TODAY fm ‘The Last Word’ 02.09.09

Matt Cooper

  A dreadful event in Irish history from thirty years ago, August 1979. There were survivors from the IRA bomb that killed Lord Mountbatten. One of those survivors has written a book thirty years on. Thank you for taking the time to join us. Can I ask if it is difficult for you to actually hear that report again thirty years on?


Timothy Knatchbull

   Well, no. Of course on the day I didn’t hear it because I was lying in a hospital bed in Intensive Care in Sligo. All of this was going on, to some large degree, with me quite unaware. I knew something had happened but it was really only after I came out of an emergency operation that afternoon that the full magnitude of it slowly began to seep in.

   And I spent three days in Intensive Care and it was on the fourth day in hospital that one of my family came to me and explained that not only were my beloved grandparents dead and Paul Maxwell but the real hammer blow for me – the moment that changed my life – was when they told me my identical twin brother, Nicholas Knatchbull, was dead.


Matt Cooper
How did you cope with that?


Timothy Knatchbull

  Well, it was a calamitous moment in my life, the worst moment in my life possible. We had grown up in an intensely close family. We were the youngest of seven children. We were identical. He was christened Nicholas Timothy, I was christened Timothy Nicholas. My parents brought us up really identically so that we were dressed in similar clothes, led a similar life and really we were never more than a heartbeat away. In the first fourteen years of my life I think I only spent four or five days apart from Nicholas. Really he was my true soul mate.

  When I looked into my sister’s eyes as she gave me the news, she said to me, ‘When you came to the hospital, you were only semi-conscious, in and out of consciousness, you woke up and Nicky never did.’ And in that moment I realised that my entire life, my whole conception of what it meant to be alive, was going to be changed forever.

   I looked into her eyes and as slowly she dissolved into tears, I followed her. I wanted to give a signal to my family that I was strong and I was well, that I was a survivor and that I was going to carry on in the way they were. I did my best to do so.

   I managed to piece together my life. We went back to England a little over two weeks later. Within a few months more I was able to go back to school and start picking up my life.


Matt Cooper
How hard must that have been? Traditionally we think that from the British aristocracy a certain degree of reserve and stiff upper lip. Did you exhibit that or was that perhaps in some way damaging to your ability to cope with what had happened to you and what had happened to your twin brother?


Timothy Knatchbull

   Well of course the culture was that a boy growing up into a young man – there was a certain expectation. You try to be strong and not show your emotions too much. But I had a very loving, supportive family, brothers and sisters, mother and father, who helped me enormously get through that period of time. But the signal I wanted to send to them and to the rest of the world was that I was alright. I didn’t want them to worry too much. Slowly, I think at times maybe I fooled them and perhaps more damagingly fooled myself. As my physical wounds began to heal I was left with some lasting emotional and mental wounds that really wouldn’t go away.

   In later life when I was in my early thirties I addressed these. I went through some therapy and that really started making me aware of the need to open up and become healthy in a way that I hadn’t before.

  I met the love of my life, my wife, Isabella. We had children and in 2000 when my first daughter was born, I had an extraordinary moment looking into my newborn daughter’s eyes – she is called Amber. Looking at her I was filled, not just with a father’s love which any father knows but also with this desire to protect one’s child. Also at the same time an acknowledgment of the futility of that hope that I would be able to protect her from hurt all life.

   But much more than that, something else came through which was a desire to reach out to the very extraordinary people who on that day in August 1979 had pulled me from the water, undoubtedly had saved my life by motoring over. They saw something floating, they thought it was a football, they grabbed hold of it. It was a man and a woman in a small boat and they found it wasn’t a football; it was a human head – my head. And as they started to pull into the boat they didn’t know what they were going to find; was there a head attached to a body? Were there going to be legs?

   Well, I was lucky enough to keep all of my limbs. I lost only the sight in one eye, some of the hearing in one ear. And as I lay in the bottom of the boat, I knew something awful had happened.

  But many years later as I looked into my own daughter’s eyes, I realised what an incredible gift life was and I wrote to those two people to say thank you for every day of life they had given me and for the miracle of being able to look into my newborn daughter’s eyes.

   From that moment on I realised it was a completion of a journey of healing and truth, forgiveness, reconciliation, that I needed to go through.

   Happily married and with children, for the first time I felt emotionally secure enough to come back to Ireland and the place that I had grown up loving all my life and despite the attack that love had never left me. I had left Ireland in 1979 predominantly with the images I had taken away from Sligo of love, care and attention from the people of Mullaghmore, from the professionals in the hospital.

   Happily married and with children, for the first time I felt emotionally secure enough to come back to Ireland and the place that I had grown up loving all my life and despite the attack that love had never left me. I had left Ireland in 1979 predominantly with the images I had taken away from Sligo of love, care and attention from the people of Mullaghmore, from the professionals in the hospital.

  I decided to go back in 2003 to revisit it. So very quietly, very privately I slipped back into the west of Ireland and spent four or five days, sometimes a week, at a time, one month and then another month, starting in 2003 and after twelve months finishing on the 25th anniversary of the bomb.


Matt Cooper
And what good could that do you?


Timothy Knatchbull

   It was a process of trying to come to terms and complete a process of healing. Now, I didn’t really know what the questions were that I needed to have answered when I went back. I began to realise as I went there. I spoke with our neighbours, our friends, relatives, the community. I began to realise there was an awful lot more to the picture than I had understood before.

   I began to realise that if I wanted to become truly forgiving then I needed to know much more about the attack. There was precious little known about it. So I simply went about finding out the information first hand for myself. Piecing together almost forensically, a picture of what had happened, who had moved against us, why, how, when. These were questions that I needed to have answered if I…


Matt Cooper
…Had they not been answered in the court case there had been?


Timothy Knatchbull

   Well of course the court case had addressed some of those issues but because of the way that a court case works only a small amount of the picture will come to the surface. As I answered, for myself, many of these questions, I found that the feelings that I needed to reconnect with came to the fore. The primordial, over-riding feeling that I needed was this: I had had no goodbye to Nick, my twin brother. There had never been a moment when I had looked into his eyes, or at his dead body. There had never been a moment for me to be in a church service at his funeral because as he was buried in England my parents and I had lay in our hospital beds in Sligo unable to be there.

  And finally in 2004 I had completed that process. I had been back and pieced together what I had needed to, not just the facts but really the feelings of the background and understanding. And I was able to say goodbye to him in a way I’d never done before and with that goodbye came a hello. A hello to the present I was living in, to my wife and my children, my job, my neighbours, my own community and to lead that life in a much more full and enriched way has been the most fantastic gift and a reward for me for going back is how I feel.


Matt Cooper
A couple of things out of that: did you suffer from what might be termed the ‘Survivors Guilt’? In wondering ‘why had I survived?’ from what you have described it was almost a miracle that you were pulled from the water and that you managed to live whereas your brother died.


Timothy Knatchbull

   I never did feel that ‘Survivor’s Guilt’. I felt other complex emotions but I remember in the years following it and many years later discussing this with my parents, with my father who’d gone through the second world war. It’s simply ‘Survivor Guilt’ was not something I felt, it was more complicated than that.

   There was a wonder and there was an extraordinary sense when I went back in 2003 and stood on the little strip of sand where the rescue boat had landed me ashore after the explosion. I realised then what an incredible gift I had been given. To be in some miraculous way, reduced from something for which I had no right, no expectation, to live through. The way that in the moment of the explosion the boat was reduced to the tiniest scraps of driftwood left floating on the surface. Big chunks went straight to the sea bed; there was just rubbish there and the damage that was done to the fabric of the boat. When I look back I feel nothing but wonder and gratitude to the fact that I was able to come away and live.


Matt Cooper
And indeed your parents as well. When you went back what sort of reaction did you get from people? Was there a sense that you found some of them almost embarrassed by their memory of what had happened. That some people in respect had wanted to forget what had happened?


Timothy Knatchbull

  Well with the passage of years, a great deal of healing had passed in that time and that was wonderful but really what had amazed me as I started to work my way back and just quietly call on people who I had known in my childhood and talk to them.

   The predominant thing that came out time and time again was their warmth, of the degree to which they would like to welcome me back. But also their own sense of not having had a goodbye.

  There was that day, after generations of my family having had a home in that community, suddenly a brutal finality. There was this explosion and people – our neighbours, our friends, and the community – had not been able to have their own sense of good bye. I felt as they were talking to me, time and again people said how much they had enjoyed the conversation, how much it had meant to them and to some small degree, there was a little bit of healing it seemed to me that needed to be done on their part as well as mine. That’s what I took away.


Matt Cooper
Did you come across anybody who might have attempted to try and justify these murders?


Timothy Knatchbull

   It’s a very complicated equation and I understand that and I understand that at all times I kept my eye focused on the future and on the personal process I was going through. So I never tried to tie this into a wider political picture. I needed to understand some of the backdrop but I never tried to connect it in any way other than was me personally, as a fourteen year old child unable to make a sense of it and heal fully.

   Going back as somebody approaching my fortieth birthday and making good on that process and reaping huge rewards and living now in a new state of forgiveness with an acceptance that I’ve said my final goodbye to my twin brother, Nicholas. This is really what I’ve done through this book From a Clear Blue Sk and really enjoying life with a fantastic wife and five wonderful children.

   It’s something that while I feel we all have a certain amount of luck in our lives – and I had incredible luck in having Nicholas for a twin for the first nearly fifteen years of my life – and the luck that I have now with my health but also this wonderful life I have with young children and a fantastic wife.


Matt Cooper
When your children get older and they read this book what do you think they will make of it?


Timothy Knatchbull

   Already our children, the eldest of them is nine, they are curious, they want to know. I’m keen that they shouldn’t just have that part of our family’s painful history airbrushed out. They should know about their five wonderful Aunts and Uncles who are living but also about the wonderful one who died that day. It was a remarkable life, all be it a short one he lived: a beautiful one. He is someone who is terrible important to me and it’s a wonderful gift for me to give my children to know about him. So they ask me. They say to me – they are aware about the bomb – and they ask me about it, ‘Tell me Daddy who was on the boat that day?’ And ‘Where were you?’ ‘Who died Daddy?’ Who was it who died?’ And I tell them.

  Somebody once said with relation to the Troubles, that for it to be unrepeatable it must be unforgettable. I hope that in some small way, I’ve put another chip into reminding my family, the younger generation of my family and friends and maybe people beyond that, about something that shouldn’t be forgotten but certainly we should always keep our eye on the future. And be looking at the healing and reaching out and remembering that the greatest gift I came away with was the lack of bitterness my parents had that infected me. It inspired me and I’ve never lived my day with a moment of recrimination.

   There have been flashes of anger, of course. Years ago in the aftermath immediately, but that’s all washed away and I’m just so happy to find that increasingly Ireland is entering a new stage of a very peaceful existence and please God that may continue.


Matt Cooper
Timothy Knatchbull, thank you very much for taking the time to join us. The book is called From a Clear Blue Sky.


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  • 'It is one of the most intensely moving stories I have ever read, and I was gripped from the first page.'

    Barbara Taylor Bradford

    'Testament to a remarkable, benevolent soul...With this public love letter he has found a way to say goodbye’. Sunday Times

    ‘It is one of the most penetrating and humane books to have emerged from the Troubles.’

    Irish Independent

    'This amazingly clear-headed and mature book...Intelligent, honest, tender and so moving that it should come with a warning to read this in private because you're going to be in a tear-stained mess.’ Daily Mail

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