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The tale of the Murrisk man lost at sea for 21 days

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COMMUNITY John Joe Gavin, Breda Hyland and Chris Grady are pictured with the Murrisk Development Plan at the foot of Croagh Patrick. Pic: Neill O’Neill

Nestled between Croagh Patrick and the nearby Atlantic waves, Murrisk is a hive of community activity

Neill O'Neill

OUTSIDE of his home village of Murrisk, people may never have heard of Austie Burke, a career fisherman who lived in the shadow of Croagh Patrick and died in 1957. Now, however, his and many other stories are to be revisited in a new book being compiled by the Murrisk Development Association (MDA), on the history and impact of the fishing industry on their small community on the shores of Clew Bay.
Burke’s story is perhaps the standout chapter of the book; a real-life tale of near shipwreck, drifting at sea and cheating death in 1946, which would not be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster.  
The Burke family had a tradition of making a living from the sea in Murrisk, and in 1904 Austie and his father purchased ‘The Myra’ to replace their vessel ‘Sophia’, which had been lost off Clare Island.
Built in Dublin in 1878 and brought to Mayo around the turn of the century, ‘The Myra’ was a yacht that had been converted to a fishing boat in Newport. It was 30 years in the local Murrisk fleet when Austie Burke sold it to a man in Achill, who traded it to the Fisheries Board. Austie ended up buying it back and later sold it to a Mr Brown from Westport. Austie and the crew then operated it for a few years for Mr Brown, before it was finally sold to John Cahill in Arklow in November 1946.
The story describes how ‘The Myra’ was kept in Murrisk over the winter to be brought around the coast in spring. However, the spring of 1947 was severe, with snow delaying the passage until late April. When only two crew arrived from Arklow to sail it around to the east coast, 68 year-old Austie Burke was asked to skipper the boat one last time, and he agreed to do so.
The crew of three set sail around the south coast for Wicklow on May 3, 1947, on the open- decked boat of 33 feet. The Met Office outlook showed a deep depression off the south coast and forecast strong to gael-force winds. ‘The Myra’ hit the storms around the mouth of the Shannon and struggled to make land.
Burke and his crew of two fought to navigate in the rough seas. In one particular squall a huge wave hit the boat and washed the spare fuel and compass overboard, burst a hole in her side and broke the tiller. The sail was torn to shreds and the crew were left drifting in the Atlantic. Helpless, they spent the next 20 days at the mercy of the waves and were given up for dead. Prayers were said for them in Murrisk and Arklow and there were appeals on UK and Irish radio stations.
Then, on May 22, in a bad physical condition having survived on seaweed drifting by and sips of salt water, the crew spotted four fishing trawlers in the distance. However, now lying on the deck, they hadn’t the energy to attract attention, relying on a distress signal on the mast. They resigned themselves to their fate.
Then, on Friday, May 23, Austie spotted a trawler heading in their direction. He managed to summon the energy to pull himself to the mast, and he was seen. The trawler was from Fleetwood, and it took them on board and towed them to Oban in Scotland, where they were met by a huge crowd and nursed back to health in a local hospital.
Austie Burke returned to a heroes’ welcome in Murrisk, where he lived out his days, working with Bord Iascaigh Mhara, before passing away in 1957.

New project
The sea was the lifeblood of Murrisk in those times, but today the fishing industry out of the village is confined to pot fishing and small operations on the inner bay. The new, yet-to-be-titled book reveals that by the late 1950s the fishing industry was collapsing in Murrisk and elsewhere. The skippers were elderly, the younger generation had emigrated, markets were collapsing and big trawlers were clearing out stocks. Nevertheless, fishing remains a huge part of the legacy of Murrisk, and the new book sets out to recognise that.
Recalling how the publication came about, Chris Grady, chairperson of the MDA, explained that in 2006 they built a fisherman’s memorial in Murrisk.
“The late Johnny Groden, Breda Hyland, John Joe Gavin, Tommy Gill, Tommy Joe Groden, Mena Gill and others did the research and background work on getting information on the fishing industry and boats in Murrisk. Johnny Groden said he felt there was a lot more information out there that could be obtained so we looked at the possibility of gathering it and publishing it.
“It is the history of the fishing industry in Murrisk from back when [Murrisk] Abbey was built in 1457 right up to the present day, and its impact on a small village. There is not a lot of information on the early days, but from the 1900s on we have a lot more information. The name is not settled on yet. It is hoped to launch the book in early September in conjunction with a festival in Murrisk.”

Hard-working association
The book is just one of several MDA initiatives. Their current projects include a [Clár funded] playground about to put in place at a cost of over €100,000; village enhancements, such as under grounding of cables, building walls and footpaths; an extension of the lighting scheme; and of course the locating of the National Famine Memorial in Murrisk in 2000. This was followed up by creation of the community park surrounding it, funded from the Millennium Committee.
Breda Hyland explains: “We built a community centre, constructed loop walks, set up a website. There are approximately 350 people living in Murrisk, and there is good enthusiasm for some parts of the projects, like the festival and Pattern Day, but maybe other things, people don’t always feel like going to a meeting, so the door is always open for more people to get involved in the running of the community, and in working on our initiatives. We are also involved with other stakeholders in the Croagh Patrick Forum that is ongoing at the minute. There are RSS, TÚS and CE schemes active in the village, which is defined as being in a linear route between the two white council ‘Murrisk’ signs and from the mountain to the sea.”

Challenges and future focus
Murrisk is busy with a steady stream of people climbing Croagh Patrick and many fundraising events on the mountain. As such there is a great buzz in the village, which boasts two pubs and a restaurant, a school, the recently opened hostel, which has been deemed a great addition to the village, and a horse-riding stables.
But challenges remain. The battle for a local group water scheme and sewerage system has been underway for the last quarter of a century, while dependency on water from Croagh Patrick is another major issue. While that is a story for another day, the community is determined to address these matters and others as they realise their vision for their bustling and picturesque hamlet.
Funding for the publication of the new book is now being sought. An open night will take place on Thursday, June 8, in Murrisk Community Centre to meet people with old photos of Murrisk or its inhabitants. MDA members will scan the photos and return them on the night.
The MDA will also be kept busy running their many schemes over the summer while working towards Reek Sunday and their annual festival and Pattern Day in September. It is at this time that they hope to launch the new book and retell the full story of Austie Burke and his time lost at sea, and many other local tales.

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