The day the music died
The first concert I ever attended took place at the old Apollo theatre in Glasgow. I still remember the excitement of waiting for the Eagles to take the stage and then that exhilaration which gripped the audience when they started to play. I was just 15 but found in that concert the ability to lose yourself in the music; to be so caught up in enjoying yourself that you forget all your worries for a while. I can remember heading home after it with my friends soaked in sweat from all the jumping around we did but totally happy. The only thing which matched that feeling was watching Celtic win a big game.
Growing up in Glasgow in the 1970s we were always aware of the struggle and suffering going on just a hundred miles away in the north of Ireland. I would come home from school and be greeted with news items about the latest tragedy and looking back the reporting of events there was always a little skewed. ‘Here are those two tribes of Paddies killing each other again while the good guys from England tried to keep them apart’ was the general drift of the narrative. However the Irish community in Glasgow always had a network of friends and family there and the tales we heard from folk on the ground often differed from the narrative on the news. No one who is being objective can deny that there were truly dreadful acts carried out by the para-militaries on all sides of the conflict but there remains an underlying conviction that the state forces at play were themselves fighting a covert and very dirty war. A war they tried to hide from the public and still remain very reluctant to discuss.
Those who were interested in what was going on in the six counties didn’t have to rely solely on the mainstream news outlets, back then you could always buy left wing or Republican newspapers at certain stores in places like Glasgow or from street vendors hanging around Celtic Park on match days for an alternative slant on events. There were occasional documentary series like ‘World in Action’ which gave a more balanced insight into events. I always found talking to people who travelled over for the football to be most illuminating though. The tales they told suggested the forces of law and order could be far from impartial at times.
This week I finally got around to watching the excellent documentary ‘The Miami Showband Massacre’ on Netflix and it delved into some dark places indeed. The band was made up of young men from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and was of mixed religion. They didn’t play political music but rather offered a safe space for young people of both communities to come together and leave the stress and worry of the troubles behind for a couple of happy hours and just enjoy being young. Footage of their concerts from the time shows a sea of happy young people lost in the music and finding that same escape and exhilaration I did at my first concert.
The band played a concert at Banbridge in County Down in July 1975 and after the gig loaded their mini bus up for the long drive back to Dublin. As they travelled down the A1 towards Newry in the darkness they were stopped by what appeared to be a British Army checkpoint. Stephen Travers, the band’s bass player who hailed from Carrick-on-Suir in county Tipperary was initially unconcerned as such checks were not uncommon in those times. The band were ordered out of their mini bus and lined up in a layby by the road side by men in the uniform of the Ulster Defence Regiment, a locally raised unit within the British army. Travers also noted a man with a strong English accent there too.
At least four of the men in uniform that night were indeed soldiers in the British Army’s UDR regiment but they were also members of the UVF. As the band waited by the roadside the soldiers attempted to load a bomb onto their mini bus with, it seems, the intention of it exploding as the group headed south. It is thought that the bomb was meant to explode en-route, so that it would appear that the band was republican bomb-smugglers and thus stricter security measures would be established north and south of the border.
Things went awry though when the bomb exploded prematurely killing two of the soldiers handling it. One can imagine the confusion and terror the band felt as the explosion blew them off their feet. The other members of the ‘army’ patrol then began firing their weapons at the band members killing three of them and seriously wounding two others. Steven Travers’ wounds suggest they used ‘dum-dum’ bullets which are filed to ensure they fragment on impact thus inflicting dreadful internal injuries. It was, even by the standards of the time, a cynical and despicable crime.
Three men were convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Two were serving soldiers and one was a former soldier; all were thought to be members of the ‘Glenanne gang’ a loose alliance of rogue UDR soldiers, RUC officers and loyalist paramilitaries. The role of British military intelligence in supplying and directing the gang in their activities remains a point of great contention. Collusion between state agents and loyalist paramilitaries during those dark years remains an area shrouded in disinformation and obfuscation but there is little doubt it went on. Many of the counter-insurgency tactics the British military employed in their colonial struggles were imported into Northern Ireland with deadly effect. The sheer hypocrisy of claiming to be upholding law and order, while assisting in, covering up or failing to halt serious offences occurring, remains an utter scandal.
What I took from the documentary though and subsequent reading about the attack on the Miami Showband was not just anger at the inexcusable behaviour of those who carried out and assisted in the execution of this atrocious crime but admiration for the courage and integrity of those who survived it. Stephen Travers was a man clearly traumatised and changed utterly by what he had suffered and witnessed that night but he used his pain to try and find some truth about what happened. The documentary revealed a little of the journey he has been on in his quest to find truth. It took immense moral and physical courage to meet and speak with a UVF spokesman about their version of events. Even when the man was not being entirely honest about what occurred, Stephen calmly told him so but also simultaneously assured him that their dialogue should continue and be carried out without rancour and recrimination. This ability to listen to the ‘other’ is something which was wholly missing in the dark days of the 1970s.
Remarkably he carries little bitterness and spoke eloquently about the need to confront the past with honesty something many, including the British establishment seem unwilling to contemplate as yet. He is rightly angry at delays, cover ups and barriers put in his path to stop him learning the truth of what happened that July night in 1975 and who ordered it. The victims of the conflict are often the ones who receive the least attention but long after those who perpetrated such crimes are gone and forgotten we’ll remember people like Stephen. Such voices speak quietly for the victims on all sides who were guilty of nothing save being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Stephen Travers courage reminds us that there are still good people who can rise above tribalism and petty politics to remind us that the victims of violence aren’t statistics but real human beings who are physically and psychologically scarred for life by their experiences. The Miami Showband documentary reminded me in some ways of another documentary film I watched late last year. The Ballymurphy Precedent,’ which told the story of the army’s killing of civilians in Belfast in 1971, again reminded us of how the innocent suffer.
The words of Briege Voyle, daughter of Joan Connolly, one of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre echoed in my mind as I watched the documentary about what occurred on a roadside in County Down all those years ago…
‘Everybody’s pain is the same. A soldier gets shot, his parent’s, his family’s pain is the same as mine. What makes people think that their pain is any worse than mine or any less than mine? We’re all suffering the same thing. So the truth needs to be told. That’s the only way you can draw a line under the past; tell the truth.’
Stephen Travers is closer to the truth now than he was in the past but some still hide behind their lies and cover ups. I hope one day he finds out the whole story and finds some sort of closure. Like so many others he was a good man caught up in dreadful events.
Rest in peace Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty, Brian McCoy and all the innocent victims caught up in the troubles. The best memorial to them all would be to ensure such things never happen again.