The Murrisk Mariner
Austie Bourke has been recalled in songs and stories in his native Murrisk but many beyond his native shore will not have known of his amazing life. The legendary escape from certain death on the Myra is one of many incredible stories in the life of Austie Bourke who was known as ‘The Grand Old Man of the Sea’.
There was a time when, as a young man, he plunged into the water at the Murrisk shore to rescue a girl from death in a raging sea. It took him an hour to bring her ashore. ‘The Mayo News’ reported that he still had in his mouth the pipe he had been lighting when he saw the girl in distress!
There was the time Burke with his father volunteered to beat a two-month long storm to take a cargo of flour to desperately short Clare Island. Their thirty tons of provisions were on board from Westport Harbour, they fought day and night in the teeth of a hurricane to make the island. They had the vast majority of provisions onto the island when a huge wave crashed their craft onto the rocks and sank. They had to swim the three hundred yards to shore.
Boats in those days were not normally insured so the Bourke’s suffered a crippling loss.
But Irish MP William O’Brien and his wife heard of the daring mission, soon the Bourke’s had a brand-new boat – the ‘Myra’, which would become more famous than the family could ever have imagined.
Several people tried to break the news to Maria Bourke, but she was having none of it. Her husband was surely dead, they tried to gently tell her. Lost at sea for three weeks, he could not have survived.
It was past the stage for them of hoping he would be found alive and slimmer by the day were the chances of even finding a body. But nobody knew Austin ‘Austie’ Bourke like Maria. Her faith in him was not founded in denial; rather it was rooted in her knowledge of him always returning to his beloved Murrisk during a lifetime of peril at sea. ‘’No storm could beat my husband’’ she insisted, seventy – three years ago this month. Maria Bourke was right. Austie Bourke (then sixty – eight) left Murrisk on May 3, 1947 accompanied by Thomas Farrell (forty) and John Kavanagh (forty – five) both from Arklow, Co Wicklow. His renowned trawler the ‘Myra’ had been sold. He was asked to skipper the boat one last time, around the coast to Wicklow to its new owner. It was meant to be one final sentimental journey on board his precious boat. It was a journey that would go down in legend. They met a ferocious storm off the Connemara coast which blew them off course out into the Atlantic Ocean. The engine went, they lost their compass, rudder plus their sail as it was torn to shreds. When the ‘Myra’ failed to arrive in Arklow, the alarm was raised. Plans and ships kept an eye, but no trace could be found of the three men. As day followed day, prayers for the repose of his soul were offered during Mass back home.
The fight for survival
But out at sea Austie Bourke and his companions were alive and fighting to survive. Successive gales swept them back up along the west coast until the nearest land was the Outer Hebrides islands off Scotland. By this point they were in grave peril. With just four days’ food and water with them at the outset, they were reduced to eating seaweed which they tried to catch as it passed by and drank salt water, which made them sick. All the while they were busy bailing out water from the struggling trawler. The odds of survival were lengthening by the hour.
But twenty days after the ‘Myra’ left Murrisk, the Scottish trawler ‘Iagret’, fishing off Barra Head in the Outer Hebrides saw a white distress flag flying from the mast of a small boat. The ‘Iagret’ moved alongside and kneeling by the mast – too weak to stand – was Austie Bourke. Austie Bourke had done the impossible. As ‘The Mayo News’ reported following his death, he had saved his boat from foundering with a tiny jib sail and with it coaxed her, taking course by the stars, into the busy fishing lanes. Captain John Browne of the ‘Iagret’ turned his ship to the nearest port, Oban, two hundred miles away and flashed the news that he was coming. A crowd of five thousand people crowded the port to greet the men who had returned from the dead. ‘’We prayed continuously’’ Austie Bourke told the large numbers of national and international press gathered in Oban to hear of the daring escape from certain death. ‘’We were sure that skipper John Browne and the crew of ‘The Iagret’ were sent from Heaven.’’ Back home, Maria Bourke was still awaiting news, still refusing to accept what others were gently trying to tell her was the inevitable sorry end. A telegram arrived to convey the best of news, six words which confirmed Maria’s faith in her husband’s incredible seafaring ability. “Myra arrived Oban tonight. All safe.” He would return to Murrisk again, this time as a national hero.
Many would have thrown their hat at seafaring after being lost at sea for three weeks but not Austie Bourke. When his strength returned, he set to sea again, this time charting the western fishing ground for An Bord Iascaigh Mhara, to record for posterity the priceless knowledge that was his.
”Austin Bourke, hero of a hundred epics at sea, has died. It is the irony of life that this should have happened during Clew Bay’s greatest week. The Grand Old Man of the Sea knew more about the beautiful bay and the habits of its fish than any man alive” The greatest week was a reference to the hosting of the Clew Bay Festival, a twelve – day sea angling competition which took place on the waters which Austin Bourke knew like the back of his hand. (‘The Mayo News’ 6th July 1957 )
His death in 1957 received coverage in ‘The Mayo News’ befitting of an extraordinary man. Front page pictures were a rarity in those times but a portrait of Austie Bourke dominated page one of the 6th July issue with the heading ‘Grand Old Man of The Sea Dies’. The report – likely written by fellow Murrisk man and former ‘Mayo News’ Editor Michael Foy – went into detail on some of the fascinating aspects of Austie Bourke’s extraordinary times.
The warm tributes to Austie Bourke helped to explain why he was known as ‘The Grand Old Man of the Sea’ plus how highly regarded Austin Bourke was with these remarks:
”He loved the sea and sensed its dangers. He was first to notice a fellow fisherman in distress; was first to throw the saving line aboard. And he never sailed into Murrisk harbour without being sure that every other boat was safe. There are few fishermen from Cleggan to Blacksod who did not sail with Austie Bourke, many of them learned what they know of the sea from him.” ”From his youth until old age confined him to his little cottage, Austie Bourke never refused to answer a distress call – and on the sea distress calls always come when storms howl”. ”Time without number he answered calls from the islands to take a doctor to some expectant mother or a priest to a dying person. He has died without a single storm being able to conquer his courage or determination”
”Stout-hearted Austin Bourke passed away as the boats gathered into the pier, which was so signally his, for Clew Bay’s greatest fortnight. He was one who knew Clew Bay and the other bays of the western coast as a woman knows her kitchen. He packed more thrills into his sixty – five seafaring years than a score of less daring men could ever hope to do.” “To have known the stooped, yet sturdy old Murrisk fisher who was Austie Bourke was to have known why our forefathers held to their faith and to the love of their land down the ages of persecution. He symbolised everything that we love to say is typical of the manly Irish – integrity, unrighteousness, fearlessness, shrouded – for greatness sake – with the simplicity of a child.”
The ‘Good Ship Myra’ was a tribute paid to Austie Bourke by pupils of Oban High School in Scotland.
The original article first appeared in ‘The Mayo News’ on May 19, 2020 as part of their ‘Unsung Heroes’ series.
Edwin Mc Greal