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'There was this enormous bang' - Mother of 15-year-old boy killed by IRA alongside Mountbatten tells of moment she knew he was dead

It is 40 years since Lord Mountbatten was one of four people murdered by an IRA bomb off the Co Sligo coast.

Mother’s grief: Mary Hornsey
Mother’s grief: Mary Hornsey
Mary's son Paul Maxwell
Painful memories: Mary Hornsey talks to Belfast Telegraph journalist Adrian Rutherford at her north Down home
An image of the bombing aftermath
Lord Mountbatten
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

It was a mother's instinct that told Mary Hornsey that something terrible had happened.

All these years later, she can still recall the sense of dread that suddenly filled her as the violent noise shattered the peace of that late summer's morning. She remembers turning to her then-husband, telling him: "Paul is dead."

A short distance away, in the waters off Mullaghmore, an IRA bomb had exploded, destroying the little Shadow V boat that had been lobster fishing in the bay. At the helm was Earl Mountbatten of Burma (79), godson to Queen Victoria, great uncle to the Prince of Wales and the last Viceroy of India.

He was killed, along with three others, including Paul Maxwell. The 15-year-old from Enniskillen had been working as a boat boy during the family's annual holiday to the area.

Mary's son Paul Maxwell

Hours later, more than 100 miles away, the IRA blew up 18 soldiers at Narrow Water in Co Down. The date was August 27, 1979 - one of the bloodiest of the Troubles. As the 40th anniversary nears, painful memories of that terrible day are stirred once more.

Many miles away, at her home in Co Down this week, Mrs Hornsey pauses to think of her lost boy and the man he might have been.

"He would be 55 now," she says. "He missed out on having a life. He missed so much."

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Mary Hornsey never felt comfortable in Mullaghmore. There was always something troubling about this quaint fishing village on the Co Sligo coast. A place of great beauty, it has two long beaches and granite cliffs. The austere drama of the Dartry Mountains tower over the land.

For years, the family had spent their holidays there, the long summer days filled by runs and walks and swimming in the sea.

"We had a little cottage in Mullaghmore called the Little Acre and every year we were going down there for summer holidays - ever since Paul was a baby," she recalls.

Painful memories: Mary Hornsey talks to Belfast Telegraph journalist Adrian Rutherford at her north Down home

"We did so that particular August. The summer had been dreadful in Mullaghmore. There was one depression after another coming in off the Atlantic and every day it was the same - windy and wet."

At the time, Mrs Hornsey, originally from Co Down, was married to John Maxwell and the family were settled in Enniskillen. They had three children, Paul, Lisa and Donna.

Mrs Hornsey remembers her son, a pupil at Portora Royal, as a courageous boy, "almost fearless in the water". He was honourable, but with a mischievous streak. One incident comes to mind. "Paul and a friend, a little boy who lived next door, they went into his friend's father's garage and there was a lovely pot of royal blue paint and a big brush. Along came the neighbour's white cat. This was irresistible - a walking canvas. And so the cat came out with a big blue stripe. It was funny, but not so funny when the owner found out and we had to get the cat cleaned."

Mullaghmore, around an hour away, was an easy escape for the summer.

The children made friends with locals. Paul got a job as a boat boy, working for Mountbatten, who holidayed at the nearby yellow sandstone Classiebawn Castle.

An image of the bombing aftermath

But Mrs Hornsey had always felt a sense of deep unease here. Even now she can't quite place what was troubling her.

"I'm very perceptive. It doesn't take me very long to pick up on things that are happening, or suss people out. Paul's father thought that all the people we met at Mullaghmore were very nice, and some were. It would be wrong of me to say otherwise. There were some very nice people.

"But I felt there were people there who were being extremely nice to us, but at the same time they didn't really like us being in Mullaghmore.

Number one, we came from the north. Was that a problem? It was, obviously, for some. Mary Hornsey

"As well, I felt they resented us in a way, because we were able to afford this cottage, although it was falling apart. We had a car of sorts, too. On occasions, I got this feeling of 'we don't really want you here'. I was never, ever comfortable. I never liked the cottage.

"To me, there was something - I don't know - something I didn't like. It was almost a feeling of evilness in the air. It's very hard to explain it, but that's how I felt about the whole place."

On the day of the bombing - Mrs Hornsey refers to it as "the tragedy" - the relentless rain had finally given way to sunshine. She recalls waking to "the most beautiful blue sky - an absolutely perfect summer's day". It was the last day of the holiday.

Lord Mountbatten

"Paul was looking forward to having a lovely day out on the boat again and we were also thinking how nice it would be to go down and have a swim and a run and not to be running through the rain," she adds.

"Also, the summer holidays were coming to an end for us because the very next day we were going back to Enniskillen."

That morning, Paul had left at 8am, checking his lobster pot, which he used to save his money, on the way.

Mrs Hornsey recalls: "He went out and said, 'Bye, mum. See you tonight'. And I never saw him again. I never heard his voice again. Ever. That was it. Gone."

By late August 1979, the Troubles were raging in Northern Ireland. Sixty-one people had died already that year, including the Conservative MP Airey Neave, killed by an INLA car bomb outside the House of Commons.

Mullaghmore was just 12 miles from the border. The area had been used as a refuge for IRA men on the run. Yet Mountbatten, by now a widower, continued to spend his holidays there each year.

The local Garda unit warned him that, while they had no specific knowledge of a threat to his life, they could not guarantee his safety.

On that morning, as he set out for a fishing trip off the coast, a 50lb radio-controlled bomb was detonated from the headland, blowing apart his boat and killing him, his 14-year-old grandson Nicholas Knatchbull and Paul Maxwell.

The Dowager Lady Brabourne (83), mother-in-law to Mountbatten's elder daughter Lady Brabourne, died of her injuries the following day.

Lady Brabourne and her husband - Nicholas Knatchbull's mother and father - along with Nicholas's twin brother, Timothy, were seriously injured, but survived.

Mrs Hornsey recalls hearing the blast and knowing instantly that her son was dead.

"My younger daughter Lisa and I were outside on the little patio because it was such a lovely day. Paul's father was there at that particular time also.

We were just sitting there and, suddenly, there was this enormous bang. It was like a thunder clap and I knew immediately - immediately I said, 'It's Paul, Paul is dead'. And my husband said, 'Don't be so silly'. I said, 'He's gone'. Because part of me had gone, just disappeared. Mary Hornsey

"Anyhow, my husband decided to go down and see what was happening. And, sure enough, there had been a bomb on the boat and there were fatalities and Paul was one of them."

She recalls the bond between mother and son: "Paul and I, we were very close. In the whole politics of the family, the two girls would be inclined to side with their father. Paul, he always took my side. He was my champion. He was my knight in shining armour. And he was gone."

On the same day, at Narrow Water, the IRA killed 18 soldiers - the highest death toll suffered by the Army on a single day in Northern Ireland. Six died when the first bomb, planted under hay on a lorry at the side of the road, exploded. As the injured were airlifted from the scene, a second bomb detonated, killing 12 more.

"It was an awful day," Mrs Hornsey adds. "A lot of people talk about Bloody Sunday. There is also a Bloody Monday and it was that day, August 27, 1979. I called it Bloody Monday."

Paul's parents parted after their son's death. His father John became a champion of integrated education and still lives near Enniskillen. His mother remarried and moved back to Co Down.

Paul's sisters, Donna and Lisa, both married and have families of their own. They now live in Scotland.

"Thank goodness," Mrs Hornsey says, adding that they are "safe" there. "Who would want to stay in this place?"

She opens a collection of photographs and personal memories. One is a black-and-white image of Paul and the twins, Nicholas and Timothy, taken on Shadow V the day before the bomb. Another is a photograph, taken outside Classiebawn Castle. In the group of 21 are Paul and Mountbatten.

She pauses as she picks up a photograph taken at Paul's funeral. "It was huge, so big".

There are pages from a diary, carefully typed, recalling those summer days in Mullaghmore. In one, Mrs Hornsey had noted Paul's thoughts about working for Mountbatten. "He's a nice old bloke, really," he had told her.

She adds: "Paul had hoped to go into the Royal Navy. That was what he wanted to do. He had asked Mountbatten for a reference and he had said yes. But, as things turned out, that did not materialise, unfortunately."

She still has the letters she exchanged with Countess Mountbatten - the title Lady Brabourne inherited after her father's murder - until her death in 2017.

"There was that bond between mothers who had lost sons and it was a very close bond.

"(Countess Mountbatten) and myself corresponded over almost 40 years. I have all her letters. She would tell me what was happening in her family, which was a very large family compared to mine. We kept in touch that way and I missed that when she died a couple of years ago."

The bomb-maker, Thomas McMahon, a member of the IRA's south Armagh brigade, is the only person to have been convicted for the attack in Mullaghmore. He served 18 years before his release under the Good Friday Agreement and has previously canvassed for Sinn Fein.

In 2015, a Sunday newspaper tracked McMahon to Carrickmacross in Co Monaghan. He had nothing to say.

Mrs Hornsey is asked if she ever felt bitterness. She says it is the unanswered questions that linger the most.

"When something like that happens, one always wonders, 'Why me? Why us? Why did this happen?'," she says. "I think the IRA made clear that Paul should not have been on that boat. He was a boy doing a man's job. And if a man had been doing that job, he would - how shall I put it? - have been more politically concerned about the company he was keeping. That was the message that came out."

The bitterness, she says, comes from those who set out to kill that day.

This was done out of great bitterness, great anger. To do that, to press a button, to blow up a boat on which there were three teenagers. That is the awfully sad bit of this tragedy - those young lives. Mary Hornsey

So, unanswered questions, yes, but no bitterness.

When they had to choose a headstone, Paul's parents included a Celtic cross. It carried meaning.

"I wanted it specially to let the Irish people know that we didn't resent them," his mum explains.

A slab on the ground contains a verse of the John Milton poem, Lycidas.

"Lycidas was a friend of Milton's and he died at sea, so it was very, very appropriate."

Years have passed, Northern Ireland is now at peace, but Mrs Hornsey feels the hate and division that manifested itself so violently at Mullaghmore, Narrow Water and so many other places through the years has never really healed.

"I just feel that there will always be that, bubbling under the surface," she says ruefully.

She reflects on a conversation with Fr Martin Magill, the Belfast-based priest. They talked of parallel lines that never meet.

"I feel that in Northern Ireland there are two parallel groups that will never, ever meet, and this is what is happening," she adds.

"If only they could diverge and meet and if people could try to walk in another person's shoes before they become condemnatory.

"This is a cancer in our country and it eats the heart out of people and it is destroying this once-beautiful land. And how one gets rid of the cancer, I do not know."

In September 1979, a couple of weeks after her son's murder, Mary Hornsey returned briefly to Mullaghmore.

For the next 36 years she never went back - until Prince Charles's visit to the village in 2015. She has not been back since.

She recalls of her visit four years ago: "It had changed a great deal. There were more people there.

"I met a man who had been out on the sea that day on a boat which was quite close to Shadow and he said it was just dreadful, just appalling."

Returning to Mullaghmore after all those years was a big step. So, too, is the 40th anniversary in 10 days' time.

"It is another day, of course, but it is the date on which this horrific tragedy took place, and, although I will never, ever forget that, when it comes to anniversaries it brings it back," she says.

"It's more clear. You are inclined to concentrate on it that little bit more because of the date."

Even all these years later, there are still moments that shock her.

Like a conversation with Lisa two years ago, where she learned for the first time that her daughter had come across the scene of death and devastation that morning.

"Lisa had gone to the harbour on the day of the tragedy. She had been sent to stay with a friend and was very curious and wondered what was happening. We didn't know anything about this until she just told me two years ago.

"She went down and she actually walked over bodies. A child of 11 years old.

"My other daughter, Donna, was on the headland that day. She was sitting on the headland and she saw Shadow on the water and she saw it fragment before her very eyes, knowing that her brother was on board. That is what my girls have had to suffer."

Time has passed. Summers are no longer spent in Mullaghmore.

The family cottage has since been sold. The two girls, who took it on, didn't have the money to renovate the crumbling building, or cover its upkeep.

"Unfortunately it had to go," Mrs Hornsey says. "It was sad because Paul spent his last days there."

For Mrs Hornsey and her family, thoughts will always drift back to that terrible summer's day in Mullaghmore.

"We have got to a stage where we can smile and sort of feel happy," she says.

"As for myself, I would say I smile, but with sorrow in my eyes. It is never a true smile of happiness. It just can't be."

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