From a Clear Blue Sky : surviving the Mountbatten bomb

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

79_small_1279726998From a clear blue sky takes the form of a three-part drama: before the bomb, after the bomb and learning to live with the bomb. But it opens with the climax. In the early hours of Monday 27 August 1979, members of the IRA stowed between four and five pounds of explosives under the floorboards of Shadow V, a small fishing vessel moored at Mullaghmore harbour in County Sligo. The bomb detonated just before noon. Earl Mountbatten, his fourteen-year-old grandson Nicholas and local teenager Paul Maxwell were killed instantly. Lady Brabourne died later in hospital. Nicholas’s twin, Timothy, and his parents were the only survivors. There followed an all-too-familiar sequence: shock, salvage, sirens—sheer bloody mayhem. This book is an attempt to put the pieces back together, to understand and, ultimately, to let go.

 

Stepping back from the bomb, Knatchbull revisits his childhood. There is much that was ordinary in the rough and tumble he describes. This, however, is no ordinary cast. ‘Grandpapa’, as the book’s subtitle suggests, was best known: he was the queen’s cousin, uncle to her husband and former head of all British armed forces. Of particular interest to this edition, he was the last viceroy of India and the first governor-general of the independent Union of India (1947–8). He married London socialite and heiress Edwina Ashley (descended from the earls of Shaftesbury). They had two daughters: the eldest and favourite was Patricia, Timothy’s mother. Her husband, John Knatchbull, also had ties to the East. His father served as governor of Bombay and later Calcutta and had been strongly tipped for the position of viceroy of India before succumbing to stomach cancer.

Equally strong (if less decorative) was the family’s ill-fated connection with Ireland. Edwina Ashley inherited Classiebawn, a castle near Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo. By the 1960s it had become the family’s annual August retreat. The family portrait is almost entirely wholesome. Mountbatten is twice quoted as referring to ‘that beautiful, unique wonderful girl Edwina Ashley who was more than a wife to me, she was a partner in every sense of the word’. His marriage to Ashley was famously ‘open’ and their various affairs have been well documented. For Knatchbull to labour such scandals would serve no useful purpose but, with so much in the public domain, he may as well have acknowledged the controversy. Likewise, the portrayal of Mountbatten as a radical liberal and a latter-day fan of non-violent Irish republicanism is difficult to square. In support of this statement Knatchbull points to India and states that Mountbatten ‘insisted that power be handed to the very nationalists that had previously been locked up by the British’. This was, of course, a done deal and there is no mention of the fact that his grandfather had been peripherally associated with a right-wing plot to overthrow Harold Wilson in the 1970s. Although Mountbatten’s politics may well have mellowed with time, I suspect some affectionate airbrushing.

That said, Knatchbull’s attempts to get to grip with the roots of Irish republicanism, in its various manifestations, must be applauded. His childhood memories of Sligo people are almost invariably warm and friendly, and he initially clings to the comforting and confirming letters that pour forth in the aftermath of the bomb. As part of his later attempt to extract the sting, he courageously lowers his lip and confronts the complex web of allegiances that permeates all sections of Irish society. He considers Garda collusion and the even more painful possibility that there may have been prior local knowledge (he is haunted by the memory of a local couple who suddenly tensed when he sauntered into a local shop the day before the bomb). As with his own post-bomb attitude to Ireland, there is much ambivalence. He gradually comes to the realisation that attitudes to political violence can in turn be fuelled by sympathy, revulsion, self-interest, fear and passive acceptance.

In his early thirties he begins to accept that survival is not liberation and that counselling alone cannot defuse the everyday detonators. The flick of a light switch, an overhead train, the whiff of diesel or the thud of a bonnet instantaneously propel Knatchbull back into the horror of that bank holiday morning. He thus embarks on a series of return visits to Ireland. After each visit he feels like a diver coming up from a great depth. Raiding local memory, family memoirs, official reports and memorabilia, the scene of the bomb is reconstructed from every conceivable angle. At times this process is painstaking, as every last detail takes on superhuman significance. The family’s loss of innocence is, however, vividly rendered: the peaceful Sligo landscape is now peppered with imagined booby-trap devices. And the bombers hover in the background. Knatchbull retraces their steps and follows IRA bomber Thomas McMahon through arrest, trial, conviction and eventual release.

The book culminates in a final encounter with Nicky: he had been tortured by thoughts that his twin could have been saved and is comforted by a photograph of his dead body and confirmation that he had not been left to die in the water. At Classiebawn he comes face to face with his ghost. In some ‘final words with Nicky’ he conducts his own memorial service and can at last let go.  HI

Anna Bryson is a Research Officer at Queen Mary University of London.
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