The day the music died: 1975's Miami Showband Massacre
This Friday marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most shocking atrocities of the Troubles, The Miami Showband Massacre. Belfast man Des Lee, who survived the attack that killed three of his friends, recalls the horror of that day
There's barely a day goes by that Belfast musician Des Lee doesn't recall the horrific events of July 31, 1975, when three of his closest friends were brutally murdered on a Co Down road in The Miami Showband Massacre.
Saxophonist Des, who was a 24-year-old father-of-one at the time, and bass player Stephen Travers, miraculously survived the UVF attack, but singer Fran O'Toole (29), trumpeter Brian McCoy (32) and guitarist Tony Geraghty (23) were all gunned down after their minibus was stopped at what appeared to be a routine, but was, in fact, a bogus, UDR checkpoint near Newry.
Forty years on, and Des is still haunted by flashbacks. In an attempt to try and overcome his post-traumatic stress, he relocated with his young family to South Africa, where he lived for 23 years. But his three band-mates were never far from his mind and now, settled back home in Belfast again, he finds himself thinking about them all the time.
"What happened that night affects me every single day of my life," he tells me. "When I drive past that spot at Buskhill, where the massacre took place, I get a lump in my throat. Every time. And I stop and say a prayer for the boys, even after all these years.
"I travel to Dublin quite a bit, so I have to pass that place and when I do, I immediately get flashbacks. I think about Fran, Brian and Tony all the time. Sometimes I'll be doing something, then suddenly I'll hear a song of Fran's on the radio or see a picture of them in a newspaper. They're with me every day of my life. I have a photograph of them in my apartment. It's what I wake up to every day."
On the night that changed the 64-year-old's life forever, the members of The Miami Showband - the most popular showband in Ireland at the time - were returning to Dublin after performing at a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. The musicians were playing a game of cards when their minibus was stopped at a checkpoint and they were all asked to get out and line up by the roadside.
Des says that at this stage, the band-mates suspected nothing. Regular cross-border jaunts at the height of the Troubles meant they were well used to being stopped at checkpoints.
Two soldiers boarded the bus and began rummaging around. Des asked if he could get his saxophone from the bus and, instead of going back to his original place in the line-up, he remained by the minibus.
Unbeknown to the band though, the soldiers were planting a bomb under the driver's seat. When it exploded prematurely, killing the two soldiers, Des was blown off his feet, into a nearby ditch. Above him, on the road, he could hear screaming and gunshots, as the other gunmen opened fire on the confused band members.
Lying face down in the ditch, Des played dead. He'd watched several Vietnam war movies where American soldiers had done the same, silent and unmoving as the flames from the explosion crept closer to him.
"It was mayhem," he says, quietly.
"I just lay there, holding my breath, praying that the gunmen would go. I'd heard enough gunshots to know that someone had been shot but I didn't know who. I then heard the soldiers running off and one of them said 'Are you sure all those b******* are dead?'. I was so frightened that they'd come back to check and then shoot me.
"I called out Fran's name, then Brian's and Tony's. There was no reply. I called out for Stephen and I heard him moaning. I told him I was going to go and get help.
"The fire was right up at me by now, so I climbed out off the ditch and onto the road. I tried to wave down a truck driver but he just drove on. But then a young guy and girl came along in their car and they took me to Newry police station."
Des hesitates for a moment. "You know, I genuinely believe that the saxophone saved my life. If I hadn't gone back for it and had stayed where I was in the line-up instead, I wouldn't be here now.
"And I'd love to meet that young fella and girl who brought me to the police station. They helped save me, too. I'd love to get the chance to say thank you to them."
The police in Newry brought Des to Daisy Hill Hospital, where he had a piece of shrapnel removed from his knee.
"I was screaming and shouting at the police to go back and check on the boys, but they said they couldn't, that they could be attacked and would have to send helicopters down to see what was going on.
"I later found out that Stephen had been taken to hospital for surgery and that he'd had to have nine inches of his bladder removed."
The devastating news of the deaths of his friends was later broken to a dazed Des, who, to this day, can't comprehend why they were targeted. It's been suggested that the UVF gang, comprising at least four serving soldiers from the UDR, had been planning for the bomb to explode en route, killing the band and having them branded as IRA bomb-smugglers.
Allegations of collusion between British military intelligence and the loyalist gunmen persist. Two serving UDR soldiers, Raymond Crozier and Roddy McDowell, and one former UDR soldier, John Somerville, received life sentences for the murders.
"The only reason I can think of as to why we were singled out was because we were the biggest showband in Ireland at the time. We were called the Irish Beatles," Des says. "Maybe it was maximum publicity they were after. But it was just madness.
"We were five young fellas going out to do something we loved and to bring pleasure to a lot of people in some very dark times."
Des continued to perform in a number of bands for a while afterwards, but it was never the same. Not even his beloved music could save him.
"I'd be on stage and these other fellas would come out to join me, great guys they were. But they weren't Fran, Tony or Brian."
The move to South Africa definitely helped him, he says, as did his family, his late wife Brenda, who sadly died from cancer 10 years ago, and his two sons Gary (34) and Daryl (32). But the psychological impact was severe.
"I had lots of counselling," he says. "But the effects on myself and my family were horrendous.
"I lost part of my family that night. I was close to all the boys, but Fran was like a brother to me. I co-wrote all the stuff on his album with him as well as his number one single Love Is. You know what's really heartbreaking - 12 weeks after Fran was murdered, he was due to go to a music convention in Las Vegas to launch his solo career.
"He was a great singer and musician, a really talented guy and very good looking. I've no doubt at all that if he'd lived on, he would have been a huge star."
This Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the atrocity. Des is determined to keep the names of his friends in the public domain and to give them the recognition they deserve. In 2007, a monument was unveiled at Parnell Square in Dublin, dedicated to the members of the showband who were murdered that night. Earlier this month, a blue plaque was erected outside Fran O'Toole's home in Bray, Co Wicklow and a bridge was renamed in his honour. Des wants to see a monument unveiled in Belfast, immortalising Fran, Tony and Brian in Northern Ireland as well.
Although semi-retired, Des and a new line-up of The Miami Showband will perform a special tribute concert - their last ever - next month in Banbridge, a poignant reminder of the final show they all played together before the terrible atrocity. The band's original drummer Ray Millar, who escaped with his life that night when he decided to drive to Dublin himself, will also be there.
The farewell gig at the Linenfields Festival on Friday, August 21, will be preceded by a wreath-laying ceremony at Buskhill this Sunday, August 2, at 2.30pm, for families, friends and members of the public.
At present Des, Stephen and the relatives of those killed on July 31, 1975, are taking legal action against the Ministry of Defence and the PSNI in a bid to expose the extent of state collusion in the murders. Des says he hopes this will finally give them all closure.
"The massacre wrecked our lives," he says.
"Mentally, I went through a very bad time. When this case comes before the High Court, maybe then we'll get full closure."
I ask Des how he feels about the men who murdered his friends.
"There's no point in holding grudges for 40 years," he sighs. "What they did was despicable, appalling. What's important to me now is that people don't forget the names of Fran, Tony and Brian. Thank God this place is so different now. I came home eight years ago and I love Belfast, it's such a great city, so changed.
"What hurts the most is that 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."
- If anyone knows the young man and woman who drove Des to Newry police station that night or if the couple themselves wish to come forward, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The Miami Showband will perform their last ever gig at the Linenfields Festival, Banbridge on Friday, August 21. The concert, which will take place in the grounds of the Banville Hotel, Banbridge, will also feature Northern Ireland's leading tribute acts to Elvis, Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, Jonny Cash and Garth Brooks. Limited tickets to the gig, priced £15, are available from Ticketmaster