Miami Showband massacre survivor on coming face-to-face with the UVF killers
Their fans took an old Al Jonson song and they made it their own.
They said they’d walk a million miles for one of their smiles ... Miami. They adored the band with their fresh repertoire, their smiles and their moves. In particular, they lit on the singer Fran O’Toole, the boy from Bray whose vocals revealed a love for soul music and whose face was kind and gracious. He looked like the American star David Cassidy.
The other band members half-joked that they were jealous.
Onstage, it was all about the lightness, but it was also a serious business. There were set codes of behavior, about talking to their audience after a gig, about how to answer fanmail, about good behaviour in public.
They had their own hairdresser. Tom Doherty from Topline Promotions even sent the Miami Showband’s brass players to dance classes, encouraging them to move it like the Four Tops and to swing and dip their instruments, just so.
At their prime, they travelled in a bespoke coach with a big palm tree on the side panel and a built-in wardrobe inside where they hung up their Louis Copeland suits.
There was a reel-to-reel recorder that ran off a 12-volt battery and they used this to rehearse during the endless hauls across Ireland. Five nights a week and maybe another Dublin show at the TV Club in Dublin on a Monday, playing to their off-duty peers and to rockers like Phil Lynott.
In the late Sixties they were at the top of their game. Dickie Rock sang the ballads and Sinatra show tunes. Fran would play keyboards and favour the husky tones of Smokey Robinson and Wilson Pickett. Des Lee from Belfast sang pops and horn player Brian McCoy from Tyrone handled some of the country material.
Three songs fast, three songs slow and then the same again. Two thousand people in the dancehalls most nights, simple rites of courtship and never the harm in it.
“We entertained everybody,” says Des Lee, the saxophone player, originally from Andersonstown. “Didn’t matter what colour, what creed, where we were playing, whether it was north or south at that terrible time in Northern Ireland. We looked upon it as giving two hours of fun to people to get away from it.”
Dickie left in 1973 and Fran became central as the band’s renewed their act. The lapels on the suit jackets got wider, the shoes were taller and the gull wing collars were ready for takeoff. The bass player, Stephen Travers, joined in the early summer of 1975 and Fran relaxed him into the job with practical jokes and silly games on the road.
At the same time, Fran was preparing for a major project, a solo album launch at a Las Vegas music convention in the Autumn. The lead song Love Is was co-written by Des. It grew sweetly and steadily into a gospel anthem and the singer was in commanding form. A hit, surely
Des sighs “Unfortunately, his life was taken short.”
The Miami Showband Massacre is a uniquely grim moment in our history. It happened around 2am on July 31, 1975. Three musicians were shot at point blank range on the way home from a gig. Fran was hit by 20 bullets, many of them in the head. Guitarist Tony Geraghty was shot five times in the back and twice in the back of the skull. Brian McCoy was shot four times.
Two of the band members survived: Des was blown into a ditch and Stephen survived a dum dum bullet that seared through his internal organs. These jobbing musicians with no involvement in the conflict had become targets. The paramilitaries had literally shot the piano player.
Des and Stephen recount the details of this incident with unending patience. They remember the early morning drive from a booking at the Castle Ballroom Banbridge. It didn’t seem like a major deal when they were stopped by men in UDR uniforms for a roadside check around Buskhill. It did seem strange to hear an English army officer with a public school accent in the middle of this but to Brian, this had been reassuring. “It’s okay, Stephen,” he said, “this is British Army.”
Yet the UDR soldiers were also members of the mid-Ulster UVF with links to the brutal Glenanne Gang. Their territory was the murder triangle that extended from north Armagh to the border and west into Tyrone. They had decided to put a bomb in the back on the Miami’s van.
Ten pounds of commercial gelignite on a short fuse. The musicians would be killed in transit back to Dublin. The point of all this has never been made clear. Possibly it was intended to further destabilise Northern Ireland, to make border controls more rigid. Perhaps they wanted to make even the humble players look like they were transporting bombs, seemingly part of the armed struggle.
Whatever, the mission failed. The bomb went off prematurely. Two UVF members were killed trying to hide the explosives in the van. And in the drama that followed, the killings took place. Des and Stephen had both stepped out of line at the roadside check, to make sure their instruments were safe and to reassure the military that nothing in the van was suspect.
This was the saving of them. They changed places in the line when they returned, thus escaping the worst. And while the have been involved in other musical projects and different businesses since 1975, they also concede that they must keep telling their story. It’s an essential work of testimony.
There is a monument to the band outside the National Ballroom on Parnell Square, Dublin. Friends of the band will gather there tomorrow to mark the 40th anniversary. There’s now a Fran O’Toole Bridge in Bray over the River Dargle and a plaque outside the singer’s old home nearby. On Sunday, there will also be a meeting at the site of the massacre. Des insists that there should be proper recognition in the north.
“Where the actual massacre occurred, we’ve got nothing in Northern Ireland. This was one of the worst tragedies, and it should never be forgotten.”
Stephen has responded with a powerful book, The Miami Showband Massacre. At the end of his account, he spends five hours in conversation with ‘The Craftsman”, second-in-command of the UVF’s brigade staff. It’s an abrasive meeting as Stephen brushes aside the UVF story that the bomb would have detonated much later when the band had reached home.
But he sees value in the meeting. “My contention is that you must speak to terrorist. Unless you do, you don’t understand people. It’s not excusing it, but it’s understanding it.”
The book had been optioned by a Holywood producer and the second draft of the screenplay is complete. Pre-production is likely to begin later this year. Meantime, Stephen visits conferences and gatherings at The Hague, in Amsterdam, Omagh and Spain. His talks sometimes have very graphic content, but he feels that this is defensible.
“Unless we are graphic, unless we are convincing and unless these people face up to the fact that violence will get them absolutely nowhere, then it’s counterproductive for every single one of us. If we stay silent then people will say that they didn’t know. So that’s as much as we can do.”
There is ongoing litigation against the Chief Constable of the PSNI and the Ministry of Defence. In the course of all this, Stephen was diagnosed with Enduring Personality Change, a syndrome that was first noted with survivors of concentration camps.
He gave evidence at the Barron Tribunal in 1997 and, like Des, Stephen is affronted that their testimony to British Army involvement in the massacre has not been reflected fully in the Historical Enquiries Team findings. “I’m absolutely certain, without a shadow of adoubt that there was a British Army officer there.”
Stephen and Des have an undimmed love for the Miami Showband and their legacy. Des points out that another fan, Louis Walsh even took his own bands to the Miami’s tailors. “When I look today and see what Louis has done with Westlife and Boyzone in the white suits — it’s just like the Miami.”
Amid the blackness, the talk of collusion and cover up, there is a proud realisation of the importance of music during the worst times. Stephen has no doubt about this.
“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.”
The Miami Showband Massacre: A Survivor’s Search for the Truth by Stephen Travers and Neil Fetherstonhaugh is published by Hodder Headline