THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED. THE MASSACRE OF THE MIAMI SHOWBAND

In 1975 The Miami Showband were riding high in the Irish music scene, known as The Irish Beatles and credited with being Ireland’s #1 band. The showband scene had enjoyed huge popularity from the late 1950’s, through the 60’s and on into 70’s… until one fateful night in July 1975. Here we discuss the background and the devastating aftermath of what became known as The Miami Showband Massacre. 

Led by singer Dickie Rock and later by Fran O’Toole the Miami Showband had thirteen Top 10 singles, including seven number one records in the Irish singles chart. From their debut #1 in 1963 a cover of Elvis’ ‘There’s Always Me’ until that fateful day in 1975 The Miami Showband reigned as Ireland’s premier ‘showband’. In the 1950’s the Irish music scene was dominated by Ceili bands, orchestras and ballad singers and it was from all those influences that the ‘showband’ in the 60’s/70’s took their sound. There’s an excellent history of the progression of the Irish Showbands on the aptly named Irish Showbands site. The term would come to be used to cover many different bands and styles but in its very early days, in the 1950’s it was used to describe a show where a band would play two sets with another act in the middle, more than likely a comedian. Success didn’t come easy for the Miami Showband travelling the length and breadth of Ireland every night to play anywhere from village halls to large city venues. The hard work paid off with several high points for the band like representing Ireland in the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest and appearing on British TV on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Band members came and went and by 1975 all the original members had left and the new line up of the now bell-bottomed, wide-collared Miami Showband comprised of Des Lee, Brian McCoy, Tony Geraghty, Fran O’Toole, Steve Travers and Ray Millar.

Steve Travers joined the band at 24. Six weeks later half the band would be murdered.

From left: Stephen Travers, Tony Geraghty, Ray Millar, Brian McCoy, Fran O’Toole, Des Lee

The band were a ‘mixed’ band meaning they had members who were both Catholic and Protestant and from both sides of the border. Politics was not on the agenda for them. All they cared about was the music and bringing joy and excitement into peoples lives. It is estimated at the height of the showband scene there were over 650 fully professional groups operating across the island. At the time violence in the north and censorship in the south were rife and folk longed for a escape and they found it through music. Later Punk would fulfill the same role in bringing people together. As Stephen Travers explains

“There was no sectarianism at these dances, people left their religion at the door.”

So popular were they that they breezed through Police and Army checkpoints on the border often being recognised and asked for autographs. No stranger to the London Irish scene either performing regularly at famed London venues The Galtymore and The National to packed houses. There really was no one to touch them at the time. London Celtic Punker Gerard recalls

“I was only 12 and I knew very little about them, but I could realise something terrible had happened, the sombre mood about the place, people involved in the entertainment business (like my relatives in Galway) were shocked and very scared. Bomb scares were a regular part of a night out to our pub. They were seriously worried that these murders would escalate things. They were scared that the places the Showbands played in would become a target, like Seapoint ballroom in Salthill.”

It’s hard to fathom how popular a band they were and the Showband scene was. Ireland was littered with these places at the time and they were absolutely central to rural nightlife as well as cities.

(the BBC documentary The Day The Music Died)

On the 31st July 1975 the band had played another successful gig in the northern town of Banbridge. After loading their gear drummer Ray Millar bid farewell and headed off on his own back to nearby Antrim. The bands manager Brian Maguire got in the van containing the groups equipment and set off just a few minutes ahead of the remaining five band members on the trip back home to Dublin.

Sometime after 2.30am they were stopped in the townland of Buskill outside Newry by what they thought was a routine military checkpoint. The Ulster Defence Regiment (a local part time regiment of the British Army) regularly patrolled the border and random stop and searches and harassment of nationalists was common. They were directed into a lay-by and ordered to exit the van while their van was searched. They were questioned at gunpoint and told to give their names and other details. While the search continued, another member of the gang appeared on the scene and according to Stephen Travers and Des McAlea began barking orders at  the others in what was described as a “crisp English accent”. Naturally concerned that the UDR men who were searching the van would damage their instruments Stephen Travers attempted to go towards the van to ask them to be careful but was pushed back into line and it was at that moment an massive explosion ripped through the van throwing band and gang members in all directions.
The bogus checkpoint had in fact been set up the Ulster Volunteer Force (an illegal Protestant paramilitary force involved in the indiscriminate murder and intimidation of innocent Catholics and Republicans) dressed in UDR uniforms. A bomb with a timer had been placed on the van that had gone off. Intended to explode after they has crossed the border into the Irish Republic killing the Showband and giving a convenient excuse for sealing the border completely. Two of gang, Wesley Somerville and Harris Boyle, died instantly. Besides being members of the UDR they were also senior members of the UVF who gave them a full paramilitary funeral. 

None of the band members were killed in the bomb blast. Des McAlea was thrown over a ditch by the force of the explosion, suffering minor injuries and managing to make good his escape across fields. Fellow band members Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty and  Brian McCoy were not so lucky. They survived the blast but the gang were intent on killing and opened fire. Stephen Travers was hit and was seriously wounded, the bullet that struck him breaking into sixteen pieces. Tony and Fran had tried to help him off to safety but were unable and as Stephen lay there pretending to be dead he could hear the men chase down his friends in the neighboring fields and despite their pleas for mercy murder them in cold blood. Brian McCoy, hit by machine gun fire, was the first to die. Tony Geraghty was shot four times laying helpless on the ground. Frontman Fran O’Toole died after being shot twenty two times. The gang walked around the aftermath of the explosion kicking at bodies to ensure that they were all dead. Seriously wounded, traumatised and terrified, Stephen decided to lie still as he was approached. Luckily for Stephen, just as he came near, one of the other soldiers shouted that

“those bastards are dead.  I got them with dum-dums”.

The soldiers then departed the scene, and despite suffering horrific injuries Stephen survived the attack.

A leaflet distributed in Catholic areas during the war.

The 6-man gang involved in the massacre included Wesley Somerville’s brother and alongside other UDR men were all part of the ‘Glenane gang’, a notorious UVF unit responsible for countless sectarian atrocities. This unit led by Robin Jackson were suspected of killing up to 50 Catholics, and who organised the bomb attacks in Dundalk in 1975 that killed two and the worse atrocity of the War the 1974 bombings in Dublin and Monaghan that killed 33 and a unborn child and injured almost 300. The weapon used to kill Brian McCoy was traced back to other murders in the Mid-Ulster area and fingerprints found on a silencer would link Robin Jackson to the massacre, but charges were mysteriously dropped with allegations he was protected from prosecution by British special branch. Only three members of the gang would be convicted, with two members and one former member of the UDR, sentenced to life in prison. Former British army Intelligence operatives have gone on record since to confirm that undercover British Military intelligence were collaborating with the Glenane Gang and heavily involved in the planning and carrying out of the Miami Showband massacre.

The involvement of the British state in the murders of the Miami Showband and other atrocities have been dismissed as the actions of ‘rogue’ soldiers, RUC (Northern Irish Police force) or Intelligence operatives but the evidence shows otherwise. The refusal of the British government to co-operate with the inquiry into the Dublin/Monaghan attacks and the record of shady British military engagement shows they have something to hide. The history of the army in Ireland has been a bloody one, directly, and indirectly through collusion with their allies in groups like the UVF. Catholics and nationalists throughout the north of Ireland at the time lived with the British state actively assisting Loyalist death squads to terrorise whole communities through intimation and murder. Any attempt to get to the truth of what happened on 31st July 1975 has been hampered and blocked by the British state. Back in 2017 the Ministry of Defence was ordered to release documents relating to the murders. It was also revealed that a substantial amount of documents were destroyed in 2005 with no explanation as to why, or how, this happened. Despite this, the families and surviving members of the band continue to campaign tirelessly for the truth and justice that for too long has been denied to them.

Further Information

For those of you with Netflix the Miamia Showband were featured as part of eight ReMastered music documentaries. ReMastered claims to “investigate high-profile events affecting some of the most legendary names in music” such as Bob Marley, Johnny Cash and Sam Cooke. March 2019 saw The Miami Showband Massacre come under the spotlight and Stephen Travers’ search for the truth of what happened on 31st July 1975.

The Miami Showband Massacre: A Survivor’s Search for the Truth – by Stephen Travers and journalist Neil Fetherstonhaugh, was published in 2007.

The Miami Showband web-site.

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5 thoughts on “THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED. THE MASSACRE OF THE MIAMI SHOWBAND

  1. Nick Burbridge July 9, 2021 at 10:00 pm Reply

    THE WHISTLEBLOWER’S WALTZ
    (Miami Showband Massacre – Reprise)

    South Down. Dark road on a bleak night.
    You return now, as an old man, to check
    this ambush through the mists again:
    Captain, what do you expect?
    Your mind’s eye hones in
    on the Regiment’s iconic son;
    not with peaked cap pressed
    against his white brow, thrusting his chin,
    but leaning on the cluttered desk
    where you sift profile and report,
    like a school prefect
    boasting of a trip to Monaghan
    to kill a gunman:
    the hushed journey past the border,
    the farmhouse sealed by Gardai,
    at the window a sharp silhouette,
    rounds emptied into it;
    he passes you a photo
    of the dead man
    in his blood;
    you handle his Star pistol,
    you remember now what
    you could not admit,
    you envied him such acts.
    So why now don’t you pilgrim
    to his last stand at Crossmaglen?
    You turn your head to watch
    a van appear over the brow
    carrying a showband home.
    This is where the roadblock stands:
    loyalists disguised as soldiers,
    armed with high explosive
    your own cohorts cleared.
    They climb in to rig their bomb
    but it explodes among them;
    others at the roadside open fire.
    This is why you come: you’ve scoured
    the scene before, and you found cartridges
    from the same gun, left like a signature;
    your friend armed them or played executioner.
    Captain, what do you expect?
    If you are here to expiate
    for, like others,
    you leaked secrets
    of a dirty war only when it threatened
    your own mind, how can you explain
    you travelled on this road so far
    before you split?
    Your hands are stained. No tears shed
    or truths told wash them clean.
    Listen to the wind – where shadows
    of the undead hover, echoes
    of their sorrow fill the air –
    and you will understand.
    To the innocently fallen the dark vision
    that destroyed them has no end.
    There is no day of armistice.
    No roll of honour marks their loss.
    They will call you so you know no peace,
    interrogate you till you break.

    (From Undercover Work, forthcoming from The Wild Geese Press)

  2. Guy Ott July 10, 2021 at 11:40 am Reply

    there is a very good documentary about it on netflix :
    https://www.netflix.com/fr/title/80191046

  3. Tom Marlow July 12, 2021 at 6:51 pm Reply

  4. William Dooley July 13, 2021 at 5:28 pm Reply

    Gun down for nothing, by loyalists, and britain washes there hands.

  5. Frankie Mc Bride July 13, 2021 at 10:56 pm Reply

    Documents destroyed and they carried on and on and on…..Assisted by……

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