My history with Mullaghmore is precisely this: I woke up at my first ever Rory Gallagher International Festival in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, in the back of a car with all the camping equipment. We never got around to putting up the tent. The driver of the car was across the road curled up in his sleeping bag snoring in a ditch. I beeped the horn, ‘Come on, time to go’. An hour or two later I arrived at Mullaghmore Head to see an unimpressive groundswell breaking on the inside reef. Myself, Fintan Gillespie and Andrew Kilfeather went out to give it a try.
Up to that point the only people I had heard of surfing out there were Richie Fitzgerald and Gabe Davies who formed one of Ireland earliest tow teams. We were a little nervous paddling out and it took us a while to suss out the wave, but within the hour we were all getting shacked out of our brains. That was back in 2003, and it continued as our own little secret bodyboard refuge for several years. As a new decade dawned a second generation of tow teams began to reveal the true potential of the mighty Mullaghmore, and the rest as they say is history.
Not many visitors to the area know that the waters of Donegal Bay where Mullaghmore breaks was in fact the sight of a brutal assassination in the 1970s connected to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Louis Mountbatten, who owned Cassiebawn Castle on the headland, was blown up in his fishing boat by the IRA within sight of takeoff zone. But to understand why anybody would commit an act of terrorism like this in the first place it is necessary understand a little about the history of the area.
Not many visitors to the area know that the waters of Donegal Bay where Mullaghmore breaks was in fact the sight of a brutal assassination in the 1970s connected to the Troubles.
Centuries ago an old Gaelic clan called the O Connors owned much of the land around Mullaghmore but in the seventeenth century, when the English parliament had just set up the Commonwealth, the land was confiscated by the parliamentarian forces of the English General, Sir Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell landed in Ireland in 1649 fresh from victory in the English civil war and Cromwell’s forces fought the Catholic Irish over four blood-soaked years until Ireland was finally subjugated in 1653.
In the late 18th Century, Sir John Henry Temple (Lord Palmerston) inherited 10 thousand acres of land around Mullaghmore when his father died. Lord Palmerston was the English Prime Minister twice and an important politician at a time when the British Empire was at the height of its powers. During the Great Irish Famine in the 1840s (where a million Irish died and another million emigrated) Lord Palmerston’s estate became depopulated as the poverty stricken Irish fled to America and Canada aboard the coffins ships leaving Sligo Harbour. Later, Mullaghmore village became a garrison town.
The iconic castle which overlooks Mullaghmore is called Classiebawn Castle. The hulk of a building was constructed on top of the so-called ‘Fairy Rock’ by Palmerston in the 1860s from Mountcharles sandstone. Although it is an impressive building in an impressive location it fails to capture attention away from the majestic Sligo Dartry mountain range that forms the backdrop to the castle, and Benbulben, the Datry’s most distinctive peak.
Mullaghmore Harbour, where we launch our skis on those big tow days, was built by Lord Palmerston in the 1820s. Mullaghmore was a quiet, rural place and when the rich ascendancy classes came to Mullaghmore in the summer to visit Lord Palmerston there was a buzz of activity. The visiting wealthy landlords would employ the local people as housemaids, cooks and waiters. At the time Ireland was still a British colony but the Easter Rising of 1916 set in motion a chain of events which would lead to Irish freedom in 1923, which was great for the country as a whole but bad for the locals of Mullaghmore village. Irish freedom meant that the power of the ascendancy was waning and they no longer took their holidays in Mullaghmore, which affected the local economy. Small as it was, there was little else to replace the contribution these wealthy tourists made to the area.
During the early 20th Century when most of the countryside was concerned with a simple yet tough farming lifestyle the owners of the castle were the Ashleys. Cassibawn was run by the Braken family since the Ashleys were absentee landlords. In 1922, as a terrible civil war raged in Ireland in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Lord Ashley’s daughter Edwina married Lord Louis Mountbatten, the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Louis Mountbatten was part of English high society. The Duke of Edinburgh is Mountbatten’s nephew, and he is famously married to his third cousin through Queen Victoria, HRH Queen Elizabeth II. Lord Mountbatten also had strong influence on his grand-nephew Prince Charles.
When Lord Mountbatten married Edwina he inherited Cassibawn Castle. Mountbatten was the son of a German prince. The family name was actually the Battenbergs up until 1917 when the family anglicised their name to Mountbatten during a period when many British royals dropped their German titles due to the anti-German sentiment in England at the time. Louis Mountbatten was born in Winsor and became a British Naval officer. Mountbatten served as a Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and was also the last Viceroy of India and the governor-general of the interim Indian state from which the Republic of India emerged.
When the Mountbatten’s came to Sligo for their annual holidays it once again gave a boom to the local economy. For the majority of the locals the only sign the Mountbattens were in residence was the house flag flying from the roof, the family had nothing in common with the locals, who had no idea this man was the great grandson of Queen Victoria and was close with the British Royal family. In those days, you wouldn’t talk freely about those private details. Mullaghmore village was only twelve miles from the border with Northern Ireland, near an area used as a cross-border refuge by the IRA.
I have a place in Eire, Classiebawn Castle in County, and I and my family could not be treated with greater friendship by the Irish.Mountbatten
Many north and south of the border felt that the six counties of Northern Ireland was Irish soil that was still in the hands of the British and they wanted to do something about it. Mountbatten himself seems not to have felt threatened and told a gathering of the Empire Club of Canada in 1967, ‘I have a place in Eire, Classiebawn Castle in County, and I and my family could not be treated with greater friendship by the Irish.’ Still, there was a section of malcontents in Irish society that wished no friendship toward the British naval man. Someone drilled holes in Mountbatten’s fishing boat, the Shadow V, at low tide hoping to sink her when the tide came in but the vandalism was noticed by vigilant local fisherman. Given the scale of the conflict in Northern Ireland only a few miles down the road this incident should perhaps have served as a warning.
In the 1960s Mountbatten’s estate manager questioned the Irish Gardai (police) about the Earl’s safety and, while they knew of no subversive element who would plan an attack, the Gardai felt it was too much for them to be able to guarantee his safety in Ireland. Although Mountbatten was disliked by unionist bodies such as The League of Empire Loyalist who felt the Earl’s views on Irish partition were too liberal, the most likely threat was the the Irish Republican Army (terrorists or freedom fighters depending on who you talked to). It wasn’t until 1979 however that the provisional IRA (an active terrorist splinter group) struck and the family’s worst nightmare was realised.
The normal round of tourists came and went that rainy summer in ’79, but Mountbatten’s movements were also covered by the watchful eyes of the IRA. Thomas Mc Mahon, an IRA bomb expert, slipped into the Shadow V at night and planted a twenty kilo, radio controlled bomb. The next morning, 27 August 1979, was bright and clear and Mountbatten wanted to take advantage of the good weather like the rest of the holiday makers at Mullaghmore. Mountbatten prepared for a fishing trip and left the harbour in his green fishing boat: green was reportedly his wife’s favourite colour. The plan was to check some lobster pots and fish for tuna in Donegal Bay. As the Shadow V was a few hundred yards offshore, smoothly travelling around Mullaghmore Head, the bomb was detonated. The device was probably triggered via remote control from the cliffs overlooking Donegal Bay, the same cliffs people park along to watch the big wave action. The bomb exploded sending a column of water, bodies and fragments of boat into the air. The boat was destroyed and Mountbatten’s legs were almost blown off. He was pulled alive from the water by fishermen who rushed to the scene but the 79-year-old died from his injuries before reaching shore.
As the Shadow V was a few hundred yards offshore, smoothly travelling around Mullaghmore Head, the bomb was detonated. The device was probably triggered via remote control from the cliffs overlooking Donegal Bay.
Three other people died in the explosion: Mountbattens elderly mother-in-law Lady Brabourne, his 14-year-old grandson and a 15-year-old crew member from County Fermanagh. Mountbatten’s grandson’s twin survived the blast along with his mother and father. The IRA immediately claimed responsibility for the attack and released a statement that said, “This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country.” On the same day as the bombing of the Shadow V in Donegal Bay 18 British soldiers were killed by an IRA bomb blast in Warrenpoint, County Down, the most number of casualties in a single incident in the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The vice-president of Sinn Finn (the political wing of the IRA) said of Mountbatten’s death: “The IRA gave clear reasons for the execution… What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people; and with his war record I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation. He knew the danger involved in coming to this country.” Thomas McMahon was arrested at a Gardai checkpoint two hours before the bomb exploded and was later sentenced to life imprisonment. McMahon walked free from prison in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a part of the Irish peace process.
On the day of the killings Lady Pamela Mountbatten was apparently asked by her son, ‘Why did they do this to grandpa?’ and her reply was, ‘Oh, they have their reasons, son. They have their reasons.’ The motivation for the murders were political, by killing Mountbatten the IRA achieved their objective of getting people to pay attention to what was happening in Ireland. Nevertheless, what happened was a tragedy for the people of Mullaghmore. Things were never the same again. Now Mullaghmore will forever be linked with the violent train of events caused by the struggle to achieve a united Ireland. Mullaghmore joined a list of place names such as Shankhill, the Falls Road and Omagh in Northern Ireland where we have seen the same mayhem, carnage, tragedy and loss of innocent life.
The explosion that tore through the Shadow V was heard around the world and soon the international media poured into Mullaghmore village, fillings its hotels and guesthouses. I am personally very happy that the only bombs reporters nowadays come to investigate are the 15-20ft bombs that break off the back of Mullaghmore Head. With the media buzz surrounding the big swells the local economy is again finding a reason to celebrate.
Article: Seamus Mc Goldrick
Photography: Christian McLeod
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