August Bank Holiday Monday exactly 30 years ago was simply glorious. It promised a rare respite from the dismal weather of that summer.
In 1979, there was no end in sight to Northern Ireland’s conflict. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was starting her revolutionary term of office. Jack Lynch was Taoiseach.
The infamous John de Lorean, talking up his gull-winged sports car plans, was a welcome distraction in Belfast from the usual headlines of violence.
Holiday or not, most people still felt apprehensive enough to catch the local radio news on the hour. Like many other people sated by a daily litany of terror, I had come to believe I was almost immune from shock.
There seemed no thresholds of terror which were not crossed already, yet the breaking news on August 27, 1979 shocked us all. Terrorism had reached a new level of brutality.
As I listened to my car radio, two images from boyhood flooded my mind. The first was from a sightseeing Sunday afternoon car trip to County Sligo. I was staring up at the forbidding grey walls and turrets of Classiebawn Castle, close by the picturesque fishing village of Mullaghmore.
As we drove past the gates my father pointed out the heraldic crests on the pillars. He said famous people such as royalty and even the Shah of Persia holidayed there. To my childhood mind, the castle was a remote and mysterious fairytale fortress and I wondered what kind of individual could possible inhabit it.
I had the answer soon after. The elderly owner of that castle stopped off on his way to Mullaghmore at my school in Co Tyrone. He had been invited to unveil a statue of a famous pupil, General Sir John Nicholson, a former Viceroy of India. The school had raised sufficient funds to have the statue transported all the way from the centre of Delhi to Dungannon.
Somewhere in the attic I still have my Brownie camera picture of the ceremony as the man from Mullaghmore, the 24th and last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten of Burma tugged on the great white shroud covering Nicholson’s statue and unveiled it to us all.
Fast forward to Bank Holiday Monday 1979 and those images returned to me as I heard the news that Mountbatten had been murdered, written into the history of the Troubles as the most famous victim of all.
Mountbatten had a long standing affection for County Sligo and for the people who lived there. He had no guard and he was the softest of targets as were the others, young and old, on his fishing vessel, who lost their lives or were horribly maimed.
The events of that August day were of such significance that they must have been sanctioned at the highest level.
Can anyone seriously believe that Thomas McMahon and Frances McGirl, the two men convicted of the bombing of Mountbatten’s boat, took a unilateral decision to kill him when his murder was certain to ensure an unprecedented worldwide reaction?
We do not know to this day upon whose shoulders the real responsibility rests for the callous, cold-blooded and premeditated murder of Mountbatten and his friends on board Shadow V, though I would guess that many people have a good idea.
Gerry Adams, then Vice-President of Sinn Fein said: “The IRA gave clear reasons for the |execution. I think it is unfortunate that anyone has to be killed, |but the furore created by Mountbatten's death showed up the |hypocritical attitude of the media establishment.
“As a member of the House of Lords, Mountbatten was an emotional figure in both British and Irish politics. 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. In my opinion, the IRA achieved its |objective: people started paying attention to what was happening in Ireland.”
If that was not enough, there followed within hours the massacre at Narrow Water Castle near Warrenpoint, in which 18 soldiers were killed in another IRA attack.
Can you imagine if the breaking television news this evening from Helmand province was reporting the deaths of so many soldiers in Afghanistan, never mind the murder of a world-renowned figure like Mountbatten?
It may be painful to remember, but remember we should, for the recollections help to put the Northern Ireland of 1979 in its proper perspective and to show a new generation how bad things were before we began the momentous journey to the relative peace of today.
Peace is at the price of many innocent lives. That brings me to young Paul Maxwell. On that August Bank Holiday, he was only 15 years old and earning his summer pocket money on board Shadow V in Mullaghmore Bay. Like Mountbatten and two of his relations, Paul Maxwell was blown to smithereens. Like so many other victims of violence he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and like so many others he would be forgotten were it not for anniversaries highlighted in the media or recalled by family and friends.
Other conflicts have their Unknown Soldiers. We have our Forgotten Victims and Paul is just one of many. What might he have been today if he had not lost his young life at Mullaghmore? We will never know.
His father is still trying to come to terms with his death and has been trying to meet Thomas McMahon, who was convicted of his murder. McMahon watched from the shore as Shadow V sailed across the little harbour at Mullaghmore and then, by radio signal, detonated the explosives which had been hidden on board by his evil cohorts.
Thomas McMahon, now aged 61, was freed under the Good Friday agreement, but he refuses to speak to Paul Maxwell’s father. It is impossible to fathom the mind of McMahon on that day in 1979. It is hard also to fathom his attitude today as he enjoys his freedom while his teenage victim has been in a grave for 30 years.
That August Monday was the most brutal day of all before the Omagh bombing. Unlike with other violent events, millions have not been spent to ascertain the full facts behind the deaths of the last Viceroy of India and 21 civilians and soldiers. There have been no public inquiries.
What began as a glorious late summer’s day in 1979 will be remembered as the bloodiest and blackest day of all that year.
As time passes it is becoming harder to remember but if only for the sake of Paul Maxwell and hundreds like him, we should not forget.