Alternative Ulster, Belfast, Dee Wilson, Miami Showband Massacre, Paris attacks, Rory Gallagher, Rory Gallagher statue, Stiff Little Fingers, The Horslips, The Punk Trilogy, The Trident Bar, The Troubles, Ulster Hall, Ulster Historical Circle
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.
Stiff Little Fingers celebrates its forty years in the music business with a homecoming concert in Belfast in the summer of 2017. The band burst on the scene when I was a teenager, writing about a life I could relate to in songs with titles like “Suspect Device” or “Wasted Life.” Brave, bold, pissed off, they were relentless, taking to the stage and the airwaves on behalf of what could be in Northern Ireland, rejecting the paramilitaries and the politicians who were hell-bent on preserving a deadly status quo.
At the time, most musicians were afraid to perform in Northern Ireland, in large part because of what had happened in the early hours of July 31, 1975, when 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. Because such an incident was “normal” in the seventies in Northern Ireland, 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.
Now, 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 were 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.
It was unimaginable – 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 this is a hollow tagline that does not convey the monstrosity of it, the chilling choreography behind it, the harrowing legacy of it.
Northern Ireland’s musical life ground to a standstill. 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, with fans of live music growing 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. In fact, only The Horslips and the late Rory Gallagher continued to include Belfast in their annual tours of Ireland, with Rory playing Belfast’s Ulster Hall more than any other performer. How we loved him. He played on, even as our country was in the grip of “The Troubles,” even as the bombs exploded in the city around 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’.
A plaque bearing Rory Gallagher’s name was installed in the Ulster Hall in 2006, and we will honor his memory – and the gift of his music – with a statue at the Ulster Hall lest we forget that music was the alternative and that in time, there would be punk rock and an anthem proclaiming as such and a renewed sense that music might just save us all. That anthem for an Alternative Ulster came from Stiff Little Fingers in 1978:
Nothin’ for us in Belfast
The Pound’s so old it’s a pity
OK, there’s the Trident in Bangor
Then walk back to the city
We ain’t got nothin’ but they don’t really care
Lest we forget.
I was reminded of this again in 2015 when gunmen stormed into The Bataclan Theater in Paris and slaughtered scores of fans at an Eagles of Death Metal concert. Sickened, but not surprised, because I know better than most that a popular concert venue in Paris on a Friday night is not an unexpected place. For some it 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.
And now we have an opportunity to do something for Stiff Little Fingers. Dee Wilson, author of The Punk Trilogy, has approached the Ulster Historical Circle with a proposal that a blue plaque should be erected at the old Trident Bar in Bangor,where the band performed in its early days. This is a reasonable request given that it is the mission of the Ulster Historical Circle to “place commemorative plaques in public places, in towns and villages all over Ulster, in honor of men and women who have contributed to the Province’s history.” There’s a blue plaque for Van Morrison at 125 Hyndford Street, Belfast, United Kingdom, and there’s one for the old Maritime Hotel, proclaiming it the birthplace of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues in Belfast. There’s one for journalist and footballer, Danny Blanchflower and one for comedian James Young, who helped us laugh at ourselves during Northern Ireland’s darkest days.
But the Ulster Historical Circle has said no to Dee Wilson, no to a blue plaque at the old Trident (now Wolsey’s) Bar in Bangor. The Ulster Historical Circle has in effect said no to commemorating a movement which gave so many of us hope when the odds were stacked squarely against us, a representative explaining that “The Circle has streamlined our criteria since then and we now erect plaques exclusively to individuals who have connections of birth, death, sojourn, education etc with particular buildings.”
Really. Time for an alternative plaque, I think.
What we need is an Alternative Ulster
Grab it and change it, it’s yours
Sign the petition here