The events of August 27th, 1979, in Mullaghmore, County Sligo, on the western coast of the Republic of Ireland, shocked the world. A massive 50lb remote control bomb exploded on board the fishing boat Shadow V, killing Lord Louis Mountbatten and three others while they were boating on holiday off the coast. Lord Mountbatten (aged 79) was beginning the fourth and final week of his holidays on that sunny Monday morning, August 27th 1979.
This was at the height of the PIRA’s bombing campaign across the British Isles. Then a radical ‘Welsh’ republican, I had just begun my sabbatical year as ‘Cadeirydd’ (Chair) of Undeb Cenedlaethol Myfyrwyr Cymru (NUS Wales). Growing up and going to school in Birmingham from 1965, I had no sympathy for the violent republicanism of the Provisional IRA. I had experienced this at close quarters when they detonated bombs in Birmingham City centre in 1974, killing twenty-one of my exact contemporaries out for a Friday night rendezvous with school friends. Hundreds of other teenagers were left with horrific, life-changing injuries. I had been in the burger bar next to the Tavern in the Town before attending the regular Friday night Youthquake at nearby St Philip’s Cathedral. Later, I went past the bus stop on Hagley Road, where the third bomb failed to detonate. Walking home from a stop two miles further along the road away from the city centre minutes later, I heard the huge explosion.
Like the Sligo and Warrenport bombings, this was an exceptional event (all of them were, to some extent, exceptional), but bombings alerts were regular events in the city centre and even around the city. For us, they had almost become a way of life even before 1974. I was recently reminded that one of my oldest school friends, the son of a Birmingham MP and government minister, survived a bombing of his family’s home, along with his mother, who was injured, and younger brother. Almost every Saturday before and after that, we had been evacuated from the city centre stores where we worked due to a bomb alert.
At university in Bangor, North Wales, a year later, I joined The Fellowship of Reconciliation (Cymdeithas y Cymod), a Christian pacifist organisation, and became involved in nonviolent direct action campaigns from CND to those of Cymdeithas yr Iaith (The Welsh Language Society). I made friends with many Welsh-Speaking friends and, through them, with Irish republicans, including supporters of the ‘Official IRA’ who had layn down their weapons a decade earlier. I read Irish history, and when I once expressed remorse for Britain’s treatment of Ireland over the centuries, I was told by an Irish historian not to apologise for what the British empire had done to his country.
A few years later, after my move to south Wales and the sabbatical year, I met some of Official Sinn Fein‘s political leaders in London as part of their peaceful campaign of cooperation with British mainstream political parties and groups. Sworn enemies of the ‘Provos’ as they called them, who regarded them as traitors, they told us they had stored their weapons in case they needed to defend themselves against the breakaway terrorist faction. As a research student in Cardiff from 1978 to 1982, I frequented pubs with live folk music, some of it Irish. Being a port city, Cardiff, of course, has always had a large Irish population. Some of these had ‘lock-ins’ during which funds were collected (presumably for the ‘Provos’). Occasionally, scuffles broke out between supporters of the two factions.
Mountbatten regularly holidayed in the West of Ireland and had been coming to the North Sligo village on his annual holidays for the previous 25 years. Gleniffe horseshoe and Innismurray Island were favourite haunts for the visitors, who also liked to go horse-riding on Mullaghmore strand. Mullaghmore has a handsome stone harbour framed by Ben Bulben mountain. The Mountbattens used to summer at Classiebawn Castle, a baronial mansion overlooking the village.
The bomb exploded on his boat some minutes after Mountbatten, his family members, and friends had left the little port of Mullaghmore, a small fishing village in County Sligo, on his boat. The bomb went off at about 11.45am, shortly after they had departed the harbour. The violence was shocking, and the news was grim. Mountbatten’s grandson, Nicholas Knatchbull, fourteen, and fifteen-year-old local Paul Maxwell, employed as a boat boy, were also killed. Another passenger, the Dowager Lady Doreen Brabourne, eighty-three, mother of Mountbatten’s son-in-law, was critically wounded in the blast and died the next day. Three others survived the blast — Timothy Knatchbull, the twin brother of Nicholas, and parents John and Patricia Knatchbull, Lord and Lady Brabourne.
A documentary video, The Assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten, can be found at:
One of the most respected figures in Britain:
The Provisional Irish Republican Army quickly claimed responsibility, issuing a statement that its operatives had planted a 23-kilogram bomb on Mountbatten’s fishing boat, Shadow V, detonated by remote control. CBC’s Dan Bjarnason reported on The National that night:
“It was the single most stunning, outrageous incident the IRA has ever staged in its history. In killing Lord Mountbatten, it struck at the inner circle of the Royal Family and assassinated one of the most respected figures in Britain.”
The PIRA had called Mountbatten’s murder an ‘execution.’ The same group claimed responsibility for another attack that day — one that killed 18 British soldiers, nearly two hundred kilometres away, across the border in the port town of Warrenpoint in Northern Ireland. But the death of Mountbatten and the attack on his life led to the news on The National.
The killers were outsiders from the IRA’s south Armagh unit. There is no evidence Mullaghmore residents had any involvement. They helped the survivors and grieved for the dead. Irish security forces, British police, royal family representatives and the world’s press descended, turning the Pier Head hotel into an operations centre.
‘The boat sank instantly’:
Bjarnason told his viewers:
“Two hundred yards from shore, the boat exploded.”
The damage was clear to all who saw the explosion occur. An eyewitness account of the explosion by Mullaghmore resident Brian McNulty told the CBC radio news programme, As It Happens about seeing the explosion:
“The boat sank instantly.”
He said the blast produced a large amount of smoke and left those who survived with serious injuries. He commented that:
“They weren’t in any condition to talk to anybody.”
Fellow witness Peter McHugh, who was a friend of Maxwell and knew the Mountbattens, recalled in 2019, at age sixty-four,
“When I heard the bang I thought maybe it was a gas cylinder”
McHugh joined the little flotilla that sped to the scene. He said that as soon as the smoke cleared,
“there was nothing there, it was white foam — no boat. … We did what we could – took the casualties from the water, brought them ashore. We were in total shock, we just reacted. You go on autopilot and keep on going.”
The Mullaghmore killings sent shockwaves around the world. The national and international media descended on Sligo. In particular, the focus was on Sligo General Hospital, where the dead and injured were brought. Mountbatten had spent time in Mullaghmore for decades and was well-known in the area. According to Bjarnason, the security assigned to him had been minimal at his request. His violent death was expected to put pressure on the British authorities to crack down on the IRA. Bjarnason also explained on The National:
“The IRA is betting there will also be pressure from a frustrated British public to bring the troops home.”
The National‘s ongoing coverage of the Mullaghmore and Warringpoint attacks would suggest the British public was definitely angry, though no single view on how to handle the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland seemed to have taken hold. From what Bjarnason would report in the days to come, opinion was basically split among British people on whether to withdraw its troops from the Province. Many people knew that a withdrawal was exactly what the ‘Provos’ were trying to achieve and that it would signal a surrender to the terrorists.
Thomas McMahon was caught the same day as the bombing and subsequently convicted of the murders of Mountbatten, Lady Brabourne, Nicholas Knatchbull and Paul Maxwell. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with no appeal. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent almost twenty years in prison before being released in August 1998 as part of the Good Friday Agreement. The terms of the Agreement meant that participants on both sides of the Troubles were released from prison and pardoned. The Agreement proved to be a watershed in the rapprochement between Republicans and Loyalists in Northern Ireland.
Westminster, Nine Days Later:
Nine days after he died, his high-profile farewell began at St. James’s Palace, where a carriage left to take his coffin to Westminster Abbey.
When introducing the report on his funeral on 5 September 1979, The National‘s Knowlton Nash told viewers:
“His state funeral was the most solemn since that of Winston Churchill fourteen years ago. Kings, admirals and generals from around the world gathered in Westminster Abbey to honour the memory of the soldier-statesman.”
After the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, Mountbatten’s body was taken by train to his home town of Romsey in Hampshire, where he was laid to rest.
In August 2019, a remembrance ceremony was held on a grassy hill overlooking the Atlantic waters where the IRA bomb exploded on a clear sunny morning 40 years ago, killing Lord Louis Mountbatten and three companions. There were prayers and hymns, recollections and tributes, messages and flowers. It was a small, intimate affair. But for Mullaghmore, a village in County Sligo on Ireland’s northwest coast, it may have felt as if the whole world is watching. And perhaps judging. Fascination with that terrible day on 27 August 1979 is so enduring that residents wonder if Mullaghmore will forever be deemed synonymous with atrocity. Instead of celebrating Mullaghmore’s beauty, an endless stream of books, documentaries, and articles have stigmatised the community and forced it to revisit the tragedy, said McGowan. Joe McGowan, aged eighty, a local historian and author, said:
“I’d prefer that we could be left alone, it’s like picking at a scab, these anniversaries. And it keeps getting resurrected again. It shouldn’t be forgotten but it shouldn’t be promoted either.You’re a plague. We get our snouts pushed into it whether we want to or not.”
Fr Christy McHugh, the parish priest, said that when the police and security forces left, grief and an “air of gloom” stayed for many years. One symptom was the fall in the number of Protestant holidaymakers from Northern Ireland, said Peter McHugh, the eye-witness. “Things never went back to normal.” As it prepared for the fortieth anniversary of the bombing, Mullaghmore, in 2019, still faced a dilemma, according to its priest:
“It should not be glossed over. It’s part of our history and we shouldn’t let it slide by. But it has cast such an awful cloud over the place that we seem forever associated with it.”
The grandfather he never had:
Charles, then Prince of Wales, helped draw a line under the atrocity during a poignant visit with the Duchess of Cornwall and Timothy Knatchbull in 2015. The prince spoke of reconciliation and called Mountbatten the grandfather he never had.
“That was a huge moment in the healing history of these islands,” said Fr McHugh. “That fact that he came showed things had moved on.” Four years later, Mullaghmore knows there is no fully escaping history.
In the run-up to the anniversary, a BBC TV documentary included gut-wrenching testimony from relatives of the victims, plus a claim from a former IRA member that Martin McGuinness, the late Sinn Féin leader, was the IRA commander who gave the green light. The Mail on Sunday reported a separate claim that a SAS hit squad tracked down and killed Francis McGirl, one of the alleged bombers, in 1995 and made it resemble an accident.
There are three physical memorials: a small cross on a hillside, a bench in a peace garden and a plaque at Classiebawn Castle. The property has passed to different owners, but the gates still have the Mountbatten initials.
It is right to remember Mountbatten and his companions, said McGowan, the historian. He has written about them on his blog. Mountbatten was royalty, a historical figure, and he was targeted with his family in a scenic idyll that had seemed remote from the Troubles. But there is inequality in death, he said. Margaret Perry, a young woman murdered and buried in Mullaghmore in 1992, is a forgotten victim of the Troubles, he said, adding:
“Who comes for her anniversary? Do you need a title to be remembered?”