Noel Whelan: Amid forgiveness in Mullaghmore we should not forget the past

‘While some may breathlessly trumpet Gerry Adams’s magnanimity in shaking the prince’s hand, the real bravery for peace was on the British side of that encounter’

On the night that Lord Mountbatten was killed by an IRA bomb in Mullaghmore in August 1979, Prince Charles wrote in his journal: "Life will never be the same now that he is gone. I fear it will take me a very long time to forgive those people..."

Charles's biographer Jonathan Dimbleby tells of how for the prince Mountbatten was a "linchpin, trusted above all others", and whose faith in him had "preserved his fragile sense of identity".

“While so many others either stayed aloof or fawned on him, only Mountbatten provided the combination of compassion and criticism that no other friend or relation was able to offer.”

One can only imagine how poignant it must have been, therefore, for Prince Charles to visit the site of the Mullaghmore bombing on Wednesday.


One can also only imagine how much it took for Prince Charles on Tuesday to shake the hand of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who was such a significant figure in the leadership of the organisation that had killed his beloved Mountbatten.

While some may breathlessly trumpet Adams’s magnanimity in shaking the prince’s hand, the real bravery for peace was on the British side of that encounter.

Traumatic as Mountbatten’s killing must have been for Prince Charles, it pales perhaps in comparison to the trauma suffered by the next of kin of some of the others killed that day. Their magnanimity is also astounding.

Nicholas Knatchbull was 14. He was killed instantly when Mountbatten's boat was blown up. His identical twin brother Tim was also seriously injured in the explosion. A heavy piece of metal struck Tim's head. He was left blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.

Tim was also left bereft. He and Nicholas had shared a room at home since they were born. They had spent no more than five days apart in 15 years. Tim was later instrumental in setting up a “register of lone twins”in London.

In adulthood Tim wrote a memoir dealing with the bombing and his struggle with the trauma. In 2012 he penned a piece for the Daily Telegraph on the day after Queen Elizabeth first shook hands with Martin McGuinness. Remembering his brother Nicky, he wrote: "I have healed from the devastating blow of his death and found a path to forgiveness and peace."

He generously described Sinn Féin’s role in the peace process as “a modernising, temperate force for good”.


The Knatchbull boys’ mother and father were also on the boat. Both survived with serious injuries. The boys’ grandmother, Dorothy Brabourne, was not so lucky. She died of her injuries the next day.

Another young teenager also died in the explosion. Paul Maxwell was earning pocket money that summer helping out on Lord Mountbatten's boat. His father, James Maxwell, was near the harbour when he heard the explosion. He rushed down to the pier and later described how "there was little left of the boat apart from debris floating on the surface. I knew he was gone. He was a better Irishman that those who did that foul deed".

James Maxwell is also a very forgiving man. In 1998 he appeared at a press conference organised by the Yes campaign for the Belfast Agreement referendum even though that agreement meant his son’s killer was eligible for early release.

The IRA cowards who placed the bomb on Mountbatten's boat detonated it by remote control. They must have known that Paul Maxwell, Nicholas and Tim Knatchbull, their parents, and 83-year-old Dorothy Brabourne were also on board.

Even if the IRA bombers could justify in their own minds killing the 79-year-old Mountbatten as a retired dignitary of the British establishment, they were indifferent to the collateral killing of the two young boys and the elderly lady.

In comments after the explosion, Republican News revelled in the killing of Mountbatten and glossed over the "civilian" deaths.


The killing of four people in Mullaghmore that day was one of the worst atrocities in the Republic during the Troubles. They appear at numbers 2133, 2134, 2135 and 2155 in the

Lost Lives

catalogue of death during the Troubles prepared by David McKittrick and others.

Numbers 2136 to 2154 in that sombre list are assigned to British soldiers massacred in an ambush at Warrenpoint the same afternoon.

In the interest of our peace we must, as Prince Charles said this week in Sligo, no longer be prisoners of our history. Sustaining our peace, however, does not require us to forget our past or its victims. The danger in doing so is that it allows some to seek to erase from memory the worst of the impact of the IRA’s campaign on civilians.

It’s the magnanimity of those whose lives were blighted by these atrocities and the forgiveness they have shown in the interest of peace that should be front and centre in our minds.