Much has been written about the period of upheaval, sectarian hatred and relentless bloodshed that occurred in the province of Ulster in the north of Ireland in the 30 years between 1968 and 1998. Unless you were there and lived through the madness, it's likely that you have trouble actually understanding the effects of that terrible period in Irish history. What started as a peaceful civil rights march in 1968 soon escalated into a full blown war that brought savagery, violence, and death to every corner of the province. Following the 1969 'Battle of the Bogside' in Derry City and the violent pograms in Beflast, Catholic families were forced to flee their burning homes and cross the border into the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Defence Forces had set up refugee camps in the Republic and at one point the Gormanston refugee camp held 6,000 refugees from the North of Ireland.
The period between November 1974 and January 1976 was a particularly dark and frightening time especially around South Armagh and the immediate vicinity. I still remember vividly the fear and shock being felt around the area at that time when McArdles Bar in my hometown of Crossmaglen was bombed in Nov. 74, leaving one dead and several seriously injured. This shocking act started a particularly vicious cycle of depravity and brought home to me that there was a real threat that the gang of killers responsible for the attack would come back at will and repeat the killings. Kay's Bar in Dundalk, just over the border from Crossmaglen, was car bombed in Dec. 75. leaving two dead and 20 seriously injured. Also in Dec. 75 there was a bomb and gun attack on Donnelly's Bar and shop at Silverbridge, just outside Crossmaglen leaving three dead and three seriously injured. The killing quickly escalated to new heights of depravity when the Reavey and O'Dowd families were slaughtered at Whitecross, Co. Armagh and Gilford, Co. Down in Jan. 76 which prompted a deadly response the following day.This period of madness continued with the equally brutal attack on a work van in which 10 protestant workers were shot and killed at Kingsmill, near the village of Bessbrook in Co. Armagh in Jan. 1976.
I think it is fair to say it is widely accepted worldwide that during armed conflicts, civilians are normally not targets of hostility. While it is unfortunate that in some situations civilians are sadly, caught in the crossfire, usually they are not deliberately targeted. However this unwritten rule was blatantly ignored when civilians became the preferred targets in an area of Ireland dubbed the "murder triangle" during a bleak, dark three year period in the mid-seventies. It is also widely accepted that the traditions of music and storytelling in Ireland, are among the most original and earliest forms of communication in Europe. The one thing that truly unites all the differing factions in Ireland is our love of and deep respect for music. Music unites, gladdens and crosses all of the invisible barriers; it knows no boundaries, borders or walls and is color blind and deaf to prejudice of all stripes. The Miami Showband personified those traits as the bands lineup contained both Protestant and Catholic members, The Irish connection with music started, with a race of people who inhabited Ireland in the ages past named the ‘Tuatha De Danann’ and who bequeathed us with the gift of poetry and song.
More so than many other cultures, who use their music for listening pleasure only, music is hardwired in the Irish synapses, it’s embedded deep in our DNA. It is as much a part of us as the color of our eyes or the sound of our voice and coupled with its sister art of storytelling, has accompanied us on the never-ending journey worldwide, on our singular mission of unity. Whether it be a harp slung over the shoulder, a fiddle tucked under an arm, or a set of pipes leading us into battle, wherever we go, our music and song goes too. Much of the great music that emanated from the southern states of America, was brought there by Irish migrants, blended with the local music and today we know it as ‘Bluegrass.’ Irish music influenced the sounds that came out of the Mississippi delta, and the bayous of the deep south, which would in time become known as the ‘Blues.” The old adage describing Ireland as the “Land of Saints and Scholars’ should, in my opinion, be amended to read “Land of Saints, Scholars and Minstrels.”
So then, it is little wonder and wholly understandable, that Ireland and indeed the world recoiled in horror when news broke in July 1975, recounting a horrific act of wanton evil, perpetrated in the dead of night, on a lonely stretch of road between the towns of Banbridge and Newry Co. Down. The Miami Showband, Irelands top music act, was travelling home to Dublin late at night after a performance in Banbridge. Halfway to Newry, their minibus was stopped at what appeared to be a military checkpoint, where gunmen in British Army uniforms ordered them to line up by the roadside. At least four of the gunmen were serving soldiers from the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) but, unbeknownst to the band, all were members of the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF.) While two of the gunmen (both soldiers) were hiding a time bomb on the minibus, it exploded prematurely and killed them. The other gunmen then opened fire on the dazed band members, killing three and wounding two. It is believed the bomb was meant to explode en route, killing the band and framing them as IRA bomb-smugglers, and possibly leading to stricter security measures at the border.
Following the explosion pandemonium broke out among the remaining gunmen; shouting obscenities, they opened fire on the dazed band members, who had all been blown down into the field below the level of the road from the force of the blast. According to Martin Dillon, the order to shoot was given by the patrol's apparent leader, James McDowell, to eliminate witnesses to the bogus checkpoint and subsequent bombing. Three of the musicians were killed: lead singer Fran O'Toole, trumpeter Brian McCoy, and guitarist Tony Geraghty. Brian McCoy was the first to die, having been hit in the back and neck by nine rounds from a 9mm Luger pistol in the initial volley of gunfire. Despite the heavy gunfire, Tony Geraghty and Fran O'Toole attempted to carry a severely injured Stephen Travers to safety, but were unable to move him far. Fran O'Toole attempted to run away, but was quickly chased down by the gunmen who had immediately jumped down into the field in pursuit. He was then machine-gunned 22 times, mostly in the face, as he lay supine on the ground. Almost his entire head was destroyed. Tony Geraghty also attempted to escape; but he was caught by the gunmen and shot twice in the back of his head and a number of times in the back. Both men had pleaded for their lives before they were shot.
Bassist Stephen Travers was seriously wounded by a dum-dum bullet which had struck him when the gunmen had first begun shooting. He survived by pretending he was dead, as he lay beside the body of McCoy. Saxophone player Des McAlea, who had been standing closest to the minibus, was hit by its door when it was blown off in the explosion, but was not badly wounded. He lay hidden in thick undergrowth, face down, undetected by the gunmen. He also survived by remaining silent, pretending he was dead. However, the flames from the burning hedge (which had been set on fire by the explosion) soon came dangerously close to where he lay; he was forced to leave his hiding spot. By this time the gunmen had left the scene, assuming everyone else had been killed. Travers later recalled hearing one of the departing gunmen tell his comrade who had kicked McCoy's body to make sure he was not alive: "Come on, those bastards are dead. I got them with dum-dums". McAlea made his way up the embankment to the main road where he hitched a lift to alert the RUC at their barracks in Newry.
Two serving British soldiers and one former British soldier were eventually found guilty of the murders and received life sentences; they were released in 1998. Those responsible for the attack belonged to the ‘Glenanne gang’ a secret alliance of loyalist militants, rogue police officers and British soldiers. There are also allegations that British military intelligence agents were involved. According to former Intelligence Corps Agent Captain Fred Holroyd, the killings were organised by British intelligence officer Robert Nairac, together with the UVF’s Mid-Ulster Brigade and its commander Robin (the jackal) Jackson.
The Historical Enquiries Team, which investigated the killings, released their report to the victims’ families in December 2011. It confirmed that Jackson was linked to the attack by fingerprints. The massacre dealt a blow to Northern Ireland’s live music scene, which had brought young Catholics and Protestants together. In a report published in the Sunday Mirror in 1999, Colin Wills called the Miami Showband attack “one of the worst atrocities in the 30-year history of the Troubles”. Irish Times diarist Frank McNally summed up the massacre as “an incident that encapsulated all the madness of the time”.
The Miami Showband Massacre occurred on July 31, 1975 and was just one in a long list of atrocities perpetrated against an innocent civilian population by the so called “Glenanne Gang.”
Please follow the link below to watch the Netflix movie about the atrocity:
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Many thanks to Wikipedia for some of the information I have used in this article.
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© John A. Brennan 2015. All Rights Reserved.