“A people who don’t have a knowledge of their past is like a tree without roots”

Classiebawn and the Assassination of Lord Mountbatten at Mullaghmore, County Sligo: A Retrospective

Like ants we were, or worker bees, and just as susceptible to the whims of wind and weather as we shook out the hay on warm summer days, or feverishly made ‘lappings’ if rain was on the way. Most of the time it was. Above us, Classiebawn, that great impressive hulk of Mountcharles sandstone built in the 1860's by twice Prime Minister of England, Lord Palmerston, looked impassively down. Vying for attention with Benbulben and Maeve’s Knocknarea, those majestic natural landmarks, it failed — but only just.

Too busy with concerns of crops, cattle and survival in the hungry ‘50s, we knew nothing of the castle’s history, and cared less. Palmerston’s coffin ships, famine evictions, they had all receded into a collective amnesia. Too horrible to remember, they were long sanitized from memory.


Classiebawn’s owners then, the Ashleys, were absentee. The Bracken family were gamekeeper/managers on the estate: bachelor Watty, Jules and his wife, and their daughter, Yvonne. Wearing tweed knickerbockers, jackets and hats, their manner of dress alone pointed them out as different to everyone else in the area. Their relationship with the villagers in Mullaghmore was a Jekyll and Hyde one. On pitch-black winter nights they patrolled the Classiebawn estates with shotguns and flashlights, protecting Lord Ashley’s rabbit warrens. The local poachers with carbide lamps and hounds played cat and mouse with them. Sometimes the poachers won and carried off a haul of rabbits; sometimes the Brackens succeeded and the miscreants were forced to plead their case before a hard-faced D.J. in Grange District Court.

When morning came it was business as usual. Men who skirmished with the gamekeepers and stole the landlord’s rabbits the night before now went to the Brackens for permission to cut a load of firewood in the Classiebawn woods. A cartload of timber cost five shillings. It was all very civilized, a game almost, and no one thought it odd. It was as if nothing at all had happened the night before. The Brackens kept a dairy too. When our cows ran dry we bought milk, and sometimes delicious salty home-made butter, from those people who were so different from us, but in a sort of detached way, were yet a part of our community.

Republicans were billeted in Classiebawn during the War of Independence. Hostages were once taken and held there to secure the release of condemned IRA prisoners, Johnson, O’Shea and MacBride. The castle was mined with dynamite: any attempt at rescue and it would be blown sky high! If the Brackens noticed anything unusual in their patrols, and they must have, they said nothing. ‘Less said is easiest mended’ was an old country saying. Although they were in the pay of Classiebawn the people who lived in the small community at Mullaghmore were their friends and neighbours.

Classiebawn gatehouse 2006. Mountbatten crests on pillars.

During the Civil War, soldiers of the new Freestate were stationed there. Many years later, the war a fading memory, Jules Bracken often stopped at our house. Leaning across the stone ditch my father and he talked for hours. About the concerns of small farmers I suppose: cattle prices, weather, will the turf be saved at all this year? Don’t mention the poachers — or the war!


Lord Louis Mountbatten married Lord Ashley’s daughter, Edwina, in 1922 and so came into ownership of Classiebawn and its sprawling estate. Following the dispossession of the O’Connor clan in the late 17th century 10,000 acres of land was annexed by Edwina's forbear Sir John Temple during the Cromwellian confiscations of the 17 th century.

Sir John was Master of the Rolls in Ireland — and a man of letters too. Following the rebellion of 1641 he wrote a book called 'History of the General Rebellion of Ireland '. It was this gross exaggeration of the events of the Rising of 1641 that was taken thenceforth as a true historical record by loyalists — and justification by Cromwell for his excesses in his Irish campaigns. According to DeBurca it was "An outstanding success as a piece of propaganda it had the greatest impact of any book on Irish history. Because of its blatant sectarian nature and having as its objective the incitement of hatred in England against the Irish, it had the unique distinction of being condemned by the Irish Parliament and publicly destroyed by the common hangman in Dublin."
Under William of Orange, Temple was made Attorney General and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.

Mountbatten on his retirement as Chief of Defence Staff in 1965. Behind: Field Marshal Sir Richard Hull and Admiral Sir David Luce.


But that was long ago and Sir John never set foot in Mullaghmore. The village itself became a ‘garrison town’. It was to Mullaghmore the ascendancy classes came in their droves on summer holidays to Henry John Temple’s (Lord Palmerston) Lodges purpose built for them beside the harbour.  Arriving with great pomp and ceremony all the landed gentry of Sligo and surrounding counties were there: the Le Stranges, the Maudes, the O’Hara’s, Wynnes, Gores, Richardsons, Percevals, Hosies and Cookes.  Guarding  them was an R.I.C. presence in Cliffoney and a Coastguard Station near  Mullaghmore village.

While these wealthy landowners were in residence local people were pressed into service as cooks, housemaids, jarveys, waiters and waitresses.  Following the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent events leading to Irish freedom in 1923 the star of those people of privilege and power waned.  No more did they come to Mullaghmore; no more did local people get their small reward.  Small as it was, there was nothing else to replace it.  At the changeover and departure of the ascendancy families some locals were rewarded for their service, acquiring local businesses and buildings once owned by the inheritors of Classiebawn.

At Classiebawn Castle itself however, now the property of Lord Ashley (mother of Mountbatten’s wife), nothing changed. Lord Ashley’s visits to Mullaghmore were sporadic.  Later on when Lord Louis and Edwina Ashley-Mountbatten commenced regular visits to Mullaghmore it once again proved a boon for some locals who were employed in domestic service, this time in Classiebawn Castle. The Mountbatten's came for an annual holiday to their Sligo castle. Well used to visiting tourists, their occasional sojourns created no great stir in the village, except for a few locals who provided kitchen and dining room staff. For most of us the only indication that they were in residence was the house flag flying from the roof. Or we might see the ill-fated boat, Shadow V, leaving the harbour, or returning. Sometimes the old man himself could be seen puttering about with a shrimp net in the harbour.

What kind of person was he? What did he think of the locals — or the Irish in general? What were his politics?

These matters were of no interest to us then. For the most part they minded their business and we minded ours. We had nothing in common with them, nor they with us. Most had no idea of his close relationship to the British Royal Family, or that he was the great grand-son of the infamous Queen Victoria, nor cared.

Perhaps remembering Lord Palmerston’s excesses in famine times, or Queen Victoria's apathy, others were not so ready to give dispensation to their heirs. And weren’t six counties of Irish soil still held by the British? But for the vigilance of a local fisherman Mountbatten's boat, the Shadow V, would have been sunk — and that was years before the assassination. Someone had drilled holes in her bottom when she was grounded at low water expecting the filling tide to finish her off. This should have served as a warning, but it was dismissed as an insignificant act of vandalism.


Given the scale of the conflict a few miles down the road in Northern Ireland, it was almost inevitable that this grandson of Queen Victoria, uncle to Prince Philip, retired Admiral of the Fleet, one time Commander of Allied Forces in Southeast Asia, last Viceroy of India, First Sea Lord and Earl of Burma would be a prime target for some kind of political demonstration.

In 1960, Mountbatten’s estate manager, Patrick O’Grady, raised questions with the Gardai about the Earl’s safety. “While everything points to the fact that no attack of any kind on the Earl, by subversive elements was at any time contemplated” the reply went, “it would in my opinion be asking too much to say in effect that we can guarantee his safety while in this country.” Mountbatten himself scorned a major security presence saying that he, “was used to giving orders, not taking them.”

Who were the subversive elements in the report? He was not favoured by such bodies as “The League of Empire Loyalists”. They felt his views on partition were too liberal and he was, ‘very friendly disposed towards the Catholic clergy, particularly the Jesuits.’ The Jesuit angle was a misconception and may have arisen because the castle was rented to Jesuits, or anyone else with hard cash, in the 1950s. Among the black-clad throng who spent time there was the famous photographer, Fr. Browne.

Life went on normally in the small seaside village of Mullaghmore in that fateful August of 1979. Tourists came and tourists went. It rained almost every day and summer drew to a soggy close. Paul Maxwell and I crewed on Freddy Conaghans fishing boat the ‘Kilkilogue’, drift netting for salmon. We spent long nights shooting and hauling nets, chatting as we worked. He was a pleasant young man and didn’t deserve the end that lay ahead.


Behind the outwardly normal façade of village life, all could not have been as it seemed. Other passions simmered and the English visitor’s movements were surely monitored by watchful, secret eyes. Meetings were held and plans hatched; Death weaved a deadly snare while the village slept.

The fateful Monday morning of August 27th 1979 came in bright and clear. ‘Hope springs forever’, and it looked like there might at last be some good weather ahead. Mountbatten and his family were among the many holidaymakers who took advantage of the good day, prepared the boat, left Mullaghmore harbour, and eagerly put to sea. Everyone on board was in a good humour as Paul Maxwell steered the Shadow V around Mullaghmore Head to the fishing ground.

Local man Martin Dowdican, taking advantage of the sunshine, worked his hay in the field up above. It might be saved after all if this weather would only hold for a day or two. Watching while he worked on the heights overlooking the bay he noticed the green boat move smoothly towards the lobster pot markers outside of Oilean Ruadh. Green was Edwina's favourite colour...

Part Two

The Explosion Heard Around the World

Suddenly there was a massive bang. A column of water, fragments of boat and shattered bodies blasted into the air. People looked up in surprise as windows shook when the shock waves hit miles away in Cliffoney and Bunduff. They wondered what could have made such a great noise. Like many others I thought the sound came from Finner Army Camp across the bay. We often heard shooting and explosions from that direction.

Mullaghmore Harbour and village

Martin Dowdican was frozen on the spot. It was too much to take in. Those in the vicinity looked towards the sound in time to see the splintered remains of Shadow V fall back into the sea in a tumultuous fury of froth and water. Paul Maxwell’s father, John, hearing what he recognised as an explosion went immediately to the pier. Boats rushed from the harbour to the site of the explosion to see how they could help.

Four died on that day: Mountbatten, his grandson Nicholas, Lady Brabourne and Paul Maxwell. Lady Patricia, her husband and Timothy were badly injured, but survived. Fortunately for them, the day was good and boats in the vicinity sped immediately to the rescue. If the incident had happened at any time in the bad weather of the preceding days there would have been no other boats at sea, no survivors.

Debris of Shadow V

Fragmented, shattered wood, pieces no bigger than matchsticks and barely recognisable as part of a boat, were picked up by fishermen for days after the explosion. Gardai collected them and pieced them together in an effort to discover exactly what had happened: where exactly in the boat was the bomb hidden; how was it detonated; what kind of explosives. On lobster fishing trips I found many such pieces and handed them over. Tides had carried them all over the bay. A helicopter hovered over the site for weeks. Divers went down to scour the seabed for clues.

On the same day as the explosion at Mullaghmore the British army suffered the biggest number of casualties in a single incident in the North of Ireland. Eighteen British soldiers were killed in an explosion in Warrenpoint, Co. Down. The I.R.A. claimed responsibility for both incidents.

If the ‘shot heard around the world’ was fired at Concord, U.S.A. in 1775 then the explosion heard around the world was triggered at Mullaghmore in 1979. Reporters from the international print and TV media poured into the village. They filled its hotels and guesthouses — on anniversaries, they still do. Things would never be the same here. Mullaghmore had entered the history books; forever linked with a chain of mayhem and carnage in the age-old struggle to achieve a united Ireland: Benburb, Kinsale, Drogheda, Killala, Omagh, Collooney, Falls Road, Shankill, Loughgall, Enniskillen, Greysteel, Mullaghmore: a dreary litany. Will it ever end? Will the peace process hold?

On the day of the killing, August 29th, 1979, Hugh Tunney the present owner of Classiebawn, claims that young Knatchbull asked his mother, Lady Pamela Mountbatten: 'Why did they do this to Grandpapa?' Her enigmatic reply was: 'Oh, they have their reasons son, they have their reasons.'

‘I have a place in Eire, Classiebawn Castle in County Sligo,’ Mountbatten told a gathering of the Empire Club of Canada in 1967, ‘and I and my family could not be treated with greater friendship by the Irish. My son-in-law's grandmother was the Marchionness of Sligo who died not long ago at the age of 98. Shortly before the second election for which Mr. De Valera stood, Lady Sligo asked her head gardener: "Do you think Mr. De Valera will be re-elected?" He replied: "Of course he will, your Ladyship, after all it was the poor who got him elected last time, and there are many more poor now.’

It seemed wrong the earth did not cry out...

Hugh Tunney, recent owner now deceased, atop Classiebawn Castle

The bomb is believed to have been triggered by a remote control device from the cliffs overlooking the bay. Thomas McMahon of Monaghan and Francie McGirl of Leitrim were tried for the murder and convicted in a non-jury court. Mc Mahon has since been released. Mc Girl died in a farming accident. Mullaghmore today is a prosperous holiday village comprised mostly of holiday homes for the wealthy. Their yachts throng the harbour, built by Lord Palmerston in 1820, and spill out into the sea beyond. Holidaymakers crowd the village in the summer months. Building sites sell for astronomical figures.

Standing once on Omaha Beach in Normandy, where the D-day landings took place, I wondered that things could be so normal in a place where death rained from sea and sky; where thousands died horribly: mutilated bodies on blood soaked, gut-strewn strand. Wavelets gently lapped the sandy shore at my feet. A placid sea reflected blue skies and stretched away endlessly to the horizon. Somehow it seemed wrong the earth did not cry out, did not scream in anguish and mourn forever in such a place.

In Mullaghmore today the waters ripple peacefully around Oilean Ruadh. The mists of time have closed in and left no trace of the bloody event of twenty-five years ago. Perhaps somewhere in our subconscious a dark shadow clings — but Sliabh League and the Donegal shore still delight our eyes as we gaze out over the assassination site from Mullaghmore’s 'Circular Road'.

Classiebawn has a new owner now. It still stands proudly atop the Fairy Rock and yet vies for magnificence with proud Benbulben and Maeve’s Knocknarea. It still fails — but only just.

See also Newsround

For a review of Timothy Knatchbull's acount of the assassination ''From a Clear Blue Sky' go HERE

'Oilean Ruadh' today


Further reading:

Ziegler, Phillip: Mountbatten: the official Biography, (Collins, 1985)

The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten (Hutchinson, 1968)

Deacon, Richard: The Greatest Treason (Random Century Ltd.)

Winters, Gordon: Secrets of the Royals


Of several letters received from Canadian readers concerning the above article the following is representative:

"I want to thank you for producing the story on Lord Louis Mountbatten. I remember that day very well and a few of the fellows up here in Canada took pause to remember the person who was responsible for the death and capture of 3,900 Canadians soldiers, in one day, who were sent to be slaughtered at Dieppe by one of most inept military leaders who ever existed - Lord Louis Mountbatten.

The slaughter of Canadian troops by English military commanders was one of the the prime reasons why Canada set up an independent army in WW2. The experience of WW1 taught Canadians the lesson that the English military brass had little or no appreciation of the value of human life.

The Dieppe Raid started with a memo from the Allies invasion planning group to the operations staff headed by Lord Mountbatten: What developed was a plan that violated the military principles of Unity of Command, Simplicity and Concentration. A fiasco was in the works and Canadian forces would bear the brunt of the failure. In an effort to test amphibious invasion techniques and the land and air response of the defenders, a complicated five-part land, sea and air operational plan developed that left the disjointed attacking force outgunned in every sector over an eleven-mile front. These forces included 5,000 Canadian infantrymen and tankers from the 2nd Division, 1,100 British commandos and a smattering of US Rangers and Free French forces.

On the morning of the assault, August 19, 1942, the element of surprise was lost by the chance meeting of the invasion ships and a coastal convoy. On the flanks some of the commando efforts were effective, but on the highlands west of Dieppe proper, the South Saskatchewan Regiment got bogged down and at Puys to the east, the Royal Regiment of Canada was destroyed taking 94.5% casualties.

The main attack on the beach front before Dieppe began at 5:20 and was met with crushing machine gun fire. The battle focused on the shore side casino which was eventually captured after room-to-room fighting. German defensive fire continued to increase in intensity throughout the morning. A tank assault by 27 new Churchill tanks failed to break into town. An evacuation was ordered to commence at 11am, but it turned into a horror. At 12:20 the attempts to save the survivors was abandoned. The failure was total. Over 3,600 raiders were dead or captured. The huge majority of these were Canadian soldiers.

The memory of the carnage at Dieppe under the incompetent direction of Lord Louis Mountbatten will never be forgotten in Canada."

Do you agree or disagree with the writer? Your opinion here

Dieppe Beach Aug 19th 1942









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