesses,” he added.

Ruddock pivoted from his usual role making sure students who booked with the company had a fun time on their holiday, to instead trying to ensure young people took care of themselves during the traumatic time.

Many of the group from St Michael’s had booked with Life is a Beach Party, as well as young people from other south Dublin schools whose recently graduated pupils were also affected by the deaths of O’Donnell and Wall.

As Ruddock spoke on the porch outside the bar on Monday evening, several Irish students walking by stopped to thank him for the support offered.

About 800 Irish teenagers on Leaving Cert holidays to Ios had booked with the company this year, he said.

After the Covid-19 pandemic, for some reason, it seemed former pupils from south Dublin schools were not opting for traditional party destinations like Magaluf or Santa Ponsa as much, with Ios becoming more popular since last summer, he said.

Most of the young people on the island for a holiday in early July appeared to be Irish, Australian or American.

Report from Ios where tragedy unfolded for two Irish teenagers

Listen | 14:48

Irish teens arriving on to the island this week faced a mix of emotions, with the excitement of the start of their long-awaited holiday overshadowed by the deaths of the two young men. Several students landing into Ios described a newfound appreciation for how life could be fragile, even at 18 years of age.

There was also a greater sense of peers looking after each other on display while young people were out socialising.

In one instance, an Irish teen was leaning over a knee-high wall in the centre of the town to vomit, before later staggering down the street. He was flanked by two friends, who were determined to guide him safely back to his accommodation.

The scene also reflected the unusual dynamic at play on the island over the course of the week. While those who knew the two deceased boys were grieving or making arrangements to return home early, other unconnected groups of Irish teenagers still wanted to try to enjoy their holiday.

But the island’s bustling port area, filled with restaurants and cocktail bars, came to a standstill on Tuesday morning, as the remains of the deceased were taken from Ios by ferry.

Several hundred Irish students came out to line the road from the port to the medical centre, where the remains had been kept, to silently pay their respects.

The group from St Michael’s stood in a guard of honour, placing yellow roses on the coffins as they passed. Many locals watching on later described being deeply moved by the scene.

However, as the week wore on, with most classmates of the two boys returning to Dublin, life began to go on in Ios.

People sunbathed by the beach and swam in the sea, ate in restaurants, and when night came they socialised in the town’s cluster of pubs and clubs.

Come midnight, groups of young Irish people began to spill out from “pre-drinks” in their holiday accommodation. Empty bottles of Jägermeister, discarded cans of Greek beer, and the odd stray cat (a feature of the island) dotted their journey up the steep path towards the centre of Hora’s nightlife.

Many Irish students did not want to discuss what had happened to the two 18-year-olds, when asked.

Students moved in big groups, some rowdier than others, but they were a far cry from the stereotype of wild, drunk Irish teens some imagine on Leaving Cert holidays.

One of the biggest clubs in the town, Sweet Irish Dream, was packed during the week, with young people enjoying themselves until 6am.

Speaking generally, Ruddock said Irish 18-year-olds on Leaving Cert holidays to Ios were better behaved than young people in other popular party holiday spots. “Hundreds of thousands of Irish people have passed through here over the years, they have a good experience, so do the locals ... They are extremely respectful,” he says.

Meanwhile, in south Dublin, the St Michael’s school community of students, parents, teachers, and friends were coming together to grieve. Prayer services were held in the Ailesbury Road school during the week, with flowers left at the gates and books of condolences opened for O’Donnell and Wall.

The loss of the two students was described as “every parent’s worst nightmare” by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil. Extending condolences from the Government, he said it was “a devastating event to happen for young men who were starting off in the next chapters of their lives”.

Tim Kelleher, St Michael’s College principal, said some among the large group who travelled on the holiday would have known each other since they were four-years-old, as pupils of its junior school.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions it put on young people had brought the year group closer together. “They all became one big homogenous group and family. It’s very traumatic,” he said.

Following the postmortems earlier in the week the remains of the young men were repatriated to Dublin.

Both funerals will take place in Donnybrook, with Mr Wall to be buried following a Mass on Monday. Mr O’Donnell’s funeral is to follow on Wednesday.