'Spectacular' murder was nothing but butchery says Garda bodyguard
'My initial reaction was.......my God, this can't be happening.....but I knew it was'
It was neither the day nor the place for gruesome death, but untold horror lurked incongruously amongst the donkey rides, ice cream cones and pleasure cruises. The happy sounds of summer were about to be callously contaminated by murders most foul.
The events of August 27th, 1979, are indelibly seared in the mind of Kevin Henry who, apart from the still unknown "trigger man" who detonated the massive 50 lb remote control bomb which killed two octogenarians and two young teenagers, was the only eyewitness to the ten seconds of dastardly mayhem which was to catapult the unspoilt North Sligo village into worldwide headlines.
Thirty years on, Lord Louis Mountbatten's armed bodyguard can relate the graphic detail of that murderous Mullaghmore morning as if it had happened only yesterday. With the clarity of a trained detective and a mind which has obviously turned over the events a zillion times, Kevin Henry's precise reconstruction is perhaps the most vivid account of a day that has become a chilling chapter of the nation's troubled history.
A young detective based at Cliffoney, Henry had been assigned to guard Lord Mountbatten during his annual four week visit with members of his family to Classiebawn Castle.
Earl Mountbatten of Burma, an uncle to the Duke of Edinburg, a grandson and godson of Queen Victoria, Britain's last viceroy in India, and confidant and advisor to the king in waiting, Prince Charles, was perhaps the most revered of the British Royal family. He had been holidaying in Mullaghmore for the previous 25 years and his tall unstooped figure had become a familiar and friendly sight amongst the locals. The ten year old 'Troubles' in the North had not deterred him from his annual pilgrimage.
Kevin Henry had built up a friendly relationship with him in the three weeks he'd been his "minder".
"Naturally, you had to keep your distance, but he was a warm and friendly man. There were no airs or graces about any of them. I'm not sure if the stories of him drinking at night in the local pubs were ever true, but certainly he had no problem mixing with the locals. He would happily pose for photographs, and we were always invited to join them for dinner. They'd come outside the castle at night and chat away with us. It was a very relaxed, easy relationship, although the prospect of danger was never too far below the surface," Kevin recalls.
Aware of that danger from the first day he met the Earl, Kevin recalls asking him at their initial meeting whether he wished him to accompany him on fishing trips on his boat, "Shadow V".
"Some years previously, some of our lads went out fishing with him, so I asked him almost as soon as I was introduced to him if he wanted me to go on those trips. He 'himmed and hawed' and then said 'not really'.
"I remember asking him distinctly if that meant he didn't want me to accompany him on those trips and he was very clear that he didn't," the retired detective recollects. It was a direction which was to save his life.
Fishing trips apart, wherever the Royal pensioner went, Kevin followed, literally his shadow. He recalls that the Gleniffe horseshoe and Innismurray Island were favourite haunts for the visitors, who also liked to go horse-riding on Mullaghmore strand.
"We hated those horse-riding days," Kevin recalls. "We had to follow on foot and just couldn't keep up with them. Once they were out of sight, you never knew what might happen, and you'd be very nervous until they came back into view."
Lord Mountbatten was beginning the fourth and final week of his holidays on that gloriously sunny Monday morning, August 27th.
Kevin Henry's shift began at 6 a.m, parked in a Garda car in the grounds of Classiebawn. He remembers Mountbatten coming out of the castle at about 9.30 "in terrific spirits as he always was" and informing him he would be going out on the boat later that morning, though no specific time was mentioned.
At about 11 o'clock, the party started packing their bits and pieces into Lord John Braebourne's white Ford Granada estate, and before squeezing into the car for the one mile journey from the castle to the harbour, Lord Mountbatten handed Kevin a camera and asked him to take a family photograph.
The shutter clicked down on the last ever photograph of the World War 11 hero and his family shortly after 11 a.m. Years later, Kevin Henry was given a copy of the picture, but he subsequently made a present of it to the Classiebawn gatekeeper, Michael Connolly.
In the car driven by Mountbatten's son-in-law, Lord Braebourne, were his wife, Lady Patricia, fourteen years old twins, Nicholas and Timothy Knatchbull, the 82 years old Dowager Lady Braebourne and 15 years old boatboy, Paul Maxwell from Enniskillen.
Followed by the Garda car, in which Kevin was accompanied by a uniformed officer, the Granada drove slowly through the village to the harbour, its occupants waving occasionally to villagers and holidaymakers who recognised them.
Five minutes later, the party was boarding Shadow V, laughing and joking, soaking up the sun in anticipation of a carefree day on the calm blue waters of Donegal Bay.
Kevin Henry remembers helping Lord Mountbatten down the steps and onto the 28 foot long emerald-green boat, and then climbing aboard himself to help the party "get sorted."
"I was on the boat for five minutes, standing unknowingly within feet of the bomb," he reflects.
He recalls Mountbatten, the former First Sea Lord, taking control of the boat, sitting in his favourite "shark seat". There were jokes and shrieks of derision from his fellow passengers as Mountbatten initially clicked the boat into the wrong gear before steadily steering it out of the narrow harbour.
At the mouth of the harbour, the boat turned left towards the lobster pots; Kevin was driving the Garda car parallel along the shoreline, keeping the vessel in sight at all times. He pulled into a lay by when he saw the boat slowing, but not completely stopped, as it reached the pots.
The events of the next sixty seconds come tumbling from his mind: "I got out of the car and was looking at the boat which was now directly below me, practically in my face.
"Very suddenly, there was this enormous explosion. The noise was tremendous, terrifying. There was a huge mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke and multicoloured flashes. This cloud rose high above me, and then started to disappear.
"There was debris in the sky and on the sea and I was hit with a huge shower of sea-spray. I could hear screams of panic and pain.
"My initial reaction was, 'My God, this can't be happening', but I knew it was happening. I could see the debris floating on the water and in the air, but I could not detect any survivors in the water. I was absolutely amazed to later discover there were survivors, because it just seemed like nobody could possibly escape."
Shocked but managing to retain sufficient composure to do his job, the detective used the car radio and a walkietalkie in a frantic but ultimately vain attempt to contact Ballyshannon and Bundoran Garda stations, eventually by some freak of primitive technology, getting through to Kinlough station. He managed to raise the alert, demanding the assistance of helicopters, paramedics and the setting up of road blocks, before the signal finally died.
Jumping into the patrol car, he drove at breakneck speed the 200 yards back down to the village, where the explosion had been heard but had not yet registered its deadly result.
"It was remarkable, everybody seemed to be unaware of what had happened. The relaxed summer atmosphere was everywhere to be seen, people were going about their business. They had heard a bang but didn't think for a moment that it was so serious," he recalls.
The shaken Garda soon spread the grim news, as he frantically organised a rescue mission.
"Everybody was very eager to assist. We probably had more boats than we needed, so I asked them to go out in relays."
He recalls Mullaghmore being shrouded in an atmosphere of "disbelief and disgust".
"It was as if everybody had lost a member of their family. It was a morgue-like atmosphere. People were dumbfounded and distressed. People couldn't come to terms with the horror of the whole thing, nobody could believe this could happen to anybody in a place like Mullaghmore."
There was a fittingly distasteful end to Kevin Henry's day in Mullaghmore. He explains: "I was driving Lady Pamela Hicks, Lord Mountbatten's daughter, into Sligo General Hospital that night, where she would visit the injured and the remains of those who died. She was sobbing quietly in the back seat. I remember distinctly passing Benbulben Head, with the 'Brits Out' message clearly visible. She didn't say a word, but she knew it was there. I can only imagine how she must have felt at that moment, that night. I know how I felt - thoroughly ashamed."
The tragic episode has had a life-long affect on the man who was the only eye-witness to the explosion.
"There was no talk of post traumatic stress or counselling in those days. Never once did any one in authority ask if I was ok or if I needed time off, and, to be honest, I don't know how I would have reacted if they had.
"It's something that has always been to the forefront of my mind. It left me very uneasy for many years. I've never forgotten it, but for many years, I wouldn't have been able to talk about it. It was only when I was approached by the BBC for the 25th anniversary that I felt able to talk openly about it.
"I suppose I realised I could have been killed. I stood over the bomb for about five minutes. I often think how it could have been detonated while I was on the boat. And then I think about those who died, particularly young Paul Maxwell. If they wanted to assassinate Mountbatten, they could have done so without taking an old lady and young boys with him. But they wanted a spectacular, and they certainly got it. They called it a spectacular, I call it butchery," he says.
In the course of a long career, Kevin Henry has seen it all, but the Mountbatten murders will always be indelibly inscribed in his memory.
"It has been a major part of my life. It's part of Ireland's history, part of Sligo's history, and, like it or not, I'm part of it."