The '79 Mullaghmore Bombing 'Heard Round the World'

University of Kansas
Lord Mountbatten reviews Indian troops during World War II.

Things in Mullaghmore have never quite been the same since a 50-pound bomb shattered the calm upon the usually beckoning waters outside the Sligo village more than 35 years ago. With the blast, the Provisional IRA took the life of British war hero Lord Louis Mountbatten, Prince Philip's uncle, along with two teenagers and Lady Doreen Brabourne. With the killings, Mullaghmore, with a year-round population then of 70, thus entered the history books, forever linked with a chain of murder and carnage in the centuries-old struggle to achieve a united Ireland. In 2004, on the 25th anniversary of the tragic event, Joe McGowan reminisced about the day when mayhem visited his hometown. We feature the article here, following the visit to Mullaghmore this week by Prince Charles, Mountbatten's uncle.

'13 Gone But Not Forgotten,
We Got 18 and Mountbatten'

By Joe McGowan

If the "shot heard around the world" was fired at Concord, Mass., in 1775, then an explosion heard around the world was triggered at Mullaghmore harbor Aug. 27, 1979, taking the life of Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Afterwards, reporters from print and TV media worldwide streamed into the Sligo village, whose year-round population only numbers 70 or so.

The 50-pound bomb, planted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, ripped Mountbatten's yacht, Shadow V, into shreds, killing him and three others, and wounding three.

The explosion—and the torrent of journalists—was an unprecedented sight for Mullaghmore. Still, the upcoming 25th anniversary of the killing will likely draw only an article or two in the local newspapers, with ageing memories recalling that day.

Mullaghmore remains a popular locus for holiday homes for the wealthy, whose yachts throng the harbor, and often spill out into the sea beyond. Holidaymakers balloon the village's population into the hundreds, crowding the village's hotels and guesthouses in the summer months. Homes typically sell for $500,000 and up.

Above the village looms Classiebawn Castle, a great impressive hulk of Mountcharles sandstone 

Photo by Joe McGowan
Classiebawn, begun by British statesman Lord Palmerston and completed in 1874.

begun by British statesman Lord Palmerston. Vying for attention with Benbulben and Knocknarea, those other majestic Sligo landmarks, Classiebawn falls short—but only just.

The Sligo Champion newspaper and other advocates for Ireland's peasantry roundly condemned Palmerston for clearing his estate of tenants during The Great Famine. Desperation forced many of them aboard the notorious coffin ships that swept them from Sligo quay, and hence to paupers' graves in Grosse Ile, Quebec, and elsewhere in the New World.

Mountbatten, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and uncle to Prince Philip, was born June 25, 1900. He married Edwina Ashley in 1922 and so came into ownership of Classiebawn and its sprawling estate from her family, which was directly descended from Palmerston.

The Mountbattens, like the Ashleys, were absentees. Their visits created no stir among villagers, who were well used to visitors of all types. For most here, the only indication that the Mountbattens were in residence was the house flag flying from the roof. Or they might see the ill-fated Shadow V leaving the harbor, or returning.

'Why shouldn't they fly it, it might be our property, but it's their country.'

Sometimes, the old man could be seen puttering about with a shrimp net in the harbor. For the most part, he and his wife minded their business and villagers minded theirs. Most had no idea of his close relationship to the Royal Family, nor cared.

Little snippets of casual gossip circulated. The Boy Scouts who often camped in the woods on castle grounds flew the tricolor over their camp:

"Did ye hear they were driving out the road in their car.

"Lady Mountbatten saw the tricolor and was complaining that it shouldn't be flown on their property?"

"Go on!"

"Aye, the chauffeur heard her, but Mountbatten said to her, 'Why shouldn't they fly it, it might be our property, but it's their country'"

Georgetown University
Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten with Gandhi, 1947. She died in 1960, and so likely avoided the fate that befell her husband.

That went down well.

"Oh, I wouldn't be surprised. I heard he wore an Easter lily the last time he was here?"

"Well ye know there's no badness in him."

Perhaps remembering Lord Palmerston's excesses, others were not so ready to give dispensation to his descendants. But for the vigilance of a local fisherman Shadow V would have been sunk -- and that was years before the assassination. Someone had drilled holes in her bottom expecting the filling tide to finish her off.

This should have served as a warning, but it was dismissed as an insignificant act of vandalism. Given the scale of the conflict a few miles down the road in Northern Ireland, it was almost inevitable that this grandson of Queen Victoria, retired Admiral of the Fleet, one time Commander of Allied Forces in Southeast Asia, last Viceroy of India, First Sea Lord, and Earl of Burma would be a prime target for some kind of political demonstration.

In 1960, Mountbatten's estate manager, Patrick O'Grady, raised questions with the Gardai about the Earl's safety. "While everything points to the fact that no attack of any kind on the Earl, by subversive elements, was at any time contemplated" the police reply went, "it would in my opinion be asking too much to say in effect that we can guarantee his safety while in this country." Mountbatten himself scorned a major security presence, saying that he "was used to giving orders, not taking them."

Behind the outwardly normal façade of village life, all could not have been as it seemed.

Who might have wished to harm Mountbatten? In addition to the IRA, he was not favored by such bodies as "The League of Empire Loyalists." They felt his views on partition were too liberal and he was "very friendly disposed toward the Catholic clergy, particularly the Jesuits." The Jesuit angle may have arisen because the castle was rented to Jesuits, or anyone else with hard cash, in the 1950s.

Life went on normally in Mullaghmore in that fateful August of 1979. Tourists came and tourists went. It rained almost every day and summer drew to a soggy close.

Behind the outwardly normal façade of village life, all could not have been as it seemed. Other passions simmered, and the English visitors' movements were surely monitored by watchful, secret eyes.

Meetings were held and plans hatched. Death weaved a deadly snare while the village slept.

Monday morning came in bright and clear. Mountbatten and his family were among the many holidaymakers who took advantage of the good day, prepared the boat, and eagerly put to sea. Everyone on board was in a good humor, as Paul Maxwell, 16, hired as a deckhand, steered the Shadow V around Mullaghmore Head to the fishing ground. Local man Martin Dowdican, taking advantage of the sunshine, worked his hay.

Watching idly from his field on the heights overlooking the bay, he saw the green boat move smoothly towards the lobster-pot markers outside of Oilean Ruadh.

Noel Kennedy, Sligo Weekender
Author Joe McGowan holds a piece of the wreckage of the Shadow V, Lord Mountbatten's yacht, which disintegrated when a 50-lb. bomb detonated in 1979. The boat's distinctive green color made identification of wreckage easier.

Suddenly there was a massive bang. A column of water, fragments of boat, and shattered bodies blasted into the air. People looked up in surprise, as windows shook when the shock waves hit miles away in Cliffoney and Bunduff. They wondered what could have made such a great noise.

Dowdican was frozen on the spot. It was too much to take in. Those in the vicinity looked toward the sound in time to see the splintered remains of Shadow V fall back into the sea in a tumultuous fury of water. Paul Maxwell's father, John, hearing what he recognized as an explosion, rushed to the pier.

Three died that day: Mountbatten, his grandson Nicholas, 14, and the teen Maxwell. Lady Doreen Brabourne, the mother-in-law of Mountbatten's elder daughter, Patricia Knatchbull, died of injuries from the blast the next day. Three others on board—Patricia, her husband, John, and son Nicholas, twin to Timothy—were wounded.

Fragmented, shattered wood, pieces no bigger than matchsticks and barely recognizable as part of a boat, were picked up by fishermen for days after the explosion. Gardai collected them and pieced them together in an effort to discover exactly what had happened.

A helicopter hovered over the site for weeks. Divers went down to scour the seabed for clues.

Photo by Joe McGowan
Beautiful and now peaceful, the Sligo sky and seashore frame distant Classiebawn.

Provisional IRA members Francie McGirl, of Ballinamore, County Leitrim, and Tommie McMahon, of Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, were convicted by a non-jury Special Criminal Court in the assassination, McMahon receiving a life sentence. McGirl was acquitted on appeal in 1980, and died in 1995 in a tractor accident. McMahon was freed in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Things in Mullaghmore have never quite been the same, for the village had entered the history books, forever linked with a chain of murder and carnage in the centuries-old struggle to achieve a united Ireland: Benburb, Kinsale, Drogheda, Killala, Omagh, Collooney, Falls Road, Shankill, Loughgall, Enniskillen, Greysteel, Mullaghmore. A dreary litany.

Doggerel later made the rounds at republican demonstrations, which went, "13 gone but not forgotten, we got 18 and Mountbatten." It referred to the deaths of 13 Catholics on Jan. 30, 1972, in Derry's Bloody Sunday massacre, and, on the same day as Mountbatten's death, the Narrow Water massacre in Warrenpoint, County Down, where the IRA killed 18 British soldiers in an ambush.

In Mullaghmore today, where the waters ripple peacefully around Oilean Ruadh, such vitriol is hard to imagine. The mists of time have closed in and left no trace of the bloody event of 25 years ago. WGT

This page was produced by Joseph E. Gannon, with research assistance from Noel Crawford and Gerry Regan.

Noel Kennedy, Sligo Weekender
Mullaghmore native Joe McGowan (seen left, looking out to where Mountbatten was killed) is the author of five books about Irish history and folklore, including the newly published "Inishmurray: Island Voices." He was sweeping up around his Mullaghmore home when he heard the blast that killed Lord Mountbatten.

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Copyright © 2004 by GAR Media LLC and the author. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior permission. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

Views: 1512

Tags: Seafaring, States, United, War, Worldwide

Comment by Gerry Regan on May 20, 2015 at 3:57pm

 As a postscript, today the Prince of Wales and his wife, Camilla, visited the Sligo hamlet of Mullaghmore, and is overnighting in Sligo, bringing an end to his two-day visit to Ireland. 

Referring to Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles told an audience at The Model in Sligo town: "At the time I could not imagine how we would come to terms with the anguish of such a deep loss, since for me Lord Mountbatten represented a grandfather that I never had.

"So it seemed as if the foundations of all we hold dear in life had been torn apart irreparably through this dreadful experience.

"I now understand, in a profound way, the agony borne by so many others in these islands of whatever faith, denomination or political tradition," he added.

Read more at RTE.ie.

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