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The best books on The Troubles

recommended by Timothy Knatchbull

From a Clear Blue Sky by Timothy Knatchbull

From a Clear Blue Sky
by Timothy Knatchbull


In August 1979, Timothy Knatchbull and his family went out in a boat off the coast of Ireland. Neither his grandparents or his twin brother would return from the IRA bomb attack that shocked Britain and the world. Here he talks about books that helped him better understand 'the Troubles,' and his own book, From a Clear Blue Sky, about his own journey to come to terms with that happened that bank holiday weekend.

From a Clear Blue Sky by Timothy Knatchbull

From a Clear Blue Sky
by Timothy Knatchbull

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You’re recommending books about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Shall we start with Armed Struggle, by Richard English?

This made a big impact on me. Such a big impact, in fact, that I went to Queen’s University, Belfast to meet Richard English and delve further. His penetrating analysis of the IRA was particularly helpful to me because I was writing a book about the healing I needed to do with regard to my dead twin. After his murder, almost everything about Ireland seemed to me to be about emotion. Before I could get to the heart of my own story I needed to clamber back on to a platform of rationality, fact, analysis and historical detail, and this is what his book helped me do. It gave me a grounding in the history of the IRA, ripping out the wishy-washy emotional stuff and providing a brilliantly calm and sane analysis. He was explicit about this. He wrote that because of Ulster’s bloody past, it was necessary to take a sane and measured approach and he hoped that his book would pass that test. I admired the mission he had set himself and the way in which he accomplished it. He wrote with integrity and authority, the sort of authority that comes from dogged, unbiased research. I realised I needed to apply the same test to my own writing.

I am interested that you are putting emotion aside as ‘wishy-washy’ but I’ll come back to that in a minute. Can you give me a brief history of the IRA?

Richard English focuses on events since the Easter Rising of 1916 and explains how the organisation evolved in response to internal and external pressures. He wasn’t frightened of saying, look, this is a very complicated process. His response to that was just to take it on full frontal. He layers and sets it out very methodically. As a result it is quite a difficult read because you have to analyse it in the way that he does, slowly and carefully. It was just what I needed. But I haven’t forgotten your question: why was it necessary for me to put aside emotion, at least for a time, when I was writing a book that was so grounded in emotional and mental issues? I can explain that.

Go on then.

Five Books has asked me to talk about the Troubles, but really my own book is not about the Troubles in the narrow sense, and it certainly is not a political book, although my training is in political science. I went back to Ireland because I’d left when I was a boy, having been very badly injured in an attack, and I needed to heal myself. But I could not do that through emotion alone. I needed a full range of tools, historical, political, cultural. English’s book was a boon.

How old were you when you were injured?

I was 14, almost 15 and I had an identical twin. He was Nicholas Timothy and I am Timothy Nicholas. Few people could reliably say which of us was which. We had spent only about five days apart in our lives. We were incredibly close. And one moment we had this idyllic, happy childhood and this lovely Irish holiday, and the next moment he was dead. I was very badly wounded, as were my mother and father. We were the only survivors of the seven people who had been on this lovely little, rather smelly, old fishing boat, Shadow Five, which my grandfather kept in the West of Ireland. We were so badly wounded that none of us were able to go to the funerals in England for my 79-year-old grandfather, Grandpapa, as we called him, my 83-year-old grandmother, Granny, as we knew her, and my beloved Nicky.

Your parents didn’t go to his funeral?

No. We were lying, critically injured, in Sligo Hospital in Ireland. I was in intensive care. On the other side of the intensive care unit lay my mum, connected to a life-support machine. She had 117 stitches in her face, 20 in each eyeball. She wasn’t expected to live. My father had similar injuries but there wasn’t a bed available for him in intensive care so he was in a ward nearby. The bomb was on Monday, 27 August 1979. The bodies of Grandpapa, Granny and Nick were removed from Ireland after two days but I didn’t even know they were dead. Their coffins were shown on live television as they were driven from the morgue on their way to three Royal Navy helicopters. Having landed on Irish soil and waiting for the coffins to arrive, the helicopters kept their rotors running, expecting to be attacked at any minute. This great drama was unfolding and I still didn’t know Nicky was dead. So I came away with this deep underlying mental and emotional wound which came to the surface over the years.

I was taken out of intensive care three days after the attack, and told that Nicky and my grandparents were dead, and so was our 15-year-old Irish friend Paul Maxwell. He had been earning pocket money in his summer holidays, helping us run this little boat. And I wasn’t able to go to any of their funerals because of my wounds. So I never had any goodbyes and I left Ireland with all these terrible unresolved emotional wounds. The physical wounds I got over. And I got on with life. But the emotional wounds I didn’t really face up to until later: 2003. By then I was married, and deeply in love with Isabella, my wife. We had two children at that stage. And I wanted to heal myself. I knew I could be a better dad if I did. So I decided I would go back to the West of Ireland, to the place of the murders for a week. It was the 24th anniversary of the murders.

And you hadn’t been back since?

I had set foot there a number of times, but each time I had been so overcome that I just had this terrible numbness, and I didn’t feel that I was doing any good to me or anyone else. So in 2003 I felt I absolutely needed to confront and deal with the great unresolved issue of my life, my dead twin, Nicky. I needed to go back and do something but I didn’t know what, so I decided that I would just start by going back, very quietly and privately, and spending a week there on my own and seeing what happened. I gave myself 12 months and said I’d go back for a few days each month until the 25 anniversary and by then I would be either healed or bust.

And what had you been doing up until then?

Well, I had developed a sort of addiction to work. But when all was quiet and I was on my own I felt strangely alone, often sad, sometimes very low. Three months after the attack I started having a strange symptom – I started hearing a bang in my head and I couldn’t work out what it was. Only in June 1980 did I accept that I was hearing the bomb. It would come to me sometimes half a dozen times a day – a bizarre sensation of an explosion in my head. I started seeing a therapist in my late 20s, a bereavement counsellor. I went for about six months and he got me to admit something that I hadn’t admitted before – that there was something wrong. That hearing the sound of a bomb in my head wasn’t normal and wasn’t healthy. Beyond that I didn’t make much progress.

Later I started seeing a therapist, Berenice Krikler, whose style of therapy suited me very well. I saw her once a week. Over 18 months I learnt that staying fit, mentally and emotionally, was something I had to commit to and work at. Emotional cogs started to turn inside me that had been seized up before. And in 1996 I fell deeply in love with the woman that I was later to marry, Isabella Norman, a teacher who lived near me. And I don’t think I would have fallen in love so deeply if it hadn’t been for freeing myself up with Berenice. At my last meeting with Berenice before moving to America, she came out of her house and said: ‘There’s still something holding you back, isn’t there?’ I knew what she meant but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

A number of years later I was married with two tiny children and I knew I needed to go and address this issue. I knew I had to address this hole at the back of mind: my unresolved grief over Nicky. And that meant returning to Ireland. To do that I knew I had to gain a proper understanding of the Troubles, and the IRA. This brings us back to Richard English’s book. It was a vitally helpful tool in helping me analyse the organisation, where it came from, how it evolved, and how it operated. The book’s methodology was the opposite of the freewheeling emotional journey I needed to go through, but it was a vital tool to keep my emotional processes in check with my rational ones. It was a counterpoint. I went back to talk quietly to people without any agenda. It was an overpowering experience. As a journalist my habit was to take a recorder with me and put it down in front of people and let them talk. Later, when the emotion had subsided, I was left with their words. As a film-maker I thought I might one day make a documentary about it. I soon scrapped that idea. I was all over the place, emotionally. Only much later did I realise that what I had gathered lent itself to a book. At the end of the year of visiting Ireland I came back feeling like a completely changed man. I had stopped hearing the sound of the bomb.

Just because of being there?

Because of being there and the profound effect it had on me, a catharsis, flushing stuff away and giving me what I had missed as a kid – a goodbye. A belated goodbye, which I re-engineered for myself in a painstaking way over a period of time and in a rather bizarre way. I found the man who did Nicky’s post-mortem report and I sat with him and he pulled out the file he hadn’t opened for 25 years. He cut the tape and out spilled photographs and blood-stained pages from the night of the autopsies in 1979 and I could read the report and look at the photographs.

What do you think about the Derrida thing of language distancing you from the emotion? It’s common and, listening to you speak about horrific things in a very calm way… There is something about articulating this stuff that removes the real horror and emotion. So many intelligent people write and talk about their horror as a kind of catharsis, but Derrida thought that the truth was in the différance, the gap between the thought and the articulation, that that is where the truth is caught. Listening to you speak I am trying to hear the unsaid, because the said is very practised.

Well, what I put in the book was very raw. At the height of my emotional storm, I went to pieces. After I’d been going to Ireland for a couple of months there came a point one morning when I went off the edge. I went doolally. I lost my reason. Completely unexpectedly I started talking to my dead twin as if he was sitting in a chair opposite me. As I was doing it, blubbing my eyes out, heaving sobs, I scratched out words as they came into my head. I found I was saying goodbye to Nick. I put that in the book, almost verbatim. It was far from articulate, it was a mass of goo. I had this enormous force that needed to come out. I had suspected I needed to rail and scream and kick and bash things to bits. But I was wrong. What I needed was to speak with him one last time. And as I did so a torrent of emotion spilled out. Afterwards I was completely exhausted, but also relieved and happy. I went back to England at the end of the year as a much better daddy to my kids and a better practitioner of work…and life…

Understanding the IRA was not what I went back to Ireland to do, but I needed to understand something about the IRA in order to have any chance of understanding the men and women who had so meticulously put together this vicious attack. It was mounted so carefully, so cleverly. They watched us all that August, until the moment they detonated the bomb by remote control. They almost certainly tipped off a professional photographer to be in the harbour to cover the carnage as the bodies were brought in. They wanted the images on the front page of every English-speaking newspaper in the world. It was chilling, calculated, clever, disgusting. And I wanted to understand this organisation. I had grown up thinking of it as sinister, evil even. But of course for others it is wonderful, brilliant. What Richard English gives is an understanding of how the old IRA were succeeded by the Provisional IRA, and how much later the Provisionals were able to agree a peace agreement. The book proved to be a critically useful analytic tool.

Lost Lives.

Lost Lives is, in a way, the most shocking book I’ve ever opened. At its heart is a list that starts ‘No1: June 11, 1966’ and gives the name of the first man to be killed and a short biography with the circumstances of his murder. It then lists 3,697 individuals who lost their lives in the Troubles. The last death recorded in my edition (the third) was on November 21, 2003.

Your brother is presumably among them.

He is there at number 2,134. Before him, coming in at 2,133, was my beloved old Grandpapa. I remember holding this book and just feeling horrified to find them as straws in a haystack. And I turned the page to look for Granny, Doreen Brabourne, but she wasn’t there. The next person after Nicky, was Paul Maxwell, number 2,135, this lovely Irish teenage friend of ours. But my grandmother’s absence was because she survived for 21 hours. She’d been in intensive care next to me and at 8.57 the next morning her heart stopped. Between my grandfather, my twin and Paul dying and her dying there came the IRA Warrenpoint bombs and the 18 soldiers killed that afternoon occupied numbers 2,136 to 2,153. Every person is dealt with in order. And every death is provided with a pocket history of that person’s precious, unique life. And as you read on you despair at the pain, and the loss of ‘precious human intimacy’. And the authors of this book go further, highlighting any lost life that directly or indirectly was connected to any other in the book. Under my twin it says: ‘See also 1,536 Ross McWhirter,’ Norris McWhirter’s identical twin, murdered by the IRA.

What’s the link?

After I had gone back to school, Norris McWhirter happened to be a guest speaker at the school, talking about The Guinness Book of Records, which he had edited with his twin, until Ross was killed on his doorstep by two IRA gunmen. ‘Not a bereavement,’ Norris later said, ‘an amputation.’ We met in private and he, as a lone twin, helped me understand some of the terrain ahead of me. I later wrote about that, causing Lost Lives to link my twin’s murder with Ross McWhirter’s. Lost Lives is a beautifully embroidered quilt linking people’s lives and deaths in a compelling, sometimes shocking way. As well as a breathtaking piece of writing, I felt it was also an act of love, a form of tribute to those who had been killed, on all sides. And a reminder we have to deal with every single lost life in its own terms, as its own painful story. Each chapter covers one year of the Troubles, and is introduced with penetratingly powerful quotations and facts, adding context and insight to the quagmire into which you feel you might otherwise sink.

Blood-Dark Track.

This is a fascinating account of personal growth as the author seeks out dark secrets from his family’s past and thereby undergoes a process of self-discovery. O’Neill tells the story of his two grandfathers, one a Christian Turk running a hotel and an import-export business in Mersin, Turkey, and the other one, the one who mattered to me, a fiercely devout republican from Cork. Both grandfathers were locked up by the authorities, who, suspecting they had nationalist sympathies, saw them as threats. Both these lives had remained shrouded by a veil of silence which the author slowly lifts. The book heightened my own unease at the way an odd veil of silence, ignorance even, had descended on the murders of my family. I needed to confront this silence and seek the truth with a level of detail that had never been attempted before. I needed to come away with a new level of forgiveness based on a knowledge of what had happened in Ireland, a knowledge of who I was forgiving and what they’d done. I found that by the end of my year I could actually enjoy being in the West of Ireland once more, in these places that had been so full of horror. Now I can have a great time there on the beach with my kids.

O’Neill brought a penetrating, forensic, lawyer’s mind to his quest. He dug up a mountain of personal history from his family and welded that with the history of Irish Republicanism. Of greatest significance to me, he managed to maintain a balanced if not quite detached view. He went back to the places and deeds of his forebears in Ireland, aware of his own prejudices, not least among them his ingrained prejudice against violence. And that was part of my own conundrum. I was very attached to the Irish way of life, but rooted in that way of life is a deeply-held attachment to republicanism. And the IRA was the epitome of armed republicanism. I had to resolve this. O’Neill was able to peel away layer after layer of what republicanism meant to different people at different times. I began to see that it wasn’t always a monstrous thing and for many it was seen as a high-minded tradition, ‘cavalier’ even. That made me stop and think. I knew I could never identify with the IRA, but his account helped me see why at least some people saw the brutality of the IRA as something that always had to be forgiven, however unpalatable that might seem.

Killing Rage by Eamon Collins.

A horrible first-hand account of IRA killing by one of the killers, Eamon Collins, who fell in with the IRA at an early age and soon found himself drawn into the cycle of shooting and bombing. Later he turned against his former comrades and fled. Returning years later he wrote this sinister, troubling account, its impartiality clearly compromised. Having said that, his account has a credibility in its uncomplicated rawness. One of the most poignant passages for me is when Collins describes washing and shaving and playing with his baby son. He then put him in his cot and watched him lying asleep, hoping the little child would never have to do what he was doing. Then he turned on the radio and waited for the news. He has helped deliver a bomb and he knows ‘the boys’ would now be moving it into position. I was appalled. These men were daddies one moment and the next they were prepared to blow to bits other people’s kids. I needed to try and understand where Thomas McMahon had been coming from. He had had young kids of his own when he planted his bomb on Shadow Five.

And did you?

I never approached him, but here was the author of Killing Rage, from the same generation, who was able to write about where the anger and the hatred came from, and how he saw what he was doing was a way of articulating this hatred that had built up over generations. His account was somewhat polished of course, and romanticised, but for all that it was captivating. He wrote in a way that struck a deep chord with me, describing ghostly places in Ireland which in previous times had been bustling neighbourhoods. I knew such places. The areas had been largely depopulated over time, as the local citizenry went away to fill the factories, servants halls and construction sites of the industrialised nations, leaving behind a wound felt by oncoming generations. Collins claimed that he felt he and his cohort were giving vent to the fury felt by the silenced generations, and that they had come to exact a fearful price for a society built on injustice. Although cautious about Collins’s rhetoric, I was fascinated to read how he viewed himself and learn how he was able to live with himself. He finished his book with the hope that the things he described may be forgotten if not forgiven. The IRA evidently took a dim view of this. When he was later found murdered, Irish police were in no doubt they were responsible.

The Beginning of the End, by Walter Ellis.

And now for something completely different: humour. In this book, sub-titled ‘The crippling disadvantage of a happy Irish childhood’, Walter Ellis writes with hilarious candour about his Protestant upbringing, education and career in journalism. Among the mix-ups and muddles of early life, he explains the bizarre friendship he fell into with Ronnie Bunting, who was to become chief of staff of the Irish National Liberation Army, a faction that played a significant role in the death and destruction of the Troubles. I was desperately in need of a good laugh after all the gloom and horror to be found in any bibliography of the Troubles, so when this gem was featured in The Sunday Times in 2003 it took me a matter of minutes to get to Waterstones. I was not disappointed. Ellis has wit and humour in spades and the ability to get it on to the page with delicious self-deprecation.

Bunting is the dark shadow to Ellis’s story. He had masterminded the assassination of Airey Neave, Maggie Thatcher’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in March 1979, just five months before my own family was bombed. Here was a book that offered insight into the topsy-turvy life of a notorious killer, himself murdered while still a young man. Ellis paints a picture of their warm friendship, while letting the humorous mask slip for long enough to allow in the dark undertone of sectarian killing with all the disgust it deserves. But even in Bunting’s crime-punctuated life, Ellis finds moments of humour: the suitcase Bunting gives to Ellis to keep for the weekend at his mum’s house later turns out to have the contents of a freshly robbed bank in it.

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I adored accompanying Ellis down the byways of his early life, and relished the laugh out loud stories and his lovely writing. To those not possessed of a happy Irish childhood, the book offers insight, colour and its fair share of shocks. Northern Ireland during the Troubles was evidently both a wonderful and an awful place in which to grow up. It’s up to the reader to decide which was uppermost.

Now that you’ve been through all this process of healing, do you feel like a whole person even without your twin or will you always feel like half a person?

I remember the moment I was told Nicky was dead. It was the worst moment of my life. I sensed there and then that either I would get over it in that moment, or I never would. When I realised I had taken my next breath I knew I would survive, and that I would do so all the better for having had 14 years of shared life with him. Later I recognised the truth in something which Norris McWhirter told me about the murder of his identical twin, Ross: ‘It is no good just living in hope that time will cure the hurt… The only plan is to double rather than halve one’s aspirations for the future.’ It was good advice. The dreadful sadness of not having Nicky with me as I go through life is something I’ve moved on from and put into its place. The good stuff now so far outshines the bad stuff and life is a complete joy, especially with Isabella and our five young children to share it with. They know all about their Uncle Nicky, and the happiness he left behind.

August 26, 2010

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Timothy Knatchbull

Timothy Knatchbull

Timothy Knatchbull is the grandson of Lord Mountbatten and survived the 1979 bomb that killed his identical twin, his grandparents and a family friend. He works in the media industry.

Timothy Knatchbull

Timothy Knatchbull

Timothy Knatchbull is the grandson of Lord Mountbatten and survived the 1979 bomb that killed his identical twin, his grandparents and a family friend. He works in the media industry.