They were about quarter-mile out to sea, on a clear blue day, when it happened.
The peace of the small Irish seaside town of Mullaghmore, County Sligo, was brutally shattered when a boat carrying Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin, was blown out of the water by the IRA on August 27, 1979.
Mountbatten—“the grandfather I never had,” as Prince Charles called his great-uncle—was pulled alive from the water by a fisherman. His legs had been blown off. He died before he reached the shore.
The blast also killed two members of Mountbatten’s family, including one of Mountbatten’s twin 14-year-old grandsons and a Mountbatten aunt in her 80s. A 15-year-old boatman, Paul Maxwell, was also killed.
Then just a few hours later, 18 paratroopers were cut down by IRA attacks at Warrenpoint in Northern Ireland.
Graffiti appeared on walls in Belfast: “We got 18 and Mountbatten”.
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”.
Six weeks after his killing, Sinn Féin Vice President Gerry Adams—with whom Prince Charles yesterday shook hands—said of Mountbatten’s death: “The IRA gave clear reasons for the execution. I think it is unfortunate that anyone has to be killed, but the furor created by Mountbatten’s death showed up the hypocritical attitude of the media establishment.
“As a member of the House of Lords, Mountbatten was an emotional figure in both British and Irish politics. What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people; and with his war record I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation.”
In England, Mountbatten’s murder was greeted with instant outrage. He was accorded a state funeral and thousands lined the streets to pay their final respects to the war hero.
But in Ireland, north and south, the death of Mountbatten was to some extent overshadowed by the far larger loss of life at Warrenpoint.
It took some days for the significance of Mountbatten’s killing to sink in, but it ultimately came to be seen as one of the IRA’s most spectacular atrocities.
The killing was truly a blow at the very heart of the British establishment as it was Mountbatten who arranged the very first meeting of Charles’s parents, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. He was a trusted adviser to the Royals, and Charles in particular.
Mountbatten was a strong influence in the upbringing of Charles. They fondly called each other, “Honorary Grandfather” and “Honorary Grandson”, according to the Jonathan Dimbleby biography of the Prince.
Mountbatten’s murder would not be the only time the IRA chose to strike at the heart of the British establishment.
In 1984, the IRA tried to kill then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a bomb attack on the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where she, and many members of her government, were staying during that year’s Conservative Party conference. Five people died; Thatcher survived.
Given the febrile and murderous atmosphere of the Troubles, few of those who were living in Ireland in 1979 could ever have believed a day like this—in which Charles returned to Mullaghmore in the spirit in which he did—would come to pass.
And yet on Wednesday evening, that moment came.
Nearly 36 years after the violence of that summer’s day, Prince Charles, Mountbatten’s favored nephew, walked through the streets of this seaside village, bringing a message of peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
He had first visited the Mullaghmore peace garden, and then spent about an hour greeting locals in the street, chatting and shaking hands, to spontaneous and scattered outbreaks of applause, the glorious summer evening recalling the fine weather of that dreadful day.
In an extraordinary display of vulnerability, Charles, his voice breaking with emotion, had given a speech earlier in the day in which he spoke of the personal agony the death of his beloved uncle had caused him. He also expressed solidarity with all those who have lost loved ones in the Troubles.
Speaking at his first engagement of the day at the Model art centre in Sligo, Charles said; “Through this dreadful experience, though, I now understand in a profound way the agonies borne by so many others in these islands, of whatever faith, denomination, or political persuasion.”
“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 the grandfather I never had. So it seemed as if the foundations of all that we held dear in life had been torn apart irreparably,” he said.
The Royal visit led news bulletins in Ireland on Wednesday night, and his visit to Mullaghmore seems set to dominate newspaper front pages tomorrow.
Before visiting the village, Charles paid a private trip to Mountbatten’s Irish summer home, Classiebawn Castle, which sits imposingly on a hill above Mullaghmore beach.
The visit to Mullaghmore is undoubtedly a powerful symbol of just how far Northern Irish republicans and the British state have moved down the path of conflict.
At a service of peace and reconciliation in St Columba’s Chruch in Drumcliffe Charles quoted lines of Irish poet WB Yeats of peace “dropping slowly”.
The people of Mullaghmore will no doubt also hope that this very special Royal visit will draw a line under the past—and allow them to put their stunning village back on the map for all the right reasons.