Across the Troubles in Northern Ireland: From the Jacobite Rising to the Mountbatten Bombing

Mullaghmore, Ireland, site of the Lord Mountbatten bombing.

This is the third in a series of five articles about Northern Ireland on the eve of Brexit, which threatens to put a “hard border” between the six counties of the North and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union. This is part III.

An Early European Cold War (1690-91) Comes To Ireland

When I rode the train across Ireland in summer 1990, most of the west country was rural, dotted with farmland and thatched cottages. I also expected mist on the horizon.

Thirty years on, most of the thatch has been replaced with modern (read ugly) tiles, and spliced into the farmland, at suitable intervals, are malls and convenience stores. Meandering in the car, I wondered what ballads Irish poets would write about divided highways and Costa Coffee outlets.

I was pleased to make it to Aughrim, as the year before, together with a friend from Dublin, I had gone to visit the battlefield of the Boyne, where in 1690 a Catholic coalition was routed on the banks of a meandering streaming (the Boyne). In effect, the two battles are bookends in the same war.

If Aughrim was the end game of the Jacobite rising in Ireland, the Boyne was more decisive, in that Catholic King James II of Britain and his French Catholic allies were scattered by a coalition of Dutch and British mercenaries, who ended any dreams that the Catholic population had for an autonomous Ireland.

I had not known much about the Boyne until that springtime visit. My only acquaintance with it came from childhood conversations with my father, who lived as much in the past as he did in the present. (Over dinner we would be quizzed about the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and other happenings in our day.)

Whenever a political conversation would touch on the Troubles raging in Northern Ireland (the 1960s and 70s were bad times), he would bring up the battle of the Boyne—to set the cause of the violence in its historical context, which was that Ireland, after the Boyne, was an English dependency.

Mention of the Boyne also had a way of cutting short any headline discussion about the Troubles, as few remembered the ignominy of (Catholic) King James II, who cut and ran from the Boyne and apparently did not stop until he had reached Dublin.

Although the story is probably yet another Irish legend, apparently on arrival in Dublin, King James II dissed his fleet-footed troops by saying to a Lady Tyrconnel: “Your countrymen, madam, can run well.” In turn, she is said to have replied: “Not quite so well as your majesty, for I see you have won the race.”

I had not known what to expect when I visited the Boyne, which is about an hour’s drive north of Dublin and west of Drogheda, a regional town. What I found was an elaborate and recently constructed visitors’ center, which had both a small museum and an elegant restaurant for tea and lunch. Outside the center, on the remains of the battlefield which have been preserved from urban sprawl, there were ample walking trails and diagrams of the battle.

In the campaign, King William’s Dutch and English [Protestant] armies landed in the north (near Derry) and made their way south and west to crush the Catholic (Jacobite) rising. After a while the Irish resistance would say: “We are fighting not for King James II, nor for the Popish religion, but for our estates.”

The battlefield at Aughrim did not qualify for the same European Union subsidies that went into the visitors’ center at the Boyne. Instead, what Kevin and I found was a small village museum, where the woman at reception was only too happy to brew up some tea for us and to turn on the lights in an otherwise darkened museum.

With tea in hand, we could study in detail a topographical map that showed where the Catholic armies, under French General Charles Chalmont, marquis de Saint-Ruth, had dug in across a bog that adjoined the Meleham River (not much more than a stream today).

The battle might have been closer than it was, except that during the fighting a Dutch-English shell beheaded St. Ruth, which disheartened the Catholic armies, who themselves broke and retreated toward the coast, if not to France.

Even more than the Boyne, Aughrim was a victory for the Protestant forces, who killed some 700 Jacobites and seized many of their big guns.

Of the diaspora that resulted from the defeat, it was said: “After Aughrim we all had to find our way in a new world.”

Ireland Scatters To The Winds

Leaving the visitors center, Kevin and I drove around contours of the Aughrim battlefield. We found the marker on Aughrim Hill that shows where St. Ruth lost his head, and followed an agricultural lane that now demarcates what was once the front lines, in the bog, between the Protestant and Catholic forces.

In what was called the Bloody Hallow, I read aloud from some of the brochures that we had collected about the battle, including this sentence:

The end result would ultimately rob Ireland of its Catholic nobility as a major political force; cast tens of thousands of Irishmen into permanent exile where they would fight, and many die, on foreign soil; and subject the majority of Irish people to economic and political discrimination.

Aughrim explains why there are many Irish names that remain current in France.

Then our minds turned to lunch and the drive toward Sligo, which was about two hours to the north. What interested me there was to see the harbor at Mullaghmore, which is where Lord Louis Mountbatten and some members of his royal family (including his young grandson) were killed on his boat, which the Irish Republican Army blew up in August 1979, one of the killings that kept the Troubles boiling for another twenty years.

During the drive north, Kevin spoke at length about his parents, both of whom had been born in Ireland but then made their adult lives in the United States. Growing up, I had known and liked both of them, so it interested to me to hear about their separate passages to the New World.

He later wrote to me:

My dad was an ardent republican who eschewed his English birth.  My mother was more of an Anglophile than Irish.  She thought they were more genteel. Certainly better behaved. My mother left Ireland at the age of 16 as her older sister had failed the medical exam because of rheumatic fever’s damage to her heart.  The ticket [to Boston] was non-refundable and had to be used so off she went with another girl from the village. They spent the night before the voyage in Cork taking turns on a footstool trying to blow out the electric light bulb in their room. On arriving in Boston, they came across a fruit seller. Not knowing what they were, they ordered two “cow’s horns” (bananas) and happily ate them along the pier not knowing you had to peel them first. Good but chewy.

The week before, Kevin had driven to their gravesite and he had visited various relatives along the way. Now I was gently encouraging him, in his next novel, to write about the experience of his family as Irish-Americans. (In his first novel, he writes about undergraduate angst at Colgate University, from which he graduated.)

Over the years, despite serving in the navy and working in Los Angeles as a history teacher, Kevin had never lost his affection for Ireland. I found his stories eloquent about the family dislocations that, for example, saw his mother, when only a teenager, leave Ireland for the United States. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, as if about Kevin’s parents: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Does It Matter If Sligo Buried The Wrong W.B. Yeats?

The road to Sligo, a national highway, had trucks and roadside clutter, so it felt less like a stanza of a W. B. Yeats poem (And may the thoughts of Ireland brood/Upon a measured quietude) and more like so many other highways that are lined with car washes and filling stations.

Kevin and I talked about detouring into downtown Sligo and its celebrated harbor, but the mid-day traffic was daunting. Nor did we stop at Drumcliffe Church, where in the small churchyard Yeats is buried under the long shadows cast by the soaring Benbulden mountain.

Clearly, paying homage to one of Ireland’s poet laureates is a popular pastime, as the car entrance to the churchyard had the look of an overrun national park, with caravans and SUVs parked at all angles.

Only later, when we were well past Drumcliffe Church, did I recall the controversy in the French press about whether Yeats’ actual bones are the ones that lie at rest in Sligo. In favor of his presence there are his own words—leaving nothing to chance, he wrote his own epitaph—which read:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut: 

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

That said, some French investigators over the years have questioned whether Yeats’ actual bones, which were first buried in southern France during World War II, are the ones removed to Sligo.

During his last days in 1944, Yeats had instructed his wife: “In a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.” The family did follow his instructions but the makeshift houses of the dead, in war-torn France, were not clearly marked, and later some French officials speculated that the wrong bones were shipped off to Ireland.

Personally, I don’t think Yeats would much care whether the bones buried in Sligo are his or those of a southern France neighbor who was also interred in the Roquebrune cemetery. After all, he was the one casting a “cold eye.”

The IRA Targets Lord Mountbatten

The reason I pushed for a stop in Mullaghmore, a spit of land on the Atlantic coast just north of Sligo, is that I had just finished reading Timothy Knatchbull’s haunting memoir, From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb.

Knatchbull was 14 when the bomb exploded. He was a Mountbatten grandson and the twin brother of Nicholas Knatchbull, who died in the explosion. Much of the memoir is about the loss of his other half, Nick, who did not survive the attack that killed his grandfather, a local deck hand, and his father’s mother. Among those grievously wounded in the blast were Timothy’s parents and himself, and the book, only published in 2009, follows the strands of the many lives that came together on a small wooden boat in Mullaghmore harbor and then were blown apart.

I only found the book through an amazon search for books about the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Mountbatten bombing. I had not remembered where on the Irish coast the lord had been killed, and when I was plotting my bus and train route across the north, I wondered if I might be passing close to the headlands where the boat was moored.

It turned out that Mullaghmore is just northwest of Sligo, on the coastal road thats runs north to Donegal, in the Republic, and Derry, in Northern Ireland. I despaired of stopping in the harbor when I planned to make the connection on a local bus. But in Kevin’s car, it was an easy detour, about a half hour past Sligo.

One Grandson Survives The Bombing; Another Does Not

Much of Timothy Knatchbull’s memoir is about the baronial mansion on the Mullaghmore headlands, Classiebawn, which Mountbatten inherited from his wife, Edwina, when she died suddenly in 1960 while traveling in Malaysia. The sprawling Irish coastal mansion had passed down to her after it was built, in the nineteenth century, for Lord Palmerston (himself notorious as an absentee landlord who drove his servants hard).

Lord Mountbatten’s start in life came as a grandchild of Queen Victoria and as a career naval officer, in which role he attracted the admiration of Winston Churchill, among others. (I am sure Churchill was favorably disposed to admire a Victoria grandchild, especially one who cut a dashing figure in a naval uniform. By that point the lord had changed the family name of his German ancestors, from Battenberg to Mountbatten.) In World War II Mountbatten served as theatre commander of all British forces in the Far East, including Burma.

After the war, Mountbatten was the last English viceroy of India, and then, after independence, its first Governor-General. Biographers of the period tend to dwell on the romantic attachments of his wife, Edwina, who counted among her many lovers Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

Her London maid once complained of her many gentlemen callers: “Mr Gray is in the drawing room, Mr Sandford is in the library, Mr Phillips is in the boudoir, Senor Portago in the anteroom...and I simply don’t know what to do with Mr Molyneux!”

In modern British history, Lord Mountbatten is remembered as the godfather of the current Prince Charles, who found in the retired naval officer some of the affection that his own father, Prince Philip, had a hard time providing (see the Netflix serial, The Crown, for additional material on this point).

The Mountbatten in Knatchbull’s memoir is the summertime seaside earl, doting on his grandchildren during their annual Irish holiday in August. On most days he can be found “messing around” on his small wooden boat, Shadow V, which he used for picnicking and coastal fishing. Often after breakfast and a read through the morning papers, Mountbatten would head down to the sea with whomever was at the house, and they would putter around the headlands until afternoon.

Kevin and I first saw Classiebawn from a distance. The Mullaghmore headlands are largely windswept and devoid of trees, and the house sits on a bluff overlooking both the ocean and the peninsula. The harbor, where the small boat was moored, was several miles away, and in theory, during the month when Lord Mountbatten and his family were in residence, local policemen took turns guarding it.

In the 1970s, especially, Mountbatten’s aides spent a lot of time worrying about him becoming an IRA target during his Irish holidays. In the end, while some security was offered, he carried on with his family vacations, in part because he had formed such a love for the house and the surrounding villages that it was hard to imagine harm coming his way from his kindly neighbors. Mullaghmore is in the Republic of Ireland, not Norther Ireland, which is another forty-five minute drive up the coast.

During the night before the attack, several IRA munitions experts planted the bomb under the floor boards of the boat, and then they detonated the explosives from a remote control device, with the boat in sight, as they drove along the coast, probably at the spot where there is a small headstone commemorating those who died in the blast. It is a modest marker that is easy to miss, and it took several passes for Kevin and me to find it. Because we were there close to anniversary of the attacks, someone had left flowers under the cross that marks the spot overlooking the detonation. Knatchbull says of the blast, quoting an eye-witness: “In Charlie’s words, ‘it hung in the air like a swarm of bees, like a fine veiled cloud you wouldn’t notice.’”

A Bombing Memoir Of Loss and Gain

Timothy only survived the attack because he had moved forward on the deck and was thrown clear of the wreckage. He also lived because local boaters rushed to the scene and one of them plucked him from the water before he went under. Other local boats saved his parents and collected what remained of Lord Mountbatten, who was standing directly above the place where the terrorists had planted their bomb.

The purpose of the book is less to settle a family score with Irish Republicans than it is to describe Timothy’s journey through life without the company of his secret sharer, his twin brother Nick.

Timothy suffers from survivor’s guilt, which goes on for decades, even as he does well in school and in his profession. Not until he returns to Classiebawn and tracks some of the killers themselves does he put to rest the many demons who sprang loose when only one of the two fourteen–year–old boys survived the bombing.

The bomb that killed the Mountbatten boating party was one of two deadly attacks on British symbols on that day, August 27, 1979. The other was an attack on a British convoy in Northern Ireland that killed 18 and wounded 6 British soldiers.

In that attack, at Narrow Water Castle, a second bomb was hidden so that after the initial attack against the convoy had dissipated and rescuers appeared on the scene, it exploded to kill and maim the rescuers.

Few of those involved either in the Mountbatten bombing or the attack on the convoy were ever brought to justice. In the Mountbatten case, only one man was convicted, and he was released from jail after a few years.

For all that Knatchbull suffered from the bombing (he has long and painful sections in which he describes how his parents, both of whom were on the boat, had to overcome their injuries, not to mention that each lost a parent in the attack), he is remarkably forgiving about his attackers. In his journal, quoted in the memoir, Timothy writes:

Today in Sligo, 24 years after the murders, I sense that Thomas McMahon’s [one of the bombers] moral vacuum has been defeated. The bloodbath he engineered failed to turn me to hatred. Instead I left Ireland feeling a love which I projected primarily on one man: Tony Heenan. He has wit, humor, and above all, compassion. He cares. And my heart sings because I recognize that on August 27th, 1979 Heenan defeated McMahon and I am the proof.

Dr. Heenan was a doctor who first treated Timothy in the local hospital and with whom, many years later, Timothy worked through some of the nightmares about what happened on that fatal day—to assuage the guilt he felt so strongly about the loss of his twin brother. In a small way, Timothy’s healing is that of Ireland’s.

Across The Soft British Border To The North

By the time that Kevin and I had tracked down the marker on the Mullaghmore headlands, we had missed the chance for a pub lunch in the harbor. (After the attack, the dead and the survivors were brought to the small seaside hotels in the village.)

Instead we bought sandwiches in a deli and ate them overlooking the water, which even in late August had the feel of autumn gales. Then we continued our drive toward Derry, knowing that at some point we would cross the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland (which is part of the United Kingdom).

In the Brexit negotiations, this frontier is one of the sticking points between England and the EU, as no one in Ireland (north or south) wants to go back to the days when the border between the two Irelands was fortified.

After Brexit, unless there is what is called “a hard border,” it will be possible for goods and people to continue to cross unchecked between the EU (Ireland) and a non-EU country (the United Kingdom). Hence all the talk in the negotiations about “a backstop,” which would keep the United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU and allow the border to remain unfettered.

One of the reasons that peace came to Northern Ireland is that both Ireland and the UK were EU members, which meant that the once-deadly frontier between Northern Ireland and Ireland blurred when EU membership on both sides allowed residents on each side of the divide to cross easily during the course of their days. (Technically, neither Ireland or the UK is in what is called theSchengenAgreement, which abolished border checks within the EU, but since they both opted out, it kept the border open. I know, it’s confusing.)

Kevin and I were in the suburban town of Strabane—about fifteen miles from Derry—when we crossed from the Republic into the UK. I was interested to see if there might be an army checkpoint or a frontier gate but all I saw was a cheap, roadside sign, with the words: “Welcome to the United Kingdom.” It reminded me of the non-borders between France and Belgium or Germany and the Netherlands. (Later, in one of the books with me on the trip, I came across this sentence about Northern Ireland: “The real border, it was now said, was not geographical but in men’s minds.”)

I don’t even think Kevin, who was driving, saw the sign; by that point, he was deep into a story about his Irish relatives, as so much of the drive was about the reconnection of two friends from high school who had a lifetime of experiences to relate to each other.

What was refreshing in particular was that we picked up where we left off in spring 1972, when, for our senior research project before graduation, we had traveled—by train and hitchhiking—across the coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, much as today we were roaming around Northern Ireland. And parts of Ireland reminded both of us of Appalachia.

To read other parts of this series, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.