`Narrow-Water` Quashed Papal Visit To Newry

DEVASTATING bomb-attacks by the Provisional IRA, on the outskirts of Warrenpoint and Co Sligo on the same day, in 1979, killed 18 British soldiers, as well as Earl Mountbatten and family members. And there were serious repercussions, reaching into the Vatican Buckingham Palace.

For, not only was Lord Mountbatten a cousin of Queen Elizabeth, but plans had been at an advanced stage for a Papal tour of Ireland, including the North. And there was speculation that, en route to Armagh, Pope John Paul would call at Newry Cathedral, celebrating its 150th anniversary, and home parish of his Personal Secretary, Monsignor John Magee, now Bishop of Cloyne.

On that fateful day in August, 1979, the Provos claimed their highest-ranking military victim, Lieut. Colonel David Blair, C.O. of the Queen’s Own Highlanders, as well as the greatest roll of British Army fatalities in the `Troubles.` Also Lord Mountbatten had been Chief of the British Naval Staff, as well as the first Governor-General of an independent India.

The IRA could not have chosen a more historic and legendary location for their operation at Narrow-water. Once the strong-hold of the Gaelic Magennis clan, the present castle was constructed by forbears of the present proprietor, Captain Roger Hall. And the familiar Keep on the water’s edge, so popular with painters, was once a British military watch-tower.

Ironically, the castle and its extensive grounds were used to accommodate British and U.S. troops, preparing for the Normandy Landing during the last war. Warrenpoint church organist, the late Sean Crawford, recalled how he provided music for a military congregation, during Mid-night Mass in Narrow-water Castle.

During the 70’s, Mrs Maeve Hall, wife of the castle-owner, was active in the Peace Movement, as well as supporting the under-privileged, as chairperson of the Newry and district Community Services Council. She converted the basement of the castle into a successful art gallery.

But back to Narrow-water in August, 1979. Two British Army Land-rovers were escorting military lorries along the dual-carriageway out of Warrenpoint, and were approaching a lorry-load of hay, parked at the roadside, when a 500-pound bomb was detonated by remote control. The explosion killed 8 paratroopers, leaving a six-foot crater on the road.

A Wessex helicopter was collecting some of the casualties when a second bomb exploded beside the granite gate-lodge to Narrow-water Castle, killing 10 soldiers from the Quick Reaction Force, who had taken up position there.

A sergeant described the aftermath of the double blasts: “Pieces of meat, bits of bodies, arms and legs, - indescribable, horrific. Once they were young men, now just like something you’d see on a butcher’s slab.”

A young motorcyclist owes his life to two quick-thinking `Point firemen. He was spotted riding across the fields of the Narrow Water Castle estate, towards the scene of the explosion. Some paratroopers were about to open fire when Section Leader Billy McKinley and Ken Morrow shouted a warning not to shoot.

One unusual victim was an English tourist on the Omeath side, who was shot dead by British soldiers in the mistaken belief that he was one of the bombers. 29-year-old Michael Hudson, on a fishing holiday, rushed towards the scene on hearing the explosions. He was the son of a coachman at Buckingham Palace and resided in the Royal Mews. The queen was informed about his death.

As the RUC, British soldiers and ambulance crews sifted through the blood-soaked debris for human remains, a flood of condemnation and condolences came from political and religious leaders. British prime minister left for a morale-boosting visit to the North, meeting security chiefs, strolling along Belfast’s main thoroughfare, chatting to troops in the base at Crossmaglen. Wearing a combat jacket and a UDR beret, she toured the border region by helicopter.

The premier’s message was: “We really must find a way to get on top of the terrorists. If we don’t defeat them, then democracy is dead.” To which the IRA responded: “The Iron Maiden’s declaration of war is nothing but the bankrupt rattling of an empty tin.”

Two Warrenpoint councillors, Jim McCart and Liam Treanor stated: “We are totally ashamed at what has happened. We know we can speak on behalf of the people of the `Point, when we deplore this ghastly act. No cause can justify these senseless killings, which can only disgrace our town and country, and bring shame to it.”

Pope John Paul sent a personal message to Queen Elizabeth: “I offer to your majesty my sincere condolences on the tragic murder of Lord Mountbatten, a courageous man whose death has caused grief to your family. This act of shocking violence is an insult to human dignity.

“I condemn it, together with other acts of violence on the same day, that caused death and brought suffering to many families. I ask Almighty God to be merciful to those who have died, to comfort their relatives, and to touch the hearts of the violent men with his healing grace.”

Cardinal O Fiaich, who was in Rome with Bishop Edward Daly, making arrangements for the Papal visit to Ireland, stated: “The news from Ireland is appalling. This is mass murder, - merciless slaughter.” And the chairman of the organising committee for the Papal visit, Bishop Francis McKernan expressed “shock and profound sorrow at the loss of innocent life.

“Such a grotesque act, contrary to God’s law, will arouse particular revulsion at this time. People are preparing to welcome to our country a man, who stands for peace and the sacredness of human life. The pope’s words are of special significance to us: `Violence generates violence; hatred generates hatred. They both humiliate and degrade the human person.”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008