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Thursday 29 June 2017

Paradise lost - the Sligo village still tainted by tragedy

Prince Charles will visit Mullaghmore on Wednesday but John Meagher finds that many locals don't want to be reminded of its links to slain royal Lord Louis Mountbatten

Local historian, Joe McGowan, pictured in his garden with Mountbatten's Gothic castle, Classibawn in the background. Photo Brian Farrell
Local historian, Joe McGowan, pictured in his garden with Mountbatten's Gothic castle, Classibawn in the background. Photo Brian Farrell
Prince Charles
Part of the wreckage of Lord Mountbatten's boat the Shadow V Photo: Tom Burke

The lady hanging out the washing is in no mood to talk about the day that notoriety came to Mullaghmore. "It was so long ago, and it was a terrible thing that happened, but it's not something people here want to talk about over and over again."

The day in question - August 27, 1979 - saw an IRA bomb kill former Viceroy of India Lord Louis Mountbatten shortly after setting out on his boat from Mullaghmore harbour, Co Sligo. Three other passengers also lost their lives - 15-year-old boat-hand Paul Maxwell from Enniskillen, Mountbatten's grandson Nicolas Knatchbull and his daughter's mother-in-law, Baroness Brabourne. It would be one of the bloodiest days of The Troubles - 18 British troops were killed that afternoon after being ambushed by the IRA near Warrenpoint, Co Down.

"I remember it as though it were yesterday," says an elderly man walking his dog on Mullaghmore's beautiful, sweeping strand. "The ambulances, the medical people, all the journalists. It seemed wrong that something so terrible could happen in a place as special as Mullaghmore. But it's not something that people really talk about any more. I think we've done our talking and are just a bit fed up that for some, it's all that's ever mentioned, when they talk of Mullaghmore.

There is no memorial to Mountbatten, or indeed the other three victims of the explosion, but there are reminders of his connection to 'Yeats Country'.

The most obvious link is Classiebawn, the 19th-century gothic mansion that's perched on a hill near the sea and can be seen from miles around. It was here that Mountbatten and his wife summered for the best part of 20 years before his murder. Now owned by the estate of the late meat baron Hugh Tunney, the pillars at the closed gate still bear the Mountbatten crest and initials.

On Wednesday, Mountbatten's connection to Mullaghmore will be raised again, when his grand-nephew Prince Charles, accompanied by wife Camilla, visit the village as part of an official tour of Ireland's west coast.

Opinion about the visit is mixed. The woman with the washing says she is looking forward to "getting a glimpse of them", but feels the likely media storm surrounding the trip will offer another unwelcome reminder of the events of 1979.

The owner of the Pier Head Hotel, Peter McHugh, who was among those who helped recover bodies that fateful day, is confident that Charles and Camilla will have a positive impact on the area.

"We really don't think it strange that he would want to see the area where his uncle enjoyed a lot of holiday time," he says.

It's a sentiment echoed by Fr Christy McHugh, who has been parish priest here for the past 12 years. "I think people are happy that he's coming," he says. "In some ways it might close one chapter and open another and you have to acknowledge that it's big of him to come here, to a place that's associated with one of the biggest tragedies of his life."

Fr McHugh had done his Leaving Cert and was about to enter the seminary in Sligo when Mountbatten was killed. "It was such a big event. For years afterwards, people felt it had been such an awful, disastrous, ugly thing to happen, not least because it was done so blatantly - it hadn't mattered to the killers who had been in the boat. There was no regard for life at all.

"People here don't want to talk about it because it's something that forever blackened Mullaghmore, but despite all that, the tourists still come here and on hot summer days the place is jammed."

And yet, one can't help but get the impression that the tourist 'product' would have been so much stronger had the killings never happened. This area of astonishing natural beauty - with its golden beaches, sheltered and wild Atlantic water, cliffs, dunes and spectacular mountains - should, by rights, be one of the most attractive destinations on the western seaboard, but there's not much here except two modest hotels, a bunch of guest-houses and mobile homes, a restaurant, a convenience store and pub. While it's true that some visitors would be charmed by Mullaghmore's old-fashioned feel - and on the sunny Tuesday evening just gone you could have had its magnificent strand all to yourself - others might feel it's a little down at heel.

Many of the UK tourists who used to visit this part of the world in the 1960s and 1970s stayed away after the Mountbatten killing, and it seems as though Northern Protestants also stopped coming in the numbers they used to.

Local historian Joe McGowan says nobody knows what impact the bombing had on Mullaghmore's tourist potential over the years. "Look out on the tranquil waters of the bay and it's impossible to imagine that something so horrible could happen here. There was huge media interest at the time, but then that faded away and everything went back to normal. But, unfortunately, at every anniversary, and now with this [royal] visit, the attention comes back to Mullaghmore for all the wrong reasons. It's like picking at an old wound, a scab, and everything is resurrected again.

"My feeling is that the arrival of Charles and Camilla will only reinforce the notoriety of Mullaghmore. I think the visit should be a private event - who would deny him the right to visit Classiebawn where his relative whom he cared about so much had spent so many summers? I know that the businesses in the front of the village are hoping that it will bring some trade afterwards, but who knows if that will be the case?"

The atrocity of August 27, 1979, is not the only horror to visit Mullaghmore in recent decades. In 1992, gardai uncovered the remains of a young Armagh woman, Margaret Perry, after a local priest had been tipped off by the IRA. She had been beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave at woods near Classiebawn the previous year over suggestions that she was planning to expose three Republican paramilitaries who were allegedly working for British intelligence. The IRA subsequently admitted to killing the three - Gregory Burns, John Dignam and Aidan Starrs - and linked them to Perry's murder.

"Nobody talks about her," McGowan says. "No flowers are brought in her memory."

Just one person was convicted for the murder of Mountbatten and the three who died on his boat. Thomas McMahon, then 31, was jailed in 1979 but was released in 1998 as part of the Good Friday Agreement. He now lives in Co Monaghan with his wife and was openly canvassing for Martin McGuinness during his failed Presidential election bid in 2011. An alleged accomplice, Francis McGirl, was acquitted due to insufficient evidence to put him at the scene and he subsequently died in 1995.

Both men were from Armagh, and while there is no evidence that there was any Sligo involvement in the plot to kill Mountbatten, rumours persist that they may have had local help. Some years earlier, holes were drilled into the hull of Mountbatten's boat, but the incident was dismissed as vandalism rather than anything more sinister.

Considering Mullaghmore's closeness to the border - just 12 miles as the crow flies - and the fraught Anglo-Irish relations of the 1970s, it's a wonder that Mountbatten didn't employ greater security. As a close relation of Queen Elizabeth, the controversial figure - recently described by ex-Irish Independent columnist Kevin Myers as "a vile psycho" due to his record in the Second World War and in India -would have been an obvious target for terrorists.

Meanwhile, Joe McGowan hopes that people will visit for all the right reasons.

"I much prefer to think of Mullaghmore in the context of the Wild Atlantic Way, which is such a good initiative. We're surrounded by great beauty. Some areas have mountains and are proud of them. Some areas have sea and they're delighted and other areas have lakes and rivers. We have everything. It's an area filled with history and romance - Queen Maeve and her association with Knocknarea and lots of legends associated with Ben Bulben.

"It's a magical area. Let's celebrate that."

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