Thursday 25 April 2019

'I didn't feel fear... I felt an intense desire to live' - Miami Showband massacre survivor Stephen Travers hopes for review following documentary

As a new documentary revisits the Miami Showband massacre, survivor Stephen Travers tells John Meagher how he is still battling to get a review in the UK, believing British intelligence was behind the attack

'Music was our religion': Miami Showband massacre survivor Stephen Travers. Picture by Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
'Music was our religion': Miami Showband massacre survivor Stephen Travers. Picture by Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
The Miami Showband in 1975: from left, Brian McCoy, Fran O'Toole, Des Lee, Stephen Travers, Tony Geraghty and (sitting in front) Ray Millar
John Meagher

John Meagher

There is a cliché that Stephen Travers is keen to dispel. The notion that survivors of great trauma experience flashbacks is simply not true, he believes.

The Tipperary musician survived one of the most notorious atrocities of the Troubles - the massacre of the hugely popular Miami Showband on July 31, 1975 - and he says he never has flashbacks. Instead, virtually every aspect of the horror that came into his life in the early hours of that morning, not far from Newry, Co Down, is etched in his mind, ready to be recalled whenever he chooses.

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"It's always there," he says. "In minute detail. I can see that night in my head as clearly as I can see you now. I can see the ditch on fire. I can hear them [the assailants] saying they'd killed us with dumdums - I'd never heard of such bullets before; they're ones that explode. I can see how the moon was that night."

Travers played bass with the Miami and had been in the band for just six weeks when they were attacked shortly after 2am following a performance at the Castle Ballroom, Banbridge. Five of the members were in a van heading home to Dublin. The sixth, drummer Ray Millar, had driven to Antrim to spend the night with his parents.

The Miami Showband in 1975: from left, Brian McCoy, Fran O'Toole, Des Lee, Stephen Travers, Tony Geraghty and (sitting in front) Ray Millar
The Miami Showband in 1975: from left, Brian McCoy, Fran O'Toole, Des Lee, Stephen Travers, Tony Geraghty and (sitting in front) Ray Millar

They weren't long into their journey when they were stopped by what looked like uniformed men seemingly operating a random checkpoint. Travers recalls his bandmate, Brian McCoy - a Protestant from Tyrone and whose father was a proud Orangeman - confidently tell the others that it was the British army and all would be okay.

And, at first, everything seemed fine. The five men were asked to step out of the vehicle so a search could be undertaken and the soldiers laughed and joked with them. One of them even enquired which member was Dickie Rock. The Dubliner had been the celebrated frontman of the Miami but had left for a solo career several years before. "The atmosphere changed completely when another man came along," Travers says. "He had a posh, educated English accent."

Unbeknownst to Travers, two of the 'soldiers' were attaching a bomb to their VW van. But it didn't go to plan. The bomb detonated early. "I was blown into the field," he says. "It felt like slow-motion moving through the air. And then it was the sound of gunfire."

Three of the Miami, lead singer Fran O'Toole, Brian McCoy and Tony Geraghty, were killed. O'Toole had been shot 22 times at close range. Miraculously, Travers and band leader, Des Lee, managed to survive. Lee found a hiding spot in the blazing hedge and Travers played dead. "I was certain they were going to shoot me, but they went away after they said they'd killed us all. I remember how they had been laughing and joking a few minutes before and then, after, they were using the most obscene language - it was like being in hell.

"I didn't feel fear," he recalls. "What I felt was this most intense desire to stay alive you could possibly imagine. After they were gone, I felt completely disorientated. I didn't know then that the lads were dead. I didn't know what had happened, but I remember Des saying he was going to go to try to get help and I was crawling around in that field."

If the Miami Showband killings remain indelibly imprinted on the minds of a generation of Irish people - north and south of the border - their story will soon reach a massive international audience.

A forthcoming Netflix documentary will revisit the atrocity with the help of Stephen Travers. And it unequivocally points the finger at Britain, arguing that its intelligence service was behind the murders.

Rather than a random sectarian attack, it has long been suggested that notorious loyalist killer Robin 'The Jackal' Jackson masterminded the massacre. Years later, the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team confirmed that Jackson had been a 'special agent' for the then police force, the RUC.

It has also been suggested that the British army officer Robert Nairac had played a role in the Miami killings. Nairac was in the shadowy 14 Intelligence Company, but despite being accused of collusion with loyalist terrorists he was never found guilty. And, after being killed by the IRA in 1977, he was posthumously awarded the George Cross for heroism two years later. Yet, both he and Jackson continue to be linked to the Dublin car bombings of 1974. And the Netflix documentary demonstrates just how long Nairac has been accused of helping to orchestrate the Miami massacre. There's footage from 1987 of the BBC's Jeremy Paxman quizzing Labour MP Ken Livingstone after he had used parliamentary privilege to name Nairac as a collaborator with terrorists

"I've never said Nairac was responsible," Travers says. "Some have asked me if he was the one I heard with the English accent that night, but I just don't know."

Travers is determined to get to the truth. He is convinced that the Miami were mere pawns in a grand scheme to have the border hardened. "We were targeted because the British wanted our [the Irish] government to seal the border with the north so that the IRA wouldn't be able to cross easily into the relative safety of the south after committing some sort of atrocity.

"So they thought, 'Let's frame the most trusted, most innocent commuters - people who travel up and down all the time - and they thought of us. We would have gone down in history as terrorists carrying bombs for the IRA. And they would probably have planted guns in the van, too."

In the documentary, he talks about the central reason why he won't give up his fight for justice, despite the toll it's taken on his life.

"When a government decides to murder its own citizens and to murder the citizens of its closest neighbour, there's no way you can excuse that."

Travers is hopeful that the documentary - which has the potential to reach Netflix's 130 million global subscribers - will pressure the British authorities to review what really happened that summer night in 1975.

The documentary - titled The Miami Showband Massacre - is part of the streaming service's ReMastered series which examines high-profile events that affected some of the most legendary names in music, including Johnny Cash and Bob Marley.

Director Stuart Sender says he was keen to make sure the story would connect with audiences who were not familiar with Ireland, the Troubles and the showband scene, while also offering something new to Irish people familiar with the case.

"The tagline for this series is 'the music you know, the stories you don't', but in this one for a lot of people who'll watch it, it's 'the music you don't know' as well as 'the stories you don't know', and there's something so powerful about the connection of the music to the politics and culture."

The documentary shows that the members of the Miami Showband - four Catholics and two Protestants from various parts of the island, north and south - completely apolitical.

"Music was our religion," Travers says, looking back. "I didn't even know at the time that Brian and Ray were Protestant. It just wasn't something that was important to us. And when we played in the north, it was to both sides. People were out for a good time. They wanted an escape from the hostility and fear, and everything that was going on at that time and bands like ours gave them that escape."

For Sender, the cooperation of Stephen Travers was crucial in telling the story as effectively as possible. "Stephen thought he could be exempt from what was going on around him," he says, "and this story shows that none of us are and we can't be disconnected."

Producer Alexandra Orton, who was nominated for an Emmy for the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? says the story is especially compelling because it's based on a man who survived a horrific trauma and is dedicated to seeking justice. "Stephen is a completely unique human being, but the fact that he - and Des [Lee] - could talk about the low points in the wake of what happened really captures the humanity of it. In essence, this is a story about ordinary people having to find it within themselves to do something extraordinary."

Travers was just 24 when the attack happened. He recognises now that he became a completely different person from them on. "I used to be a so cocky and confident," he says. "Growing up [in Carrick-on-Suir], I wanted to be really good at something. It wasn't hurling, it was music that I was good at.

"And I got really good at the bass guitar and when I went to audition for the Miami there was no part of me who thought I wouldn't get the part.

"I loved the time on the road with them. We just hit it off straight away and people like Fran were really gifted musically. That's what we lived for. And I wasn't long married to Anne - she was so young then - and we had our whole future in front of us.

"But that night, all of it changed. The weight of [what happened] can be so heavy. I've recently been diagnosed with something called enduring personality change. It's when you've been through something so catastrophic that you come out the other side a completely different person. Anne said to me that for her it was like learning to live with an another person."

The Travers' marriage survived and they have one daughter. "I like to keep my family out of all of this," he says, "but without Anne, I don't think I'd be here today. She supported me, no matter what - even when I met with loyalist paramilitaries to try to get answers."

Remarkably, through a mediator, the Rev Chris Hudson, Travers was able to meet a senior UVF official - dubbed the Craftsman - and it was confirmed to him that there had indeed been collusion with British intelligence.

The PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team, which was wound up in 2014, was dismissive of such a suggestion but Travers remains deeply sceptical about the effectiveness of this unit "because they were answerable to the British government".

"I'm not going to go away," he says. "I'm simply looking for the truth." Besides the Netflix documentary, Travers has co-written a screenplay about the Miami and the atrocity that would come to define the group, and he says some big-name Hollywood players are attached to the project.

There will also be a musical about the Miami coming to theatres this year and that production - co-written by Stones in his Pockets playwright Marie Jones - seeks to showcase the group's musical legacy from its formation in 1962 to its ailing life, post-massacre.

"The showband scene was never the same again," Travers says. "It was the end of innocence."

'ReMastered: The Miami Showband Massacre' will be available on Netflix later this month


'The Miami killings changed everything'

Michael O'Reilly is as well placed as any to recall just how big the showband ­phenomenon was in Ireland from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s.

The photographer for the now-defunct ­Spotlight music magazine says it was the biggest show in town for almost two decades.

"There were hundreds of showbands and they were playing every night of the week," says O'Reilly, whose book, Dancehall Days, documents the period. "Most of my work was in Dublin, but you'd get thousands at the dancehalls and bands like the Miami were extremely popular. People would see them on television and no matter where they played, they would pull in a huge audience."

Spotlight covered the showband scene more comprehensively than any other media organisation and it grew in tandem with the rise of bands like Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband. It went from monthly to weekly by the end of the 1960s, and by 1973 it had a circulation of 47,000.

"The Miami killings changed everything," O'Reilly says.

"Bands didn't go up north as much as they used to after that and people's tastes were changing as well. There had been rock bands in the 1960s, but they were in the shadow of the ­showbands. By the late 70s, they were to the fore."

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