Remembering Mullaghmore: the day they murdered Mountbatten
Events in Mullaghmore on a bank holiday Monday in 1979, still resonate, writes Tommie Gorman
The phone rang on a bank holiday Monday morning, August 26, 1979, at the High Street offices of the Western Journal. On the line was a friend, Seamus Monaghan, who was passing through the north Sligo village of Cliffoney. "A bomb is supposed to have gone off on Mountbatten's boat."
I was 23, working for a newspaper started two years before by the since deceased John Healy and Jim Maguire. 'Murder In The Sun' was the 72pt headline on the front page over my story the following day.
The Henrys lived two doors down from us on Cairns Road, opposite Sligo's Markievicz Park. Kevin was the 25-year-old detective garda, who escorted Lord Louis Mountbatten and his party of six, including twin 14-year-old grandsons, Nicholas and Tim Knatchbull, from Classiebawn Castle to their boat 'Shadow V' at Mullaghmore Pier, as he did throughout that month.
They had picnic baskets, and Kevin helped the twins' paternal grandmother, 83-year-old Dowager Doreen Brabourne, onto the 28ft boat. Minutes later, around the corner from Mullaghmore Harbour, he saw the vessel disintegrate after a 50lb bomb exploded where it had been hidden under the engine during the night.
Then and now, the McHugh family runs the Pier Head Hotel beside the harbour in Mullaghmore. Hotel bed-heads were turned into makeshift stretchers and sheets used as bandages as the injured and dying were brought ashore.
Elizabeth and Dick Woodmartin had been out fishing, and pulled the twin who would survive, Tim Knatchbull, from the sea. John Maxwell from Enniskillen was at the back of his holiday cottage when he heard the bang. Just minutes before, when down collecting the daily paper, he caught sight of his 15-year-old son Paul, busy in his job as helper on Shadow V. Father and son exchanged a wave. The next time John saw his son, he was dead, his hair soaked in a mixture of seawater and oil from the boat's shattered engine.
Making the documentary Remembering Mullaghmore, brought me back in contact with the events of that August day. Seamus Lohan is retired from the gardai and living in Shrule, Co Mayo. Early that morning, he was on duty, checking for tax and insurance in Granard, Co Longford. One of the vehicles stopped had Tommy McMahon in the passenger seat, and a very nervous driver, who gave a false name, but turned out to be Francie McGirl from Ballinamore, Co Leitrim.
McGirl was shaking so violently that he struggled to get the key into the car boot lock. McMahon, according to Gda Lohan and Gda Gerry Geraghty, who came to assist him, was calm and tried to avoid coming to the station for an identity check.
They were in custody for two full hours before the bomb McMahon had placed on Shadow V exploded. Forensic evidence, including paintwork from the boat, connected McMahon to the murders and he was in prison until he was released under the Good Friday Agreement. McGirl, the nervous driver, was acquitted due to lack of evidence. He died in a tractor accident in 1995. The person who detonated the remote control bomb that killed an 83-year-old, a 79-year-old and two teenagers, was never found.
During their first days in Sligo General Hospital, the three survivors, John and Patricia Knatchbull, and their 14-year-old son were separated. But as soon as it made medical sense, they were given a room together in the ENT department.
Their lifelong friends, James and Sylvia Crathorne, travelled from Yorkshire to be with them. Last Tuesday in the kitchen of his Yorkshire home, James Crathorne, gave me permission to use in the documentary the included photograph, taken by him at John Knatchbull's request.
Patricia had 110 stitches in her face. Her father, Lord Mountbatten, one of her children, 14-year-old Nicholas, and her 83-year-old mother-in-law were dead.
James Crathorne remembers, "they were quite extraordinary because they felt no bitterness whatsoever for what had happened... they didn't blame the Irish, every inch of their time and effort went into getting better".
Mary McAleese, president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011, says during the documentary that for Prince Charles, coming to Mullaghmore next Wednesday is 'a very personal pilgrimage of remembrance'. Lord Mountbatten was his grand-uncle and mentor, and Nicholas Knatchbull his godson.
Lord Mountbatten was also a second cousin of Queen Elizabeth and uncle of her husband, Prince Philip. The former president also reveals that for years before her state visit here in 2011, Queen Elizabeth wanted to come to Ireland because she was keen to be involved in the peace process.
Tony Heenan, a consultant at Sligo General Hospital who helped to revive the injured from Shadow V, told me last week "there is no such a thing as closure, but sometimes there is healing".
Often, during the stop-start antics and whataboutery of Northern Ireland politics, there is ample space to drift towards despair. But revisiting Mullaghmore reminded me of the awfulness of what went on, not just in Sligo, but on an industrial scale, around us and beyond us.
There is a story in the programme, one final twist, that brings home the random nature of our lives and the complexity of our history. Maybe this can be a week of healing as well as remembering.
Tommie Gorman is RTE's Northern Editor
Remembering Mullaghmore will be shown on RTE One, at 10.30 tonight.