People often say that music was harmless fun. It wasn’t. It must have terrified the terrorists. When people came to see us, sectarianism was left outside the door of the dancehall. They came in, they were brought together and they enjoyed the same thing. They looked at each other and thought, there’s not much difference here, and nature was doing its course. That’s the power of music and I think that every musician that ever stood on a stage, north of the border during those decades, every one of them was a hero.
It happened in the summer of my twelfth year, in the early hours of July 31, 1975. Five members of The Miami Showband – affectionately known as the Irish Beatles – 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, so there would have been no need to be 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 at what point, standing there on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized this was not a routine army checkpoint, that 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. Twenty-two times. 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.
Forty-one years later, sitting at my computer in a sunny kitchen on the other side of the Atlantic, the shock and revulsion returns, along with the fear I felt as details of the massacre unfolded in our newspapers and on the radio. I am transported to the kitchen of my childhood home on the Dublin road. My mother is ironing one of my father’s shirts, 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 showband 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. The Miami Showband had represented 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, or the harrowing legacy of it.
In the months and years following the Miami Showband massacre, musicians were afraid. Word on the street was that Northern Ireland’s musical life was over. The showband scene as good as ended, and performers from the UK mainland were too scared to risk their safety. 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. Belfast became a ghost town. People stayed at home.
Our wee country had become a “no go” area. A place not to go to. Although only a child, I knew I wanted out.
Lovers of live music grew accustomed to canceled gigs, to more bombings and more shootings – all part and parcel of Northern Ireland living. Performers were warned to stay away, and 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’.
Like The Miami – and a former showband player himself – Rory would have known that when the music played, no one would 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 a punk rock 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.
That’s the power of music and those who make it. Music is about hope – infinite hope – and it is about bringing us closer together. When asked about the men who murdered his friends, Des Lee stresses that there is no point in holding grudges for over four decades. Instead, he asks that we never forget them, that we remember Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty, and Brian McCoy.
. . . we were just a bunch of innocent young musicians, doing our job. We weren’t interested in politics. We played everywhere, north and south. We just wanted to make people smile for a few hours. And that’s why Ireland should never be allowed to forget The Miami Showband.
I will never forget them.