Miami Showband’s Stephen Travers on hopes for review after documentary release

Posted By: March 10, 2019

“I was blown into a field then heard gunfire… I can still see the ditch on fire, can still hear them saying they’d killed us”

 John Meagher. Belfast Telegraph. 3Saturday, March 9, 2019

There is a cliche 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 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.

“It’s always there, in minute detail,” he says. “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 group and had been in the band for just six weeks when it was attacked shortly after 2 am following a performance at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge [NorthernIreland].

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. 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 whose father was a proud Orangeman – confidently telling the others that it was the Army and all would be okay.

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 band but had left for a solo career several years before.

“The atmosphere changed completely when another man came along,” Travers explains. “He had a posh, educated English accent.”

Unbeknown to Travers, two of the “soldiers” were attaching a bomb to their VW van. But it didn’t go to plan and 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 group, 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,” he says. “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. What I felt was the 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. I was crawling around in that field.”

If the Miami Showband killings remain indelibly imprinted on the minds of a generation – 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 Jackson had been a ‘special agent’ for the RUC.

It has also been suggested Army officer Robert Nairac 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. 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 is 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 band members mere pawns in a grand scheme to have the border hardened.

“We were targeted because the British wanted our government to seal the border so that the IRA wouldn’t be able to cross easily into the relative safety of the South after committing some sort of atrocity,” he says.

“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 refuses to give up his fight for justice, despite the toll it has taken on his life.

“When a government decides to murder its own citizens and to murder the citizens of its closest neighbor, there’s no way you can excuse that,” he says.

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, entitled 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 are 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’.” 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,” he says.

The documentary shows that the members of the Miami Showband – four Catholics and two Protestants from various parts of the island – were 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.

“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”

For Sender, Travers’ co-operation 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.

“But 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,” she adds. “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 recognizes now that he became a completely different person from them on.

“I used to be so cocky and confident,” he says.

“Growing up, I wanted to be really good at something. It wasn’t hurling, it was music that I was good at.

“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.

“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 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 and 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 skeptical 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 looking for the truth.”

Besides the Netflix documentary, Travers has co-written a screenplay about the band and the atrocity that would come to define it, and he says some big-name Hollywood players are attached to the project.

There will also be a musical about the group 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