Tuesday 25 October 2016

The Miami band lined up against the van. Then they were coldly murdered

Published 17/07/2005 | 00:11

AS THEY got out of the van at the checkpoint, Brian McCoy said to Stephen Travers, "Don't worry, this is the army."

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It was after 2am and they were in the middle of nowhere on a strip of empty dual carriageway. The members of the Miami Showband had finished a gig in the Castle ballroom in Banbridge, Co Down, about half an hour earlier and had travelled seven miles on their way home to Dublin when the van was stopped.

The five of them filed out. Driver and trumpeter Brian McCoy, 33, Stephen Travers, 24, who was sitting in the front with him and the bass player in the band, instrumentalist Tony Geraghty, 23, guitarist Des Lee and lead singer and keyboard player, Fran O'Toole, 29.

They lined up against the van, facing the soldiers who were standing in a row on the strip of grass in the middle of the road with their guns pointed at the band.

Stephen Travers could hear the commanding officer speaking in the crisp, clipped accent of a British army officer. Travers had been a trainee broker in Lloyd's of London before becoming a full-time musician and believes he knew the sound of the officer class.

As he stood in line, two soldiers went behind them and into the back of the showband's van. Suddenly Stephen Travers made a move which he now believes saved his life.

"I had been on Brian's left, in the middle," he remembers, sitting over a coffee in a Dublin hotel. "He was almost like a father figure, he knew the scene because he was from Tyrone. 'Don't worry, this is an army checkpoint,' he said. He was well aware there was an army officer in charge of the operation.

"I was standing with my hands on my head when I heard them at my guitar case. I put my hands down and walked back and said, 'What do you think you are doing?' He asked me 'What's in the case?' and when I told him, he asked me a strange question: 'Is it valuable?' I said no and he told me to turn around, and punched me in the back and told me to get back in the line.

"I moved back and stood at Brian's right - and that was what saved me," says Stephen.

He's a quiet-spoken man, not given to dramatics. But the intensity of those moments still haunts his voice and his face 30 years later.

Suddenly the van exploded behind them. The door blew off and caught Des Lee, the guitarist, hurling him across the ditch and into a darkened field.

With the flash of the explosion and in a rain of debris and body parts, the soldiers opened fire.

Brian McCoy was killed instantly. Stephen Travers was hit by a dum-dum bullet in the left upper chest and spun to the ground. Fran O'Toole and Tony Geraghty tried to grab him and pull him with them, but his limp body flopped into the ditch.

"Fran and Tony ran to the fence, but the soldiers caught them. They lined them up and shot them both dead," he says.

As he talks, it's as if he's transported back to that lonely spot about five miles from Newry in the early hours of August 1, 1975. In a quiet voice that holds all terror of the moment, he says: "I heard the lads," as if their cries in those last seconds of their lives are so unbearable he can hardly talk about it yet.

Only later, as the horror of the Miami massacre became public, was it discovered that the men in soldiers' unforms were not British soldiers - they were members of a Ulster Volunteer Force unit based in Portadown. But to this day Stephen Travers is convinced there was a British army officer with them.

The bomb blast also killed the two UVF men who were planting the bomb, Wesley Sommerville from Tyrone and Harris Boyle from Portadown. The alleged 'commander' of the unit, The Jackal, died last year of cancer. Steve Travers is adamant that the plan was never to shoot the Miami showband that night. The loyalist paramilitary unit which stopped them was deliberately dressed in British army uniforms to give the impression that it was a legitimate checkpoint. The bombs were to be hidden under a seat and timed to go off when the band were going through Newry - creating as much damage as possible, with the deed to be blamed on the IRA, and on the band for smuggling explosives to them.

Paul Ashford, a member of the Miami who had been asked to leave about a year before after complaining that their lives were in danger by doing so many gigs in the North, points out that religion and politics meant nothing to the members of the Miami.

"Brian McCoy was best man at my wedding, I didn't even know he was Church of Ireland until the actual day, it wasn't something any of us talked about or cared about," says Ashford. The band were split about half Catholic and half Protestant, but it wasn't something that was even discussed, let alone was an issue. The only thing they were interested in was music.

The sixth member of the band, Ray Millar, who now runs a major recycling business in Northern Ireland, wasn't with the band in the van because he had decided to go home to Antrim town that night and rejoin them the following night as they were also playing up North.

Fran O'Toole, the lead singer, had joined the Miami with Paul Ashford. They were both from Bray, Co Wicklow and had played the Dublin clubs. O'Toole was young, good-looking and unlike the typical showband singer, he wrote and performed his own material.

He and Paul Ashford had been 'beat' musicians on the Dublin scene, and when they left to join the Miami they got slagged off by Phil Lynott as 'breadheads', a term of abuse that indicated they had sold out for the money.

Both Stephen Travers and Paul Ashford say that was a simplistic view. They were among the best musicians in the country, and among the best-paid. Ashford remembers that at the time they were earning as much as the Taoiseach - they were all still in their early 20s and already in the "surcharge" tax bracket.

"Fran was an incredible keyboard player and probably the greatest soul singer in the country," says Ashford.

Fran O'Toole and his beautiful young wife Valerie were among the glamour couples in the Irish music business. Within seven months, she had remarried and moved to Canada. But according to Stephen and Paul, she has never really recovered from the trauma of her husband's murder.

"We reformed the band towards the end of that year," says Stephen Travers. "We didn't want to try to be the old Miami. We had new people and we didn't want it to look like we were putting in somebody to take Fran's place.

"But I was the first to leave. I just didn't feel comfortable. There used to be people coming to dances and standing there looking up at you and they were out of place - they weren't there because they wanted to be, they were there because of what had happened that night. It was kind of voyeurism.

"When I was young, all I wanted was to be a famous bass player, and then suddenly I was famous, but for the wrong reason. I didn't like being recognised any more . . . it was as simple as that.

Almost wistfully, he agrees that these events now seem to have happened in a different lifetime. Sitting in a hotel lobby in Dublin, nobody around us would recognise him. Most of them probably never heard of the Miami. Stephen Travers today runs a string of successful entertainment companies in London.

Des Lee, whose real name was McAlea, emigrated to South Africa where he became a successful performer in his own right.

Stephen Travers and Paul Ashford decided some months ago to commemorate the dead of the Miami showband with a mass in Dublin to mark the 30th anniversary of the massacre. Out of their meetings grew the idea of a concert. Along with Mike Hanrahan of the Irish Musical Rights Organisation (IMRO), they are now finalising plans for both events.

It will be poignant for the musicians, their families and friends. Ray Millar will be bringing the suit he wore that night at the Castle ballroom in Banbridge, Des Lee is coming home from South Africa, friends like Johnny Fean of Horslips, Shay Healy, Ronan Collins, Ronnie Drew and other musicians will be joining them. They want to put up a memorial to the dead somewhere in Dublin as a place where all musicians can feel that they are commemorated.

Fran O'Toole's widow Valerie and her children Rachel and Kelly can't make the occasion, but they will be coming to Dublin later to thank those who took part. "She was highly traumatised and in deep shock, she still is," says Paul Ashford, who has kept in contact with her.

A memorial mass for the Miami Showband will be held in the Pro Cathedral, Dublin, on Saturday, July 30. Dana will sing at the mass. The memorial concert will be held in Vicar Street, Dublin, on Monday, August 1, at 8pm to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Miami massacre

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