27 September 2007 Edition
The Miami Showband Massacre, 1975: A survivor's search for the truth
The two soldiers who died in the attack on the Miami – Harris Boyle and Wesley Somerville – were also members of the UVF at the same time as they were members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the British Army
THE Miami Showband massacre took place 31 July 1975, near Newry, in South Armagh, while the band was travelling home to Dublin after a gig in Banbridge, County Down.
Their tour bus was stopped at a roadblock, flagged down by men who were not only serving soldiers in the British Army's Ulster Defence Regiment but active members of a unionist death squad, the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Two soldiers planted a bomb in the bus but it exploded prematurely and killed them outright. Three members of the Miami, one of the most popular showbands in Ireland at the time, were then gunned down by the other soldiers.
Teenage heart-throb and lead singer Fran O'Toole (29) and trumpet players Tony Geraghty (23) and Brian McCoy (32) were killed by the UDR soldiers.
There are still unanswered questions about that night - why did it happen, who was behind it all, and who was the mysterious professional British Army officer with the clipped English accent who gave orders at the murder scene?
Thirty-two years after the atrocity, one of the two surviving band members has published a book to try and find the truth in the name of justice.
The Miami Showband Massacre: A Survivor's Search for the Truth, has been written by Stephen Travers, who was wounded but survived the attack, and Dublin journalist Neil Fetherstonhaugh.
ELLA O'DWYER spoke to Stephen Travers about an event that shocked a nation.
● Miami Showband: Steve Travers, Tony Geraghty, Ray Millar, Brian McCoy, Fran O’Toole, Des Lee
STEPHEN TRAVERS joined the Miami Showband as its new bass player only two months before the atrocity.
From Carrick on Suir, in County Tipperary, he was 24. The band was hugely popular and attracted crowds of young people to dance floors the length and breadth of Ireland.
Despite 'The Troubles', the Miami regularly played in the North.
Stephen Travers recalls what happened in the early hours of 31 July 1975, as the band travelled south after another successful gig, in Banbridge. It was after 2.30am in the morning.
"We were half-way to Newry when we were stopped at a UDR roadblock. There have been misconceptions regarding issues around the whole event and that's one of the reasons for getting the book out. I want to set the record straight.
"For instance, some people think the roadblock was a bogus one. It was, in fact, a regular roadblock with uniformed UDR soldiers present.
"We were told to get out of the minibus and line up alongside it."
Initially, things looked normal enough.
"At the start, the UDR men seemed relaxed and confident, joking and having the craic basically."
While the boys in the band were standing by the roadside, the soldiers looked to be searching the vehicle. Shortly afterwards, a car pulled up. What looked like a professional British Army officer to Stephen Travers appeared.
"Whether he got out of that car or whether I hadn't noticed him before, I'm not sure. He was very much an authority figure and immediately the whole atmosphere changed. I remember his demeanor — very fit, active, good-looking and well-spoken. I remember admiring the 'Action Man' aspect; the combats he had on. I was a young fella myself, just 24.
"When he arrived, things became very professional."
That was reinforced by Brian McCoy, another member of the band. "He nudged me with his elbow and told me not to worry. 'This is British Army,' he said. That was to comfort me. Brian was from the North and he was used to that kind of thing.
"I had been well-used to English accents because when I left school I went to London and worked as a trainee broker at Lloyds, so I was in no doubt but this was an upper-crust Englishman. He was also dressed differently than the UDR men. As soon as he arrived, the joking stopped.
"There was another man giving the orders until this British officer arrived and changed the orders. Initially, the UDR soldier Thomas Crozier was ordered to get our names and addresses. The British Army officer asked the UDR man in charge — I think he was Rodney McDowell — what Crozier was doing and was told he was taking the names and addresses. The army officer said: 'No. I want the names and dates of birth.' "
The mood changed noticeably and the soldiers' joking with the band stopped.
Suddenly there was a loud bang.
Two of the soldiers had been planting a bomb in the minibus. The bomb went off prematurely and the two men carrying the device, Harris Boyle and Wesley Somerville, were killed instantly. The blast ripped the bus in two. The explosion threw all the band members into the air.
The rest of the UDR soldiers opened fire on the band members lined up along the roadside with their hands on their heads.
Submachine-gun and pistol bullets were flying everywhere. Dozens of spent cartridges littered the road.
Fran and Tony started to drag Stephen to safety but he collapsed and they could carry him no further. The UDR soldiers jumped down into the field in pursuit. Fran and Tony tried to flee.
"It was there [in the field] that the gunmen caught up with them," Stephen remembers. "I heard them screaming, begging not to be killed. I can still hear them crying out. There was a long, loud burst of gunfire... and then silence."
Stephen was badly wounded by a bullet in the thigh. Fellow guitarist Des McAlea was blown into a ditch by the bomb blast, away from the immediate kill zone, and relatively uninjured.
"I was shot in the right hip by what they call a 'dum-dum' bullet. On impact the bullet fragments and does a lot of damage inside the body. It went up to my lung and exited under my left arm.
One of the soldiers walked through the debris of the shattered vehicle, kicking the bodies and checking to see if anyone was alive.
"I heard him walking towards me. As he came closer, I decided I'd just stay where I was and pretend to be dead, face down in the dirt. What happens is that your instinct for survival takes over and it allows you to do things that you wouldn't normally be brave enough to do."
Stephen Travers stayed motionless as the soldier approached.
"Then somebody else shouted, 'Come on! Those bastards are dead. I got them with dum-dums.' That's the first time I heard the term 'dum-dums'. In fact, I thought that meant they were blanks."
When the soldier checking the bodies turned and walked anyway and Stephen thought the place was clear, he eventually got up and walked around.
"I'd had a lot of internal bleeding and found it difficult to breathe because the bullet had punctured my lung.
"When I walked around you can't imagine the scene. They'd pumped 22 bullets into Fran's face. It was horrific."
After Des McAlea had been blown over into the ditch, he hid and then made his way to Newry RUC Barracks.
Ambulances were called but the RUC and British Army were reluctant to go to the scene in case the bodies were booby-trapped.
"Eventually they got me to the hospital, about 45 minutes later. I was taken to Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry and my faith in human nature returned once I woke up because the staff there were so good to me. I remember the doctors wanting to cut my jumper to get at the wound and me telling them not to – it was only new," Stephen laughs.
"The RUC questioned me while I was on the operating table. They didn't know who we were, that we were a band. I felt like I was being interrogated. They were asking me, 'What are you doing up here?' I said I was playing and they said, 'Playing at what?' They hadn't a clue who we were."
Even though he was in hospital, Stephen still feared that the immediate nightmare wasn't over.
"Once I got off the critical list I started to worry in case, as a surviving eyewitness, I could be bumped off. They reluctantly agreed to transfer me to Dublin." He was taken to a nursing home in Elm Park. "I was as tough as old boots and fit, only 24 years old, so I was out in two or three weeks.
"I didn't know for about a week that the lads had been killed. I suppose you block things out. You're in denial."
To him, the Miami was 'just a showband', playing to all sorts of audiences and in no way politically active.
Stephen Travers disapproves of violence from any quarter: "I have no time for violence. The Miami Showband were musicians, not political animals."
So why does he think the band was targeted?
"The band was made up of people of different religions — Protestants, Catholics, Pagans and all," Stephen smiles. "The one healing agent at the time for young Catholics and Protestants was entertainment. So if you could frame a prominent, well-known band like ours and make us appear like bombers, the healing function we had in bringing people together would have been discredited.
"We were the catalyst that brought people together. We were apolitical but, with hindsight, I see that we were overcoming sectarianism."
Unanswered questions about the night the music died
STEPHEN TRAVERS wants the British Government to admit to its security policy in Mid-Ulster in the 1970s and its consequences.
"First, I'm asking them: 'Was this your policy? You've never addressed that.'
"I feel that there are three main players involved here: the foot soldiers who actually did it; us, the victims, for want of a better term; and the people who orchestrated, financed and organised the whole thing.
"Two of those parties, the victims and the UVF, have addressed the issues around what happened that night. But the third party, the British Government, continues to ignore their part even though they are the people who equipped, trained and sent out their operatives to kill innocent people.
"I believe this goes all the way up to the top.
"You wouldn't like to think that your next-door neighbour had a policy of murdering your children. It was British policy to murder people in Ireland. That's exactly what it was. Collusion is a nice, sanitised word but it's actually direct murder. You send out somebody trained in Sandhurst or wherever and they come out and command this bunch of people who are either brainwashed or told on their parents' knees to hate the other side.
"It was a British Army regiment – the largest regiment in that army and commanded by a British Army officer on the night – so it was collusion.
"I wondered why was it just the foot soldiers the only ones getting questioned? Why were the upper echelons not being questioned? I mean, these people don't work alone.
"In our book, we make no bones about saying there are questions to be answered and the British Government have to address the issue."
And people shouldn't forget those bands and performers who insisted: 'The show must go on.'
"People say that was bad luck, being caught in the ambush, because I'd just joined the band — 'You picked the wrong horse' - but I feel privileged to have shared the last months, days and seconds with the lads.
"I firmly believe that some of the greatest heroes of the conflict were the musicians who, when nobody else cared, they would entertain people of all political and religious shades and gave them hope.
"These people were perfect examples of Irish men and women who could work together, not caring what political or religious background the other came from.
"They should be commemorated, not air-brushed out of Irish history."
IT WAS later discovered that the two soldiers who died in the attack on the Miami – Harris Boyle and Wesley Somerville – were also members of the UVF at the same time as they were members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the British Army.
A severed arm was found a hundred yards from the scene with a UVF tattoo on it. Both UDR soldiers were given UVF funerals.
Two other UDR men, Thomas Crozier and Rodney McDowell, were sentenced in 1976 to 35 years each for the murders. Later, James Somerville, Wesley Somerville's brother and also a UDR soldier, was tried and given 35 years.
All are among a number of UDR soldiers and RUC officers believed to have been members of what has been dubbed 'The Glenanne Gang' of the Ulster Volunteer Force in Mid-Ulster.
Named after the County Armagh farmhouse owned by an RUC Reservist that served as a base for many UVF attacks, the Glenane Gang has been implicated in dozens of attacks, including:-
• The Dublin/Monaghan bombings in May 1974, which left 33 dead and more than a hundred injured;
• The bombing of Kay's Tavern in Dundalk the week before Christmas 1975, killing two people and injuring 21;
• A bomb and gun attack on Donnelly's Bar in Silverbridge, County Armagh, the same night as Kay's Tavern, in which three people were killed and dozens injured.
The Irish Government complained to the British Government in August 1975 that four members of the RUC in the Portadown area were also members of the UVF linked to Glenanne, which was run by the then UVF commander in Portadown, Robin Jackson, also known as 'The Jackal'.
And who was the British Army officer with the distinctive English accent who stood head and shoulders above the UDR soldiers who murdered the Miami?
Former British Army Intelligence officer Captain Fred Holroyd, who ran undercover intelligence operations in Portadown between 1972 and 1975, has said that Captain Robert Nairac (killed by the IRA in 1977) organised the attack with the UVF on the Miami.
Colin Wallace, a former British Army senior information officer who carried out psychological warfare operations for British Army HQ in Lisburn, told the Barron inquiry into the Dublin/Monaghan bombings that Nairac "seems to have had close links with the Mid-Ulster UVF, including Robin Jackson and Harris Boyle".
In his research for the book, Stephen Travers met a UVF leadership figure nicknamed 'The Craftsman'.
"He said Robert Nairac's involvement was a possibility he wouldn't rule out. I don't know who it was."