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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Warrenpoint Ambush

The Warrenpoint ambush, also known as the Narrow Water ambush, the Warrenpoint massacre or the Narrow Water massacre, is a guerrilla attack by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on August 27, 1979. The IRA’s South Armagh Brigade ambushes a British Army convoy with two large roadside bombs on the A2 road at Narrow Water Castle, just outside Warrenpoint, County Down, Northern Ireland.

The road and castle are on the northern bank of the Newry River, which marks the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Republic’s side of the river, the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth, is an ideal spot from which to launch an ambush. It is thickly wooded, which gives cover to the ambushers, and the river border prevents British forces from giving chase.

On the afternoon of August 27, a British Army convoy of one Land Rover and two four-ton lorries carrying soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment is driving from Ballykinlar Barracks to Newry. The British Army is aware of the dangers of using the stretch of road along the Newry River and often declares it out of bounds. However, they sometimes use it to avoid setting a pattern. At 4:40 p.m., as the convoy is driving past Narrow Water Castle, an 800-pound fertiliser bomb, hidden among bales of straw on a parked flatbed trailer, is detonated by remote control by IRA members watching from across the border in County Louth. The explosion catches the last lorry in the convoy, hurling it onto its side and instantly killing six paratroopers, whose bodies are scattered across the road. There are only two survivors amongst the soldiers traveling in the lorry, both of whom receive serious injuries. The lorry’s driver, Anthony Wood (19), is one of those killed. All that remains of his body is his pelvis, welded to the seat by the fierce heat of the blast.

According to the soldiers, immediately after the blast they are targeted by rifle fire from the woods on the Cooley Peninsula on the other side of the border, with this view supported by two part-time firefighters assisting the wounded. Shortly afterwards, the two IRA members arrested by the Garda Síochána and suspected of being behind the ambush, are found to have traces of gunsmoke residue on their hands and on the motorbike they are riding. The IRA’s first statement on the incident, however, denies that any shots had been fired at the troops, and according to Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) researchers, the soldiers might have mistaken the sound of ammunition cooking off for enemy gunfire. Nevertheless, at the official inquiry the soldiers declare on oath that they had been fired on.

The surviving paratroopers radio for urgent assistance, and reinforcements are dispatched to the scene by road. A rapid reaction unit is sent by Gazelle helicopter, consisting of Lieutenant Colonel David Blair, commanding officer of the Queen’s Own Highlanders, his signaler Lance Corporal Victor MacLeod, and army medics. Another helicopter, a Wessex, lands to pick up the wounded. Colonel Blair assumes command once at the site.

William Hudson, a 29-year-old from London, is killed by the British Army and his cousin Barry Hudson, a 25-year-old native of Dingle, is wounded when shots are fired across the Newry River into the Republic of Ireland about 3 km from the village of Omeath, County Louth.

The pair are partners in ‘Hudson Amusements’ and had been operating their amusements in Omeath for the duration of the Omeath Gala. When the first explosion is heard across the Lough, the pair go down to the shore to see what is unfolding. The pair makes their way to Narrow Water on the southern side of the border to get a better view of what is happening on the northern side. Barry Hudson is shot in the arm and as he falls to the ground he sees his cousin, who is the son of a coachman at Buckingham Palace, fall to the ground, shot in the head. He dies almost immediately.

The IRA had been studying how the British Army behaves after a bombing and correctly predicts that they would set up an incident command point (ICP) at the stone gateway on the other side of the road. At 5:12 p.m., thirty-two minutes after the first explosion, another 800-pound bomb hidden in milk pails explodes at the gateway, destroying it and hurling lumps of granite through the air. It detonates as the Wessex helicopter is taking off carrying wounded soldiers. The helicopter is damaged by the blast but does not crash.

The second explosion kills twelve soldiers, ten from the Parachute Regiment and the two from the Queen’s Own Highlanders. Lieutenant Colonel Blair is the second Lieutenant Colonel to be killed in the Troubles up until then, following Lieutenant Colonel Corden-Lloyd of the 2nd Battalion Royal Green Jackets in 1978. Only one of Colonel Blair’s epaulettes remains to identify him as his body had been vaporised in the blast. The epaulette is taken from the scene by Brigadier David Thorne to a security briefing with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to “illustrate the human factor” of the attack. Mike Jackson, then a major in the Parachute Regiment, is at the scene soon after the second explosion and later describes seeing human remains scattered over the road, in the water and hanging from the trees. He is asked to identify the face of his friend, Major Peter Fursman, still recognisable after it had been ripped from his head by the explosion and recovered from the water by divers from the Royal Engineers.

Press photographer Peter Molloy, who arrives at the scene after the first explosion, comes close to being shot by an angry paratrooper who sees him taking photographs of the dead and dying instead of offering to help the wounded. The soldier is tackled by his comrades. Molloy says, “I was shouted at and called all sorts of things but I understood why. I had trespassed on the worst day of these fellas’ lives and taken pictures of it.”

The Warrenpoint ambush is a victory for the IRA. It is the deadliest attack on the British Army during the Troubles and the Parachute Regiment’s biggest loss since World War II, with sixteen paratroopers killed. General Sir James Glover, Commander of British forces in Northern Ireland, later says it was “arguably the most successful and certainly one of the best planned IRA attacks of the whole campaign.” The ambush happens on the same day that Lord Mountbatten, a prominent member of the British royal family, is killed by an IRA bomb aboard his boat at Mullaghmore, County Sligo, along with three others.

Republicans portray the attack as retaliation for Bloody Sunday in 1972 when the Parachute Regiment shot dead 13 unarmed civilians during a protest march in Derry. Graffiti appears in republican areas declaring “13 gone and not forgotten, we got 18 and Mountbatten.” The day after the Mountbatten and Warrenpoint attacks, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) retaliates by shooting dead a Catholic man, John Patrick Hardy (43), at his home in Belfast‘s New Lodge estate. Hardy is targeted in the mistaken belief that he is an IRA member.

Very shortly after the ambush, IRA volunteers Brendan Burns and Joe Brennan are arrested by the Gardaí. They are stopped while riding a motorbike on a road opposite Narrow Water Castle. They are later released on bail due to lack of evidence. Burns dies in 1988 when a bomb he is handling explodes prematurely. In 1998, former IRA member Eamon Collins claims that Burns had been one of those who carried out the Warrenpoint ambush. No one has ever been criminally charged.

According to Toby Harnden, the attack “drove a wedge” between the Army and the RUC. Lieutenant General Sir Timothy Creasey, General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland, suggests to Margaret Thatcher that internment should be brought back and that liaison with the Gardaí should be left in the hands of the military. Sir Kenneth Newman, the RUC Chief Constable, claims instead that the British Army practice, since 1975, of supplying their garrisons in south County Armagh by helicopter gives too much freedom of movement to the IRA. One result is the appointment of Sir Maurice Oldfield to a new position of Co-ordinator of Security Intelligence in Northern Ireland. His role is to co-ordinate intelligence between the military, MI5 and the RUC. Another is the expansion of the RUC by 1,000 members. Tim Pat Coogan asserts that the deaths of the 18 soldiers hastens the move to Ulsterisation.

Lieutenant Colonel Blair is remembered on a memorial at Radley College, Oxfordshire.


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Jack Lynch Resigns as Taoiseach of Ireland

Jack Lynch, Irish politician and Taoiseach of Ireland from 1966 to 1973 and from 1977 to 1979, resigns as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil on December 5, 1979.

In 1946, Lynch has his first involvement in politics when he is asked by his local Fianna Fáil cumann to stand for Dáil Éireann in a by-election. Over the next 35 years he serves as Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach (1951-54), Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Lands (1951-54), Minister for the Gaeltacht (March 1957-June 1957), Minister for Education (1957-59), Minister for Industry and Commerce (1959-65), Minister for Finance (1965-66), Leader of Fianna Fáil (1966-79), Leader of the Opposition (1973-77), and 5th Taoiseach of Ireland (1977-79).

The year 1979 proves to be the year in which Lynch finally realises that his grip on power has slipped. The first direct elections to the European Parliament take place in June and see the electorate severely punishing the ruling Fianna Fáil party. A five-month postal strike also led to deep anger amongst people all over the country. On 27 August 1979, the Provisional Irish Republican Army assassinates Earl Mountbatten of Burma in County Sligo. On the same day the IRA kills 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint in County Down.

A radical security review and greater cross-border co-operation are discussed with the new British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. These discussions lead Síle de Valera, a backbench TD, to directly challenge the leadership in a speech at the Liam Lynch commemoration at Fermoy, County Cork, on September 9. Although Lynch quickly tries to impose party discipline, attempting to discipline her for opposing party policy at a parliamentary party meeting held at September 28, de Valera correctly points out that she had not opposed the party policy regarding the North which called for the declaration of the British intent to withdraw from the north. The result is embarrassing for Lynch.

The visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in September proves to be a welcome break for Lynch from the day-to-day running of the country. In November, just before he departs on a visit to the United States he decides that he will resign at the end of the year. This would allow him to complete his term as President of the European Community. The defining event which makes up his mind is the news that Fianna Fáil had lost two by-elections on November 7 in his native Cork (Cork City and Cork North-East).

In addition during the trip Lynch claims in an interview with The Washington Post that a five-kilometre air corridor between the border had been agreed upon during the meeting with Thatcher to enhance security co-operation. This is something highly unsavory to many in Fianna Fáil. When Lynch returns he is confronted openly by Síle de Valera, Dr. Bill Loughnane, a noted hardline Republican backbencher, along with Tom McEllistrim, a member of Charles Haughey‘s gang of five, at a parliamentary party meeting. Lynch stated that the British do not have permission to overfly the border. Afterwards Loughnane goes public with the details of the meeting and accuses Lynch of deliberately misleading the party. An attempt to remove the whip from Loughnane fails.

At this stage Lynch’s position has become untenable, with supporters of Haughey caucusing opinion within the party. George Colley, the man whom Lynch sees as his successor, comes to him and encourages him to resign sooner. Colley is convinced that he has enough support to defeat the other likely candidate, Charles Haughey, and that Lynch should resign early to catch his opponents on the hop. Lynch agreed to this and resigns as leader of Fianna Fáil on December 5, 1979, assured that Colley has the votes necessary to win. However, Haughey and his supporters have been preparing for months to take over the leadership and Lynch’s resignation comes as no surprise. He narrowly defeats Colley in the leadership contest and succeeds Lynch as Taoiseach.

Lynch remained on in Dáil Éireann as a TD until his retirement from politics at the 1981 Irish general election.


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Thomas McMahon Sentenced to Life for Mountbatten’s Assassination

Thomas McMahon, former volunteer in the South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and one of the IRA’s most experienced bomb-makers, is sentenced to life in prison on November 23, 1979 for the assassination of Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, and three others (two children and an elderly lady) at Mullaghmore, County Sligo.

McMahon plants a bomb in Shadow V, a 27-foot fishing boat belonging to Mountbatten at Mullaghmore, near Donegal Bay. Lord Mountbatten and the others are killed on August 27, 1979 when the bomb detonates. The other victims are Doreen Knatchbull, Baroness Brabourne, Mountbatten’s elder daughter’s mother-in-law, his grandson Nicholas Knatchbull and 15-year-old crewmember Paul Maxwell.

McMahon is arrested by the Garda, the Republic of Ireland‘s police force, two hours before the bomb detonates at a Garda checkpoint between Longford and Granard on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle.

The IRA claims responsibility for the act in a statement released immediately afterwards. In the statement from the organisation they say, “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 is tried for the assassinations in the Republic of Ireland, and convicted by forensic evidence supplied by Dr. James O’Donovan that shows flecks of paint from the boat and traces of nitroglycerine on his clothes. He is sentenced to life imprisonment for murder on November 23, 1979, but is released in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Following his release, Toby Harnden in Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh (1999) reports that McMahon is holding a tricolour in the first rank of the IRA colour party at a 1998 IRA meeting in Cullyhanna. However, according to a BBC report, McMahon says that he left the IRA in 1990.

McMahon twice refuses to meet John Maxwell, the father of Paul Maxwell, who seeks him out to explain the reasons for his son’s death. In a May 2011 interview for The Telegraph, Maxwell states that he had “made two approaches to McMahon, the first through a priest, who warned me in advance that he thought there wouldn’t be any positive response. And there wasn’t. I have some reservations about meeting him, obviously – it might work out in such a way that I would regret having made the contact. On the other hand, if we met and I could even begin to understand his motivation. If we could meet on some kind of a human level, a man to man level, it could help me come to terms with it. But that might be very optimistic. McMahon knows the door is open at this end.”

McMahon likewise refuses requests from Nicholas Knatchbull’s twin brother, who lost an eye in the same explosion. The latter, however, has forgiven McMahon and other members of the IRA who committed the act.

McMahon’s wife has stated, “Tommy never talks about Mountbatten, only the boys who died. He does have genuine remorse. Oh God yes.”

McMahon lives with his wife Rose in Lisanisk, Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. He has two grown sons. He helps with Martin McGuinness‘s presidential campaign in 2011, erecting posters for McGuinness around Carrickmacross.


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Birth of Erskine H. Childers, 4th President of Ireland

erskine-hamilton-childers-1Erskine Hamilton Childers, Irish politician and a member of the Fianna Fáil party who serves as the fourth President of Ireland (1973–74), is born on December 11, 1905 in the Embankment Gardens, Westminster, London, to a Protestant family, originally from Glendalough, County Wicklow.

Childers is educated at Gresham’s School, Holt, and the University of Cambridge, hence his striking British upper class accent. On November 24, 1922, when he is sixteen, his father, Robert Erskine Childers, is executed by the new Irish Free State on politically-inspired charges of gun-possession. The pistol he had been found with had been given to him by Michael Collins. Before his execution, in a spirit of reconciliation, the elder Childers obtains a promise from his son to seek out and shake the hand of every man who had signed his death warrant.

Following his father’s funeral, he returns to Gresham’s, then two years later he goes on to Trinity College, Cambridge. He returns to Ireland in 1932 and becomes advertising manager of The Irish Press, the newly founded newspaper owned by the family of Éamon de Valera.

Childers’s political debut is as a successful Fianna Fáil candidate for a seat in Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, in 1938. He becomes a Parliamentary secretary in 1944 and is later Minister for Posts and Telegraphs (1951–54), Minister for Lands (1957–59), and Minister for Transport and Power (1959–69). He also serves as Tánaiste and Minister for Health (1969–73). He supports Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s condemnation of the violence in Northern Ireland and Lynch’s advocacy of a European role for the Irish republic within the European Economic Community (now European Community, embedded in the European Union).

Childers is nominated as the presidential candidate of Fianna Fáil at the behest of de Valera, who pressures Jack Lynch in the selection of the presidential candidate. He is a controversial nominee, owing not only to his British birth and upbringing but to his Protestantism. However, on the campaign trail his personal popularity proved enormous, and in a political upset at the 1973 Irish presidential election, he is elected the fourth President of Ireland on May 30, 1973, defeating Tom O’Higgins by 635,867 (52%) votes to 578,771 (48%). He becomes the second Protestant to hold the office, the first being Douglas Hyde (1938–1945).

Prevented from transforming the presidency as he desires, Childers instead throws his energy into a busy schedule of official visits and speeches, which is physically taxing.

On November 17, 1974, during a conference to the psychiatrists of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in Dublin, Childers suffers a congestional heart failure causing him to lie sideways and turn blue before suddenly collapsing. He is pronounced dead the same day at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital.

Childers’s state funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, is attended by his presidential predecessor Éamon de Valera and world leaders including Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma (representing Queen Elizabeth II), the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and British Opposition Leader Edward Heath, and Presidents and crowned heads of state from Europe and beyond. He is buried in the grounds of the Church of Ireland Derralossary Church, in Roundwood, County Wicklow.


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Death of Erskine Hamilton Childers, 4th President of Ireland

Erskine Hamilton Childers, Fianna Fáil politician who serves as the 4th President of Ireland, dies on November 17, 1974. He also serves as Tánaiste and Minister for Health from 1969 to 1973, Minister for Transport and Power from 1959 to 1969, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs from 1951 to 1954 and 1966 to 1969. He served as a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1938 to 1973.

Childers is born on December 11, 1905, in the Embankment Gardens, London, to a Protestant family originally from Glendalough, County Wicklow. He is educated at Gresham’s School, Holt, and the University of Cambridge. In 1922, when Childers is sixteen, his father, Robert Erskine Childers, is executed by the new Irish Free State on politically inspired charges of gun-possession. After attending his father’s funeral, Childers returns to Gresham’s, then two years later he goes on to Trinity College, Cambridge.

After finishing his education, Childers works for a period in a tourism board in Paris. In 1931, Éamon de Valera invites him to work for his recently founded newspaper, The Irish Press, where Childers becomes advertising manager. He becomes a naturalised Irish citizen in 1938. That same year, he is first elected as a Fianna Fáil Teachta Dála (TD) for Athlone–Longford. He remains in the Dáil Éireann until 1973, when he resigns to become President.

Childers joins the cabinet in 1951 as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the de Valera government. He then serves as Minister for Lands in de Valera’s 1957–59 cabinet, as Minister for Transport and Power under Seán Lemass, and, successively, as Transport Minister, Posts and Telegraphs Minister, and Health Minister under Jack Lynch. He becomes Tánaiste in 1969.

Fine Gael TD Tom O’Higgins, who had almost won the 1966 presidential election, is widely expected to win the 1973 election when he is again the Fine Gael nominee. Childers is nominated by Fianna Fáil at the behest of de Valera, who pressures Jack Lynch in the selection of the presidential candidate. He is a controversial nominee, owing not only to his British birth and upbringing but to his Protestantism. However, on the campaign trail his personal popularity proves enormous, and in a political upset, Childers is elected the fourth President of Ireland on May 30, 1973, defeating O’Higgins by 635,867 votes to 578,771.

Childers quickly gains a reputation as a vibrant, extremely hard-working president, and becomes highly popular and respected. However, he has a strained relationship with the incumbent government, led by Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave of Fine Gael. Childers had campaigned on a platform of making the presidency more open and hands-on, which Cosgrave views as a threat to his own agenda as head of government. Childers considers resigning from the presidency, but is convinced to remain by Cosgrave’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Garret FitzGerald.

Though frustrated about the lack of power he has in the office, Childers’ daughter Nessa believes that he plays an important behind-the-scenes role in easing the Northern Ireland conflict, reporting that former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Terence O’Neill meets secretly with her father at Áras an Uachtaráin on at least one occasion.

Prevented from transforming the presidency as he desired, Childers instead throws his energy into a busy schedule of official visits and speeches, which is physically taxing. On November 17, 1974, just after making a speech to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in Dublin, Childers suffers a heart attack. He dies the same day at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital.

Childers’s state funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin is attended by world leaders including the Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma (representing Queen Elizabeth II), the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Opposition, and presidents and crowned heads of state from Europe and beyond. He is buried in the grounds of the Church of Ireland Derralossary church in Roundwood, County Wicklow.