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Oban's memories of a Murrisk seaman

County View

County View
John Healy

WHEN the acclaimed Oban Gaelic Choir from Scotland came to the west last year to take part in the Mayo International Choral Festival, a visit to Croagh Patrick was one of the highlights. But for at least one member of the group, the visit had a special significance.
Although he had never been to Ireland, the choir member in question had grown up in Oban with the story, from his father - himself a seafarer- of the three Irish men who had been saved from the sea after being swept by storms from Mayo to the north western corner of the Scottish islands. He knew they had come from a place called Murrisk - but he was determined to see this legendary place for himself.
And it was hardly surprising that, even after half a century, the remarkable feat of endurance of a Murrisk trawler skipper should still be remembered among Argyll’s fishing folk.
It was on a May day in 1947 that Austin Burke, a seasoned 60 year-old sailor, set off from Murrisk pier to sail to Arklow in Wicklow, to deliver ‘The Myra’ to its new owners. Accompanied by two Wicklow men, Thomas Farrell and John Kavanagh, they had little inkling of the fate that was to await them as they left Clew Bay and turned southward for what was intended to be a three day journey.
But just off Connemara, they ran into a ferocious storm which blew them 65 miles off course and out into the Atlantic. Tossed about like a cork in the water, the crew found it impossible to control the vessel as, day after day, the storm showed no sign of abating. For 20 endless days, The Myra drifted, pounded relentlessly by the ocean, pummeled by the lashing winds, powerless to right itself or order its course. By now, it had lost its compass and rudder, its sails torn to shreds. With its supply of food and water long gone, the starving trio was reduced to eating sea weed and drinking salt water while all the time, around the clock, bailing out the flooding water.
At home, friends and relations had given up hope of ever seeing Austin Burke alive again. Hundreds of miles adrift in the north sea, driven by the merciless winds, the trawler was drifting helplessly, its plight going unnoticed by craft in the shipping lanes. And then, deliverance. Miraculously, the Fleetwood trawler, ‘Iagret’, spotted the Murrisk boat off Barra Head, on the south tip of the outer Hebrides. The skipper, John Browne, took the weary, exhausted, despairing trio on board, made them comfortable, and started the 100 mile journey to the nearest port, Oban, with The Myra in tow.
The news of the rescue and the incredible escape from death of the Irishmen, made world headlines. As the Iagret sailed into Oban, they were given a heroes’ welcome as hundreds of local people thronged the pier to salute the intrepid trio and to celebrate their safe return.
Representatives of the national and world press and media were waiting to meet them and to learn more from Austin Burke of their ordeal.
And back in Murrisk, the first intimation of the happy ending came with the arrival of a telegram to Austin Burke’s wife, Maria, ---- “Myra arrived Oban tonight. All safe.”
The news was the signal for jubilation and celebrations in the native village. Masses and prayers of gratitude were said. On his arrival back at Westport railway station, an address of welcome to Austin Burke was read by Councillor Paddy Gibbons of Lecanvey, while bonfires blazed along the homeward route as a cavalcade escorted him home to Murrisk.