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Mountbatten’s killers caught ‘two hours’ before deadly detonation in ‘lucky coincidence’

Lord Mountbatten’s assassination shocks royal family in 1979

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Over 40 years ago today, the Royal Family fell victim to an unprecedented attack on one of their own. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the uncle of Prince Philip and second cousin of King George VI, was killed in an Irish Republican Army attack on the royal. The 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma was out on his fishing boat when a bomb detonated onboard. 

Mountbatten often spent summer at his holiday home, Classiebawn Castle, on the Mullaghmore Peninsula in County Sligo, in northwest Ireland. The small village was only a few miles from the border with County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland and near an area known to be used as a cross-border refuge by IRA members. 

On the morning of August 27, 1979, Mountbatten went lobster-potting and tuna fishing in his boat, Shadow V. 

He was accompanied by members of his family including his elder daughter Patricia, Lady Brabourne, her husband Lord Brabourne, their twin sons Nicholas and Timothy Knatchbull and Lord Brabourne’s mother Doreen, Dowager Lady Brabourne. Also onboard was Paul Maxwell, a young crew member from Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.

When the boat was just a couple hundred metres from the shore, the bomb was detonated. The boat was immediately destroyed by the force of the blast. 

Mountbatten was pulled from the water alive but died from his injuries before being brought to shore. 14-year-old Nicholas and 15-year-old Paul were killed by the blast and the others sustained severe injuries. Doreen, 83, died from her injuries the following day. 

The plot to assassinate Mountbatten was reaching its final stages 24 hours earlier in Bundoran, a seaside town nine miles northeast of Mullaghmore. Thomas McMahon, the bomb maker, and his accomplice Francis McGirl, who had family links to the IRA, transported the bomb to its final destination. 

That evening, McMahon slipped onto the boat and planted the radio-controlled detonator. The following morning, having played their part in the assassination, the pair began their journey south. 

But they were about to hit a bump in the road, as 80 miles south of Classiebawn Castle, the Irish Gardaí in Granard, County Longford, were carrying out a routine roadside check of passing cars. 

Tommie Gorman, Irish journalist and broadcaster, claimed an “extraordinary coincidence” saw McMahon and McGirl questioned by police two hours before the bomb they had planted went off. 

Appearing on the 2021 Channel 5 documentary ‘The Murder of Lord Mountbatten: 3 Days that Shook Britain’, Mr Gorman explained: “It was a sleepy Monday morning and the officer in charge of them asked them to mount a patrol in the main street of this small town and to carry out checks for tax and insurance and other minor road offences.”

McMahon and McGirl were in one of the very first cars stopped. 

He continued: “It was an extraordinary coincidence and piece of good luck for the Gardaí.

“He [a garda] actually became suspicious because he said one of the men was very, very nervous when they asked him to open the boot of the vehicle.

“They said there was a shake in his hand and he [McGirl] could barely get the keys into the actual hole to actually open the boot.

“And that made them suspicious.

“They asked for details of their names, and they were not at all convinced by the names given as to whether they were their true identities.

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“Whatever instincts they had, they brought the men back to the station.”

While the Gardaí were convinced they had IRA terrorists in their custody, they did not know the extent of what they had done. 

When the bomb was detonated, McMahon and McGirl were being interrogated over their suspicious behaviour. 

The Gardaí decided to arrest the pair under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act of 1939.

Mr Gorman explained: “It was just a holding charge, a catch-all technique that was used to detain people in suspicious circumstances.

“The two Gardaí who made those arrests had no idea what piece of the jigsaw that they were about to provide.” 

The IRA claimed responsibility for the assassination in a statement released immediately afterwards. It read: “This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country.”

McMahon was tried for the assassinations in the Republic of Ireland, and convicted by forensic evidence which showed flecks of paint from the boat and traces of nitroglycerine — the explosive liquid used to make the 23kg bomb — on his clothes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. 

Francis McGirl was acquitted of Mountbatten’s murder. He died in an accident in 1995. 

Three years later, after serving less than 20 years, McMahon was released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. 

As of 2009, McMahon was living with his wife in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. He has two grown sons.

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