A rescuer who pulled bodies from the water following Lord Mountbatten’s assassination has said the murder site should be known for the joy it brought the royals, not just the horror.
On the eve of Prince of Wales’ emotionally charged visit to Mullaghmore, Co Sligo in the Irish Republic, where the 1979 IRA bombing began one of the bloodiest days of the Troubles, locals spoke of time for healing.
The massacre claimed four lives - Lord Mountbatten, Lady Doreen Brabourne, the 83-year-old mother-in-law of the earl’s daughter, his 14-year-old grandson Nicholas Knatchbull and 14-year-old Paul Maxwell, from Killynur, Enniskillen, who was in the village for the summer and worked on the royal’s boat.
The killing of the 79-year-old, the Queen’s cousin and Prince Charles’ great-uncle and godfather, brought to a sudden and bloody end the family’s 30-year connection with the west of Ireland.
A few hours after the remote control bomb, as shockwaves reverberated worldwide, the IRA struck again detonating two 800lb bombs at Narrow Water in Co Down, killing 18 soldiers.
But Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the indiscriminate nature of the murders in Mullaghmore made the village synonymous with republican terror.
Peter McHugh, a lifelong resident of the seaside spot, was in his early 20s when he witnessed the aftermath of the bombing and helped pull bodies from the sea.
“Mountbatten spent probably 30 years of happy times with himself and his family there and I think it should be remembered for that aspect as well as the ending of his life,” the businessman said.
John Maxwell, whose son Paul was murdered in the bombing, spoke briefly about the royal visit, but was reluctant to revisit his family’s great personal tragedy and reopen old wounds.
“I’m in favour of anything that improves relations between the countries,” he said.
The historic return of members of the royal family to Mullaghmore - Prince Charles will travel with the Duchess of Cornwall - will include a peace and reconciliation religious service in St Columba’s Church in nearby Drumcliffe, the burial spot of poet WB Yeats.
Church of Ireland minister Arfon Williams, Dean of Elphin and one of those charged with organising the service, described how Clarence House had expressed Charles’ wishes.
“The emphasis, and this I’m told has come from the Prince of Wales, is that it’s very much a local thing, praying for the hurts of the past, praying for peace and reconciliation of the future, that’s the Prince’s theme for the service,” the clergyman said.
“And it will be a very emotional journey for the Prince of Wales, there’s no doubt about that.”
The four-day visit to the Republic and Northern Ireland will begin with the royals visiting the National University of Ireland, Galway, before enjoying a private dinner with President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.
But the most poignant moment will be the arrival at the quiet seaside village of Mullaghmore, where Lord Mountbatten’s former summer residence Classiebawn Castle perches near the assassination spot.
Mr McHugh, who knew Paul Maxwell and some of the earl’s staff, expressed hope that the personal visit will help the reconciliation process.
“I don’t think you ever bring closure to an event like that. I think this another phase. I think it’s a healing phase and I’m sure it’s very healing for Prince Charles,” he said.
The IRA atrocity occurred on a beautiful August day with the bomb detonating about 600m (1,968ft) from shore and the safety of the harbour turned into a makeshift emergency room.
Old doors were used as makeshift stretchers to carry the dead and wounded from boats after rescuers at sea pulled them from the Atlantic waters near Mullaghmore Head, a spot nowadays as well known for its daredevil surf.
Lord Mountbatten’s boat, Shadow V, built locally and easily recognisable in the harbour in summer months, was obliterated.
Mr McHugh added: “I would describe it as deep shock. I don’t think I experienced any other feeling other than shock and astonishment.
“Obviously the other feelings of horror came after, but initially it was just complete and utter shock, how a fantastically beautiful summer’s morning had been turned into an absolute massacre.”
Local parish priest Fr Christy McHugh has also been involved in preparations for the prayer service and has marked the anniversary in past years with locals and relatives of the dead and injured.
“This particular visit I think shows in a moment on all of the work and says this is another real marker that we can put down and say that all the work for peace has been fulfilled.
“I know Mullaghmore is blackened by that particular tragedy. But as far as I can make out from listening to people in the last week, everyone is delighted that this point has been reached.”