In the early hours of July 31, 1975, five members of The Miami Showband were heading home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. Their drummer, Ray Millar, had gone home to Antrim instead to stay with family members. On a narrow country road outside Newry, the band was flagged down by a group of uniformed men at what appeared to be a routine UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) checkpoint. Such an incident was “normal” in the seventies in Northern Ireland, and they wouldn’t have been overly alarmed. But then the men in uniform ordered them to get out of their vehicle and stand by the roadside while the soldiers conducted a check of the back of the van.
I don’t know if standing there on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized this was not a routine army checkpoint. They would be the victims of a vicious and premeditated ambush carried out by members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). As they waited, two of the UVF men – later revealed as members of the Ulster Defense Regiment – planted a bomb in the back of the van. It exploded prematurely, killing both, and in the chaos that followed, the remaining UVF members opened fire, killing three band members.
There were reports that the handsome young lead singer, Fran O’Toole, was shot 22 times in the face. Vulnerable and on the ground, he begged for mercy from men who kept shooting. Brian McCoy, shot nine times, was the first to die at the scene. Tony Geraghty was shot in the back – four times. Des McAlea and Stephen Travers survived the blast from the explosion that flung both of them into the air. McAlea suffered only minor injuries and somehow escaped into the night; Travers was seriously wounded and survived only by pretending to be dead. Later, he recalled the gunman kicking the four bodies to ensure they were all dead.
Some four decades later, sitting at my computer in a sunny room on the other side of the Atlantic, the shock and revulsion returns, along with the fear we felt as details of the massacre unfolded in our newspapers and on the radio. I remember my mother ironing in our kitchen and at the same time shaking her head in disbelief and muttering to God. It was unimaginable – these young men, Catholics and Protestants, darlings of the show band scene, in their prime and adored by thousands of fans north and south of the border, slaughtered in the muck on a country road.
Naively, we had believed musicians were immune. Too, we saw in the Miami Showband what could be, its members and its audiences crossing all social, religious, and political boundaries. In fact, in his address to The Hague some years later, Stephen Travers would recollect his band as “a blueprint for social, religious, and political harmony.” But on that night in 1975, what happened to The Miami Showband left no doubt that musicians were just as much of a target as anyone else. It became known as “The Day The Music Died,” but such a tagline does not convey the monstrosity of it, the chilling choreography behind it, the harrowing legacy of it.
In the years following the Miami Showband massacre, musicians were afraid. Word on the street was that Northern Ireland’s musical life was over. Performers from the UK mainland were too scared to risk their safety, and with this increased risk, performing in Northern Ireland became wildly expensive, the cost of insurance premiums soaring given the real threat of hi-jackings and bombings.
Our wee country had become a “no go” area.
Lovers of live music grew accustomed to canceled gigs, more bombings, more shootings – all part and parcel of Northern Ireland living. Performers were warned to stay away. Most took heed. A few – too few – kept going, like Rory Gallagher, who played Belfast’s Ulster Hall more than any other performer. How we loved him.
Rory Gallagher has once again returned to Belfast, at least he came, and for that we must thank him. Belfast has now become a graveyard for music. Concerts and big groups are a thing of the past…We want action now, for too long the groups in England haven’t given music where it can give the most help. Lennon tells us to give peace a chance, but has he visited us? All we want John ,baby, is the truth. Perhaps he is furthering the peace movements somewhere in Hyde Park. Perhaps the groups don’t want to make any sacrifices, maybe they are afraid, maybe they cannot stir themselves to help the people who need it most, who have no power to speak of.
– excerpt from early 70’s Belfast underground paper,’Take One’.
Rory must have known that when the music played, you would never have known that our country was in the grip of “The Troubles,” even as the bombs exploded in the city around him. Music was the alternative and in time, there would be punk rock and an anthem proclaiming as such and a renewed sense that music could save us all –
When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to live for one glorious burning moment.
So when I heard about those gunmen storming into The Bataclan Theater in Paris last Friday night and slaughtering scores of fans, I was sickened again. How could this happen? Yes. I should know better than most that a popular concert venue in Paris on a Friday night is not an unexpected place, that there are some for whom Paris is “a legitimate target.”
And, I should also have expected the statement from Stiff Little Fingers who were due to play in Paris on the heels of their gigs in Dublin and Belfast.
Of course they would play in Paris just four days later. Of course they would. And they did – with authority and heart.
It was the right thing to do – for Paris, for all of us.
Thank you, SLF.