Royal visit: Change of mood as feted couple retrace historic steps

Shocking events of 36 years ago in sharp focus on poignant west of Ireland pilgrimage

Scenes from Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall’s 2015 visit to Lissadell House and Mullaghmore Co.Sligo where Prince Charles’s great-uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten died in an IRA bombing in 1979. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Timothy Knatchbull reached back for the hand of his wife, Isabella, and clasped it tightly as they followed Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall up the small incline to Mullaghmore’s peace garden, past the Star of the Sea retreat house, with its jolly bunting of papal yellow and white intertwined with union flag, fluttering in the stiff, cool breeze.

Above them, a Tricolour hung alongside a union flag sent from England by Irish emigrants who had asked for it to be flown on this historic and poignant pilgrimage.

Timothy Knatchbull was just 14 in August 1979 when he set off lobster-fishing in an old boat with his 79-year-old grandfather, Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles’s great- uncle, mentor and friend at the helm.

Within minutes, a remote-controlled IRA bomb had killed Timothy’s twin brother, Nicholas, his grandfather, his 83-year-old paternal grandmother, Lady Dorothy Brabourne, and their Enniskillen friend, 15-year-old Paul Maxwell. Timothy was face-down in the water when Elizabeth Wood-Martin pulled him out by his hair.

As he entered the peace garden yesterday, with its dancing bluebells and daisies, herb garden and “insect hotel”, the man who had been relaxed and smiling a few hours earlier in the charmed surrounds of Lissadell was clearly filled with emotion.

In the intervening hours, they had participated in a prayer service for peace and reconciliation in Drumcliffe, and had also visited Classiebawn Castle, from which the little fishing group had set out that August day 36 years before.

Convoy

As the long convoy of 14 vehicles wound its way along the coast towards Mullaghmore, it had stopped briefly at the scene of the explosion, now marked with a small cross. And now here they were, approaching the end of their via dolorosa.

They had come almost full circle, and were now looking down again at that familiar, steely ocean and the vast lowering sky above Ben Bulben, and meeting again some of the people whose lives will be forever intertwined with theirs by the events of 1979.

After a warm welcome by Sr Kathleen Rooney, the manager of the retreat centre, and by David Muldowney, its chairman, they were introduced to Peter McHugh, one of those who rushed to the scene that day and carried Lord Mountbatten’s body ashore.

They met others who had worked at Classiebawn, including Liam Carey, who was a teenager then, and Kevin Henry, a garda who escorted Lord Mountbatten to Shadow V. Also there was coroner Desmond Moran and relatives of the late Hugh Tunney, the former owner of Classiebawn Castle.

In the garden, the prince was presented with a painting titled Atlantic Drive, by artist Olive Bodeker, depicting the stunning view up the hill to the fairytale Classiebawn.

As the royal couple chatted to guests on one side, the sound of laughter and animated exchanges drifted across the grass from another line. Timothy Knatchbull’s tension had fallen away, revealing a friendly, engaging man.

“There was genuine emotion there earlier,” said Sr Kathleen afterwards. “It was in his whole attitude and his enthusiasm in how he was talking to people.”

Stroll

Afterwards, they took a stroll down to the town, where some 700 people had waited for hours behind barrier to give them a rousing reception, and then turned briefly towards the harbour, where Peter McHugh pointed to the site of Shadow V’s old mooring point. And then to the Pier Hotel, at the harbour mouth, owned by the McHugh family for a century, which became the centre of the local rescue operation in 1979.

Inside, the royal party were introduced to Peter’s wife, Gráinne, a nurse who rang to offer medical help that day, along with others who had given emergency care, had worked on the lifeboat or at the hospital.

Most raw and poignant of all of these meetings was that with Paul Maxwell’s parents, John and Mary, and his sisters Donna and Lisa.

John Maxwell told The Irish Times last week that he was not looking forward to this day, but he considered it the right thing to do. He thought it was “a sign of better times” but was fearful that dissidents would disrupt it.

They didn’t. Perhaps there is such a thing as closure after all.