From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull

Second paragraph of third chapter:

During my grandmother Edwina’s childhood, the family used it primarily as a shooting lodge. It was lit by candles and oil lamps and had just one bath. Water from a well was carried a quarter of a mile uphill by donkey. The sandy beaches on which the children played rolled into dunes and fields. Seal colonies lived nearby and birdlife abounded. The Gaelic language and culture were still strong, relative informality was the norm, and the tempo of life was gentle.

This is quite a gruelling read. In August 1979, 14-year-old Timothy Knatchbull was seriously injured when the IRA blew up his grandfather’s boat; his parents were also seriously injured, but survived; his maternal grandfather, his paternal grandmother, a teenage boy who was helping out on the boat, and also Timothy’s twin brother Nicholas were all killed. This would be a shocking enough event no matter who the victims were, but the boys’ grandfather was Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, whose nephew Philip was and is the husband of Queen Elizabeth II. It was a direct attack by the IRA on the British royal family, and it succeeded.

That same day, eighteen British soldiers were killed in two bomb attacks at Narrow Water Castle, County Down, and their colleagues mistakenly shot and killed a civilian in the belief that they were returning fire. It was one of the worst days of the Troubles, with the biggest single loss of life for the British army. Of the two events on 27 August 1979, the Narrow Water attack hit much closer for me. Roger Hall, whose family still owns the castle, was a close friend of my father’s, and their sisters, Moira Hall and my aunt Ursula, shared a house in London for many years where we were always welcome.

But everyone has their own story, and Timothy Knatchbull tells his very eloquently. Many people have suffered violent bereavement, but very few lose an identical twin, and Timothy carefully unpacks the nature of his relationship with Nicholas, and his adaptation to life without him. Getting closure was a long process; Timothy was too badly injured to attend the funerals, and only years later did he uncover the post-mortem reports and photographs of his brother’s body being recovered from the sea, which were crucial for his coming to terms with the past.

As one might expect, Knatchbull’s relationship with Ireland is very complex. It was a magical place of childhood holiday memories, which turned to horror in an instant. He is fulsome in his tributes to the people who rescued him and his parents, and the Sligo medical team who saved their lives. Most of the Irish people who he quotes deplored the attack on his family. But not all. He looks in detail at the Garda investigation and subsequent trial – Thomas MacMahon, who was convicted of planting the bomb, had actually been arrested two hours before it exploded, which rather clearly indicates that he was not the only person involved. There is a tangible suspicion that not every stone was left unturned. Knatchbull twice quotes a senior Irish politician to the effect that this was the biggest crime in the history of the State. (Actually I would dispute that on behalf of Kevin O’Higgins, whose killers were never arrested, even though it is now well known who they were.)

Mountbatten was clearly capable of inspiring devotion as a father and grandfather. I still can’t warm to him; he flirted with the overthrow of British democracy in 1968, and his botching of the partition of India killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Oddly enough the latter experience made him more personally sympathetic to Irish nationalism. In any case, the IRA did not kill him because of his colonial and military record, still less his political views; they killed him, and two children and an old woman, purely because of who his nephew had married. The effect in the short term was to harden the positions of both the British and Irish governments against the IRA, and in the medium and long term to deepen suspicion and make peace and reconciliation more difficult. This was not a win in any way. (And today’s Sinn Féin supporters need to own that this act of murder was celebrated by SF at the time.)

Knatchbull has found his equilibrium, and welcomes the peace process which has (largely) brought an end to traumas like his. (I don’t think I have ever met him, but his last year in Cambridge as an undergraduate at Christ’s was my first year at Clare, so we may well have been in the same room on occasion.) He has found a way of making sense of the terrible thing that was done to his family. Many other victims of the Troubles have not been able to do that. A book like this is important as a demonstration that a personal reconciliation with the past is in the end possible, although the necessary resources (time, space and often money) are not equally available to everyone. You can get the book here.

I bought the book because it won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize for 2009-10, but it took me years to get around to it and eventually it was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest on my shelves. Next on that pile is Yugoslavia’s Implosion, by Sonja Biserko.

Ewart-Biggs Prize winners: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness | From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull | Setting the Truth Free: The Inside Story of the Bloody Sunday Campaign, by Julieann Campbell | The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend | The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce | The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell

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