As John Maxwell sifts through a box of photographs to find some of his son Paul a postcard falls on the floor. It is a black-and-white view of Classiebawn, a cliff-top castle with fairy-story turrets, rising above the pines. The message is neatly printed on the back.
Dear Ga Ga – I am having a great time working at the castle. The food is great. The weather has been very bad. I have brought Lord Mountbatten out about 6 times and I find him very nice.
Love Paul xxoo
P.S. Take care of yourself.
The postmark shows he sent it to his grandmother on August 26th, 1979. By the time the card got from Mullaghmore to Enniskillen, Paul, who was 15, and Lord Mountbatten, who was 79, were dead. So were Nicholas Knatchbull, who was Mountbatten’s 14-year-old grandson, and Dorothy Brabourne, Nicholas’s 83-year-old paternal grandmother.
The IRA blew up the boat in which they had gone lobster fishing. Nicholas's twin, Timothy, and their parents, Patricia and John Brabourne, were seriously injured.
Maxwell is not looking forward to going to Mullaghmore on Wednesday for the visit to the village by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, but he will go because he considers it the right thing to do, and that is how he lives his life.
“The fact that they are going is a good thing, a sign of better times,” he says. “Mountbatten was a sort of mentor to Charles. This visit follows on naturally from the wonderful moment when the queen bowed her head in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin.”
But he is anxious and will be glad when it is over. He is afraid that dissident republicans will disrupt it. He is afraid that it will trigger again the grief he mostly manages.
Mullaghmore is extraordinarily beautiful. A small headland in Co Sligo, it has two long beaches, one of them wild and deserted, with crashing waves, the other calmer, a crescent of gold and silver sand, shelly, delightful for swimming.
The village overlooks this beach and the austere drama of the mountains, from Slieve League, in Co Donegal, via Co Leitrim to Benbulbin, in Co Sligo. The sky is huge, and the granite cliffs and gullies light up and darken as the clouds sweep overhead.
A photograph taken on the beach shows Paul as a child, in swimming trunks, balancing on the upstretched hands of his father, arms and legs spread out like a starfish, a huge smile on his face.
John Maxwell still has the old cottage there to which he would bring his family for the long holidays he enjoyed as a teacher, but he does not often use it now. “Sometimes when we go it is all right,” he says. “Sometimes it isn’t.”
He and his wife, Marion, went last summer for an ecumenical service on the headland overlooking where the atrocity happened. “We’d been dreading it, and we found it difficult,” he says. “Then there was this magic moment when a trumpeter from Sligo played a jazz-swing Eddie Calvert version of the last post. That was good.”
Paul Maxwell was one of the many local people whom Mountbatten employed to look after his extended family when they visited Classiebawn. He was a waiter, looked after Mountbatten's boat Shadow V and ran about with the Knatchbull twins.
It was the last day of the summer holidays, the rain had gone and the sun was blazing down when Mountbatten steered them out of the harbour. Minutes later, as Patricia Brabourne, now Countess Mountbatten of Burma, recalled in a 2013 interview with this reporter, "the IRA, standing on the cliffs and seeing perfectly well that there were old people and children on the boat, detonated the bomb."
Richard and Elizabeth Wood-Martin had followed Shadow V in their own small craft. "Suddenly there was a loud bang, a puff of smoke and a shower of timber – and it was gone," Richard says. "We saw what looked like a football in the water. It turned out to be Timothy's head. He was face down, and Elizabeth caught him by his terrific head of hair and we heaved him into our boat."
After bringing him to the Pier Head Hotel, where doctors and nurses had rushed from among the holidaymakers on the beach, the couple went quietly home. They have got to know Timothy Knatchbull well in the intervening years. He is expected to accompany the royal couple on Wednesday. "Now that the queen has been it is perfectly natural for Charles to come," says Elizabeth Wood-Martin. "We just hope it will all pass off peacefully."
One of the first journalists on the scene as local people ferried in the dead and injured, and the emergency services arrived, was Gerry Moriarty, now The Irish Times's Northern Editor, then a young reporter on the Donegal Democrat.
In a piece he wrote in 2004 to mark the 25th anniversary Moriarty recalled hearing John Maxwell cry out, “Look what you’ve done to him. I’m an Irishman. He’s an Irishman. Is this the sort of Ireland you want?”
Thomas McMahon was picked up as he drove through Cavan with another IRA man, Francis McGirl, some hours after the explosion. McGirl died in 1995. McMahon served 18 years before his release under the Belfast Agreement. He canvasses now for Sinn Féin candidates. Maxwell has tried to contact him through intermediaries. “I recognise that he has served his time. I knew he had sons himself, and I just needed to know if he could understand what it was like to be in my shoes,” he says.
McMahon's wife, Rose, a former Sinn Féin mayor of Carrickmacross, claimed when pressed by a reporter that her husband was remorseful about the children who died. But McMahon did not respond to John Maxwell. He also declined in forceful terms to be interviewed by The Irish Times when we called to his home this week.
“An amazing man”
“John Maxwell is an amazing man,” says Trudy Lomax, who, with her husband, Rodney, was running a small boatyard in Mullaghmore in 1979. “It was Rodney who had recommended Paul to Mountbatten to work on the boat, and John found time on the day to come and tell Rodney not to blame himself.”
The night before the bombing Mountbatten had offered Shadow V to the Lomaxes in return for maintaining it and making it, or a similar boat, available to him during his visits. He also asked Rodney to come out on it the next day, but Rodney could not. The couple didn't want the rather run-down boat, either, but did not want to hurt Mountbatten's feelings. Rodney Lomax died six months ago.
“Nobody who was here that day can ever forget. A lot of people have the sound of the explosion stuck in their head,” Trudy Lomax says. “Nobody got over it. It cast a shadow. The castle is there to be seen every day. Mountbatten was well liked, and so was his family. They were very much part of the place. I think the visit will be good, and I hope it goes as well as the queen’s, because that was wonderful. The Irish and the English are so damned close.”
“We got 18 and Mountbatten”
It did not seem so in 1979. Graffiti appeared in Belfast: “13 dead but not forgotten – we got 18 and Mountbatten”.
Hours after the Mullaghmore blast the IRA blew up 16 paratroopers and two other soldiers at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint, in Co Down. A Republican News editorial said that the events would show the English that Ireland was an occupied country. Mountbatten's "execution" would bring it home to the "English ruling class and its working class slaves that their government's war on us is going to cost them as well".
A former IRA prisoner, Richard O’Rawe, wrote that among those on the so-called dirty protest there was euphoria about Mountbatten and elation about the soldiers. During the hunger strikes “H Block” was painted in huge letters on the face of Benbulbin.
Not everyone in Mullaghmore takes an entirely benign view of the royal visit. Joe McGowan, a local historian who slated Timothy Knatchbull’s book about the bomb, says it should have been private, that it will damage the village by reviving the association with the appalling events of 1979.
McGowan says he hopes that Charles is made aware that Lord Palmerston, who built Classiebawn, also built coffin ships. McGowan is busy preparing for a different visit, by descendants of one of the local families rescued from the sea off Quebec after such a vessel sank in 1847. “They are coming to see Classiebawn too,” he says.
Palmerston built Mullaghmore’s pier. He also demolished the fishermen’s cottages on the seafront to build lodges for visiting gentry. The grandest of these later became a convent and is now a conference centre with a lovely peace garden.
Another of the lodges has been transformed by Eithna O’Sullivan into an award-winning seafood restaurant. Outside Barry Sweeny, a local artist, has painted a magnificent oceanic mural in surging blues and greens. Inside are photographs of Mullaghmore people – some historic, showing traditional farming and seaweed gathering, and some showing the big waves that now draw surfers from all over the world.
“I get my lobsters from Mullaghmore Sea Farm, my vegetables from the Tattie Hoaker garden, and my organically grown flowers from Annette Coleman up the road,” O’Sullivan says. “It took Mullaghmore a long time to recover after the bomb, but it has a lot going for it now. Being on the Wild Atlantic Way has made a big difference. We have all kinds of activities for visitors.”
Most of this is seasonal, she says. The village has two hotels, the Pier Head and the Beach. Leonard Cohen stayed in the former after he played at nearby Lissadell. His visit is commemorated by just one framed photograph in the foyer. They take celebrity in their stride in Mullaghmore.
“That is part of what people love about coming here: they get left in peace,” says O’Sullivan. In winter even the Paddy’s Place convenience store closes down. There are, after all, fewer than 100 full-time residents of the village. O’Sullivan says the visit will be wonderful for it.
John O’Grady grew up in Classiebawn, and his parents worked there. He now runs a friendly B&B with windows full of the light from the sea. “Mountbatten was a decent employer,” he says. “He was generous.”
People were upset, he says, that republicans chose to commemorate the IRA hunger strikes with a march through the village, on one of the early anniversaries of the bomb, and that “Brits out” was painted on the road outside the gates to Classiebawn.
Locals comment that their relationship with the late “beef baron” Hugh Tunney, who bought the castle after having leased it from Mountbatten, was far more fractious than that with the former viceroy of India. Tunney was involved in various disputes with locals, including over land ownership and tree cutting.
Ciara Costello is a local childcare student with a summer job as a waitress in the village. “There is so much we take for granted,” she says, “like pier jumping and cliff jumping.” She describes leaping 10 metres off cliffs into the ocean. “Dangerous but really cool. I don’t know much about the Mountbatten thing. My grandad told me something about it.”