‘That’s where the bomb went off,” John Barry says, pointing out to sea from a cliff top in Mullaghmore in County Sligo.
Do you see where the wave is crashing beside the lobster pots? It seems like yesterday…”
At 11am on Monday, August 27, 1979, John – whose mother Philomena had been the housekeeper at Classiebawn Castle since 1970 – said goodbye to the 14-year-old identical twins Timothy and Nicolas Knatchbull before they left in a white Ford Granada with their grandfather, the great-grandson of Queen Victoria.
They drove the three minutes to the harbour before boarding the Shadow V. It was a regular fishing trip.
John had been on the boat many times with Timothy and Nicholas, who were the same age as him. He had played with them every August for the last 10 years when they visited Classiebawn Castle on their annual summer holiday with the Mountbattens. “I could easily have been on the boat with them,” he says.
The 14-year-old had shards of metal shrapnel in his head. He was also blinded and deafened
Also on the boat were the twins’ parents, Patricia (Mountbatten’s daughter) and John Knatchbull, and Knatchbull’s mother, the dowager Lady Doreen Brabourne, as well as 15-year-old local lad Paul Maxwell, who worked on the boat.
“The sea was very calm that morning,” John recalls. But at 11.46am, the sea was no longer calm. It was streaked with blood and human remains, bodies floating, and debris, after members of the IRA detonated a 23kg radio-controlled bomb they had hidden on the unguarded boat.
John Barry was in the castle when he heard the noise. The glasses on the dining room table vibrated with the explosion that rang out across Donegal Bay. He didn’t know what it was. His mother was due to go home for her break. He returned home with her, unaware that anything had happened.
From the window of the house, in a lane at the back of the village, he noticed there was a commotion in the village. At 12.10pm, he walked the short distance down the hill and saw a crowd outside the Pier Head Hotel. Army and Gardaí were everywhere.
“There were lots of strangers in the village. I saw the ambulance and I didn’t know what it was there for. Somebody said to me, ‘Lord Mountbatten’s boat has been blown up.’ I thought: ‘How did the boat blow up? There was no gas on the boat…’”
Because of the fine summer weather that morning – just before the bomb went off Mountbatten apparently said, ‘Isn’t it a beautiful morning?’ – there were lots of people out on boats. They were able to recover bodies from the bloody sea and bring them to the nearby harbour.
It was a grim scene.
“I saw Timothy being carried up on a stretcher from a boat,” John says. “He was just lying there. There was blood coming out of his eye.”
The 14-year-old had shards of metal shrapnel in his head. He was also blinded and deafened from the explosion.
“I thought he was dead. When they put him in the ambulance his right arm went up. Then I knew he was alive.
“His father was next. He was rolling over and back on the stretcher, with two nurses trying to keep him steady.”
They were brought to Sligo Hospital. The boys’ mother and the Dowager had already gone in the first ambulance.
“Then they had recovered Lord Louis’s body. He was at the Pier Head Hotel, covered with a sheet,” he says.
“Paul Maxwell’s body was brought in next, and he was put beside Lord Louis’s body. It was a terrible shock to see people you knew well – a boy you’d played with – lying there, dead.
“Paul was from Enniskillen. His parents had a summer home on this road. He got the job on the boat that one summer and was killed.”
“I knew him for years. I’d play with him in the fields over there,” he says, pointing to his right. “I knew him before he ever worked in the castle. He had been coming here since 1972 with his parents and his two sisters, Donna and Lisa.”
It was a terrible shock to see a boy you’d played with lying there, dead
At 1pm, John ran home to his mother to tell her. She met him at the door. She knew.
“She was in a terrible state. She loved those kids. Timothy and Nicholas and Paul were just kids like me. I was in terrible shock. I didn’t understand what had happened at all.”
At around 2pm, someone told him there had been a bomb on the boat. The mood was of macabre confusion.
“No one knew where Nicholas was. Someone said Nicholas couldn’t be found. I’d played with Nicholas as well,” he says, “so I was numb. At 3pm, someone sent word to us that Nicholas’s body had been found. He went down with the boat. We were told he was dead.”
“Every few hours we were getting terrible bad news. Neighbours came in that night to the house to discuss what had happened. We were all in stunned silence. The whole village was in stunned silence.”
Frank Byrne later wrote in the Sunday Independent that Mullaghmore had been “transformed into a morgue-like trance”.
But there was more bad news to come. At 4.40pm that day, a British army convoy 100 miles away in Warrenpoint, Co Down, was attacked in an IRA ambush, killing 18 paratroopers. An English tourist was also shot dead in the incident.
In the Netflix series The Crown, these two separate bombings were referenced, along with the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre that saw British paratroopers kill 13 innocent Catholic civil rights protesters.
‘Thirteen dead and not forgotten, we got 18 and Mountbatten!’ rang the IRA chant.
“The morning after the bombing of the boat, we heard that Lady Doreen had died at Sligo Hospital,” John says.
In his book From a Clear Blue Sky, Timothy Knatchbull later wrote: “My lovely old granny’s heart stopped on Tuesday morning in the bed next door to me. But I didn’t even know she was beside me.”
Back at Mullaghmore, John was told that the boys’ parents were fighting for their lives, as was his pal Timothy.
“I wanted to visit him,” says John. “But we were told we wouldn’t be allowed to, for security reasons.”
Instead, John sent get-well cards to Timothy and his parents.
The castle gates were closed to all, guarded by the Army and the Gardaí. On the Tuesday evening however, Philomena Barry was allowed in. She spoke briefly to Pamela, the younger Mountbatten daughter, to offer her condolences.
“She told her that we were sorry. There was nothing we could say. She was distraught. Taoiseach Jack Lynch had visited that day as well. “
On the Wednesday, Paul Maxwell’s funeral took place in Enniskillen. John and his brother went, bringing a wreath from the village of Mullaghmore.
“It was very sad. A terrible day,” John says. “I remember David Hicks, Lady Pamela’s husband, attended the funeral,” he says, “and Timothy and Nicholas’s 22-year-old sister Amanda, and their uncle-in-law. I’d say they were terrified. The police guided them into church.
“I was looking at their faces and could see the terror and the shock. It was a difficult time for me. I was only a kid too.”
On the Thursday, the remains of Lord Mountbatten were released from Sligo Hospital.
“We were told the body would be coming by road early in the morning to Finner Camp from Sligo. For security reasons they weren’t disclosing the actual time.
“We heard later that the three hearses – for Lord Mountbatten, Lady Doreen and Nicholas – came down the main road and stopped at Hanlon’s Cross opposite the castle for two minutes. The three coffins were draped in the Union Flag.
“They were loaded onto helicopters and flown to Baldonnell in Dublin, and put onto a plane and brought to England. We saw the three helicopters fly in this direction and circle the castle. I’ll never forget it.”
On September 5, 1979, the British royal family and dignitaries from around the world gathered at Westminster Abbey for Mountbatten’s state funeral.
“We heard that Timothy and his parents were able to watch the funerals on the television in their hospital beds in Sligo. “
Timothy later wrote in his memoir of that time in hospital in Sligo: “Between us three survivors, we had three functioning eyes and no working eardrums.”
About two weeks’ later, he came out of hospital.
“Timothy came back to the castle for a few days,” John recalls. “Then the castle was closed up and that was it. My mother never worked there again.”
Was August 1980 strange when the Mountbattens weren’t in the castle for their annual holidays?
“It was strange. I missed the excitement that I’d looked forward to every year. The castle was just closed.
“We missed going up there and seeing all those people. They just vanished overnight. That’s the feeling I have. They just vanished. A sudden departure. You can understand why, but it was depressing. That was it.
“It was a sad time because Mullaghmore had been a happy place, where families came to enjoy themselves – and that this tragedy should have occurred in the village was terrible.”
There was a magic when they came. I always felt that, and that magic was gone
On November 2, 1979, IRA member Thomas McMahon was sentenced to life imprisonment for planting the bomb on the Shadow V.
In December 1980, Patricia Knatchbull wrote to Philomena Barry. She thanked the family for all their good wishes. “She also made us aware of their progress, and how Timothy had missed some of his first term in school because of his injuries.”
The next year, Timothy wrote to John.
“He said how he missed not coming back. He still writes to me. I met him in September 2005 when his father died. I went to the memorial service in London. He was right pleased to see me.
“His mother had a great welcome for me. She hugged me. She told me to pass on their love to all the people of Mullaghmore.”
It wasn’t always easy for the Mullaghmore community in the aftermath of August 27, 1979. “It was a dark cloud in the area for a long time. Something had been changed forever. It could never come back.
“There was a magic when they came. I always felt that, and that magic was gone. Like a candle blown out. People were reluctant to talk about what happened. They did talk about it privately, in their own homes,” says John, “Outside – no.
“Now, who remembers? Only us and a few others. My mother was always very sad about it. She would still cry about it in her old age. The children – she loved the children. To think that they were killed, and also Lord Louis who was a gentleman to work for. She thought it was sad.
Philomena died in 2019, aged 97.
“She was baking bread up until a few days before she died. She was a great woman, loved by everyone in the village.”
In fact over 1,000 people came to Philomena’s wake, which had to be spread over three days. Two weeks ago, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Sligo Co Council renamed the lane that runs by her house in her honour.
“I remember my mother bringing me up in my pram as a baby to the castle. The castle was always a fascination for me. You could see it from the back window in our house here,” he says.
Another memory he cherishes is his mother dressing him in a cardigan and a tie and pants, and bringing him to the castle for a party when he was seven or eight.
The piper would lead everyone around the table and out into the hall, the carpet rolled up. Local musicians would play and the Irish dancing would start. All the Mountbatten family took part, along with Timothy and Nicholas.
He always said this was the place where he was happiest
“Lord Mountbatten loved it. He danced as well. He would tap his feet to the music. He took part and he enjoyed it. He danced to the slow airs,” John says, naming ‘The Siege of Ennis,’ ‘The Haymakers’ Jig’, and others.
“He loved céilí dances and old-time Irish waltzes. He had an interest in Irish music and Irish culture. He felt he had an Irish home. Some locals would sing Irish songs at the parties. When it was over, the Irish national anthem was played, and everyone stood up.”
Presumably Lord Mountbatten didn’t get up for the Irish national anthem?
“Oh, he did! He always maintained that in Ireland, you do as the Irish do. Sometimes he would bring in step dancers in costumes and they did an exhibition of Irish dances. The night before he’d be going back to England, he would always invite locals he got friendly with over the years for drinks and dancing.
“He always said this was the place where he was happiest. He said that to my mother. Who’d have thought this would have happened in a quiet little fishing town like Mullaghmore? He had no enemies here.
“He was a decent man.”
In 2019, a new book cast a shadow over that so-called decent man and his time at Classiebawn. The Mountbattens: their Lives & Loves, by Andrew Lownie, alleged that Lord Louis had a predilection for underage boys, whom he would sexually abuse at the castle during his August visit in 1977.
“I was in Classiebawn in August 1977, when these allegations refer to, and I saw nothing. Never,” says John. “And I was there for years before that and after it. Nothing.
It was impossible for anything like that to go on. It couldn’t have happened
“Sure, if that was the case, would my mother bring me up there all those years as a child?”
John’s elder brother Pat, who worked in Classiebawn Castle from 1965 to 1970 before going to work in the Mountbatten’s UK estate of Broadlands in the early 1970s (where on occasion he met a young Prince Charles), concurs.
“I saw nothing. My mother wouldn’t had let me go to Broadlands when I was 18 if there had been any suspicion of anything like that.”
“His own grandchildren were always in the castle,” says John. “It was impossible for anything like that to go on. It couldn’t have happened, not with the security around the castle, with a checkpoint at the gate.
“It didn’t happen, and it couldn’t have happened. I was there in August 1977. I played with his children. We could roam freely through any rooms of the castle. There were no strangers came to the castle. It is all untrue in the book.
“Then Lownie later said it wasn’t in the castle – that it was in one of the outhouses, and that they were trafficked from Kincora to Mullaghmore.
“That never happened. The guards wouldn’t have allowed some guy to come, a warden from Kincora who was supposed to have driven them, and he was supposed to sit in the car for an hour outside the castle and let the boys in – or a boy in.
“And you think the guards wouldn’t have asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ No way.
“I never saw any boys around the castle, only his own grandchildren.”
On the night after my conversation with John and Pat, Caroline Devine, who lives in Classiebawn Castle, held a small dinner party there for the brothers. I attended too.
Pat talked about how the Queen would sometimes sit down and have a cup of tea with him when he worked at Broadlands 50 years ago.
“She was very normal,” he says. John remembered attending (with Caroline) the funeral of Patricia Knatchbull at St Paul’s Church in London in June 2017 and Prince Charles’s eulogy about his late godmother.
“He was so down to earth. He recalled the time he visited the Countess [Patricia Knatchbull’s title] in Kent.
“He said: ‘I came down for breakfast and the toast and the marmalade and the coffee were perfect. As I got up after my wonderful breakfast, I stood on the tablecloth and everything went flying!’”
The heir to the British crown continued:
“’Then that night, when I went to bed, I tried to pull the curtains closed but I pulled them down. The following morning, I thought to myself: ‘Will the Countess have me for breakfast? Or will she even want me back?’”
I wouldn’t say I got ‘closure’. It was so awful you can never forget
From everywhere you look in the village of Mullaghmore, you can see Classiebawn Castle, Ben Bulben, and the sea.
The local church is called Star of the Sea. For the last 34 years, John has been its sacristan and caretaker. “I’m also a Eucharistic Minister there,” he says. In the day I spent with him, he talked often about reconciliation.
On the night Lord Mountbatten was murdered, Prince Charles wrote in his diary: “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…”
In August 1998, Thomas McMahon, the man convicted of the bombing, was released from jail under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.
In May 2015, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles paid an emotional visit to Classiebawn Castle and Mullaghmore.
“I knew that day, when he came to Classiebawn, that it was healing for him,” says John. “I could tell by the tone of his speech, and how he talked about the great love the Mountbattens had for Mullaghmore despite the tragedy.
“It was great for him to see at last a place Lord Mountbatten talked of so much.”
John’s own healing, he says, came by meeting Timothy and his mother.
Prince Charles’s visit helped the village heal. “And I got great healing from that too.”
“I wouldn’t say closure,” he answers. “It was so awful you can never forget. Those of us who lived through it will never forget. A magical part of my childhood ended.
“There are things you keep in your own mind, and you might dwell on them, but nobody knows. Everyone has different ways of dealing with sadness. I would keep my feelings to myself.”
Does he have memories locked away?
“Playing and running free up there,” he says, turning towards the castle, “with Timothy and Nicholas… and Paul in the fields up the road. I have memories of Nicholas’s and Paul’s little faces still.
“I’ll never forget them.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/mountbatten-bombing-i-could-easily-have-been-on-the-boat-with-them-it-seems-like-yesterday-41925254.html Mountbatten bombing: ‘I could easily have been on the boat with them… it seems like yesterday’