Can the Prince make his peace at Mullaghmore?
It is 36 years since the assassination of Lord Mountbatten in Mullaghmore, but the village has never forgotten that dark day
Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30
All week, the tiny village of Mullaghmore in Co Sligo on the Wild Atlantic Way has basked in glorious weather.
The calm waters of Donegal Bay sparkle like a millpond under the shadow of the Dartry Mountains. Fishing boats bob inside the 19th-century stone harbour walls. It's a perfect view - yet for many here the clear blue skies conjure memories of its darkest day.
"It happened on a morning just like this," is the refrain often heard among villagers when the weather is fine.
On a late August Monday in 1979, an old fishing boat called Shadow V, painted in Mountbatten green, puttered out through the harbour and into the bay. At the helm was Earl Mountbatten of Burma, godson to Britain's Queen Victoria, great uncle to the Prince of Wales, the last Viceroy of India and former Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War. He was joined by three generations of his family, local boat boy Paul Maxwell - and, secreted beneath the decks, 50lb of gelignite. As Mountbatten navigated between his lobster pots, the bomb was detonated from shore by the IRA.
The explosion killed four - including the 79-year-old Mountbatten and his 14-year-old grandson - and seriously injured three others. Hours later, the IRA blew up 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint in Co Down, making the day one of the bloodiest of the Troubles.
But Mountbatten's death cut right to the heart of the establishment. During Queen Elizabeth's first visit to Dublin in 2011, she made direct reference to the murder, admitting the Troubles had "touched" the Royal family personally.
No more so than Prince Charles, to whom Mountbatten was a father figure and mentor.
"My heart literally sank, and I felt quite sick in the pit of my tummy," the Prince said in 1994 when recalling the moment he learnt the news, admitting he felt "violent emotion to see that something was done about the IRA".
Now 36 years on, the Prince is going to make his peace. Last week, Clarence House announced that the Prince and Duchess of Cornwall are to make an official visit next month to Co Sligo. If - as is widely anticipated - they come to Mullaghmore, they will be the first members of the Royal family to do so since the attack.
It will be a deeply personal pilgrimage, but those living here hope the visit will bring them closure, too.
Many still grieve the death of the man they called Lord Louis who came with his family to stay each August and was regarded as one of their own. He was a regular sight shrimping off the harbour bridge with his grandchildren, dressed in corduroy trousers and a tatty pullover. Those who heard the bomb that day and rushed to help say the sound still rings in their ears.
In Mullaghmore its appalling legacy has never been forgotten.
Richard Wood-Martin and his wife Elizabeth live in a cottage overlooking Donegal Bay. The couple, now in their 80s, are originally farmers from Sligo but they spent every summer in Mullaghmore - and 20 years ago they moved here permanently. As we sip tea on their balcony, they recall with terrifying clarity the assassination.
It was approaching midday on August 27 when the pair headed out in a 17ft boat 200 yards behind Shadow V to tend to their lobster pots. Their 12-year-old son Michael watched from the harbour wall, his legs dangling off the side. "We were following Lord Louis's boat, and the next thing I know there was a puff of smoke, a bang, and a shower of timber all around us," says Richard. "The entire boat just vanished."
In the chaos, they noticed what looked like a football bobbing to the far left of the wreckage, away from where the other rescue boats were heading. It turned out to be 14-year-old Tim Knatchbull.
They raced over and pulled him onboard by his hair.
"He was semi-conscious and shouting, but not making any sense," says Richard. "I had to scream at him to lie down and eventually he did. We wrapped him in our towels and Elizabeth told him there had been a gas explosion on the boat but that everybody was safe."
That was, of course, not what had happened. The initial explosion had claimed the life of Timothy's identical twin, Nicholas, his grandfather and a 15-year-old local boy, Paul Maxwell. His paternal grandmother, the Dowager Lady Brabourne, succumbed to shock and internal injuries 24 hours later. Timothy, his mother (now Countess Mountbatten of Burma) and father Lord Brabourne were all badly injured.
After arriving back in the harbour, the Wood-Martins handed Timothy over to the rescue services and went home. They eschewed any publicity because of a lingering - albeit small - republican presence in the village. They have rarely given interviews since.
Out of gratitude eight weeks later, the Wood-Martins were invited to the wedding of Timothy's eldest brother, Norton, at the family's Broadlands estate in Hampshire. The family had insisted on sticking to the date. even though Lord and Lady Brabourne arrived by ambulance and attended the ceremony in wheelchairs. The Prince of Wales was also present.
Before the assassination, Prince Charles had been courting Timothy Knatchbull's sister Amanda - and he later proposed to her. But she was reluctant to marry into the Royal family and refused.
Also present on the morning of the attack was Rodney Lomax, who ran a boatyard in the village and looked after Shadow V. When he heard the explosion, he raced down to the harbour and helped pull the bodies ashore.
He had to identify the body of Paul Maxwell, whom he had trained up to work on the water and got him a job on Mountbatten's boat. Maxwell's father still has a cottage in the village, but he rarely visits.
Rodney Lomax died of heart failure just before Christmas, but his widow Trudy keeps the signed photo Mountbatten gave them as an engagement present, as well as a bundle of letters he sent detailing what repairs were needed and thanking Lomax for his work. Each is typed and signed in green ink.
"I know to the day he died my husband had that dreadful sound of the explosion still in his ears," she says. "I don't care what your politics are, nothing justifies an act like that. The village can never forget what happened."
When the Mountbattens visited, the family stayed in Classiebawn Castle, an imposing sandstone turreted manor house built by Lord Palmerston and inherited through Mountbatten's wife, Edwina Ashley. He first visited during the Second World War and, in 1941, he wrote: "You never told me how stupendously magnificent the surrounding scenery was. No place has ever thrilled me more and I can't wait to move in."
By 1950, the castle had undergone a four-year renovation and the family started to come regularly. When the Troubles began, the security presence around Mountbatten intensified - but he refused to let it interrupt the precious family holiday, even if it meant British Special Branch officers accompanying shrimping trips.
The manor house provided employment to many, including housekeeper Philomena Barry and her son Pat, now 63, who started working as a waiter there in 1965. They were, he says, instantly made to feel part of the family and he still has an autographed book he was given by Mountbatten.
Outside of the summer, Barry was invited to Broadlands to work. Prince Charles was a regular visitor. "There was just such an obvious bond between them," he says. "Mountbatten was like another father to the Prince."
Classiebawn remains occupied. Hugh Tunney, a butcher's apprentice who became one of the country's leading businessman, leased the house from the Mountbattens in 1975 - on the proviso that they kept it each August - and bought it outright in 1992.
Tunney died five years ago, but his partner Caroline Devine still lives there, and has preserved it as a shrine, allowing the Mountbatten family to visit whenever they want. The old records, board games and books are kept just as they were in 1979.
"Everything remains exactly as it was the morning Lord Mountbatten left," she says.
Devine says she first heard rumours of the Prince's visit a few years ago - and even though there have been a few republican murmurings in recent days, the response has been almost universally positive.
"I am absolutely convulsed with excitement; it has been a long time coming," she says.
Last week, on the path leading up to the house, Devine showed me a granite memorial stone which she commissioned a year ago. Prior to that, the only memorial was a small green cross overlooking the stretch of sea where the attack took place.
The new stone is a similarly understated design and just bears the Mountbatten crest and his signature below.
Hopefully, Prince Charles will deem both a fitting legacy. For as he knows all too well, his dear mentor came here only for the simple pleasure of enjoying time with his family.
Mullaghmore is where Mountbatten sought peace, and yet was subjected to the most violent of ends.