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Unsung Heroes: Austie Bourke

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HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS Murrisk Harbour, where Austie Bourke left in 1947 on a journey which saw him and two others lost at sea for three weeks before being miraciously found alive off the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. Pic: Oliver Whyte

Legendary Murrisk fisherman Austie Bourke had an incredible escape after 21 days lost at sea

Edwin McGreal

The shattered ship with limp white flag
Its symbol of distress
Brave Austin Bourke clung to the mast
To shout his S.O.S.
The Good Ship Myra

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 and 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, 73 years ago this month. Maria Bourke was right.
Austie Bourke (then 68) left Murrisk on May 3, 1947 accompanied by Thomas Farrell (40) and John Kavanagh (45) both from Arklow, Co Wicklow. His renowned trawler the ‘Myra’ had been sold and 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 and their sail 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 20 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 after his death in 1957, 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, 200 miles away and flashed the news that he was coming. A crowd of 5,000 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.

It was the good ship Myra
That sailed the Irish Sea
A 34 foot fishing boat
With but a crew of three
Their skipper good was Austin Bourke
A right brave mariner was he
Twas he who hailed from fair Westport
To sail the calm blue sea

The Good Ship Myra was a tribute paid to Austie Bourke by pupils of Oban High School in Scotland