How do you write a feelgood musical about the Miami Showband massacre?

The Miami Showband Story tells of the rise and violent death of ‘the Beatles of Ireland’

The Miami Showband, killed in a Troubles bomb in 1975. From left: Stephen Travers, Tony Geraghty, Ray Millar, Brian McCoy, Fran O’Toole, Des Lee

The Miami Showband, killed in a Troubles bomb in 1975. From left: Stephen Travers, Tony Geraghty, Ray Millar, Brian McCoy, Fran O’Toole, Des Lee

 

How do you write a happy-clappy, feelgood musical, complete with singalong numbers, when the story includes an atrocity?

There’s a slight doubletake with the news that the next project from Northern playwrights Marie Jones and Martin Lynch is a musical about the Miami Showband, who were enormous musical stars in 1960s-70s Ireland, and victims of what is seen as one of the worst atrocities in 30 years of the Troubles.

In what is now known as the Miami Showband Massacre, on the night of July 31st 1975 the loyalist paramilitary group Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) stopped the band on the A1 road at Buskhill in Co Down as the musicians travelled home to Dublin after a performance in Banbridge.

Three members of the Miami Showband – Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty, and Brian McCoy – were murdered and two of the gunmen, both British soldiers, died when the time bomb they were hiding on the band’s minibus exploded. At least four of the gunmen were soldiers from the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), and all were members of the UVF.

It is believed they intended the bomb to explode en route, so that the band member victims would appear to be IRA bomb-smugglers and stricter security measures would be established at the border.

On the face of it this is hardly the stuff of entertainment. All the same, for years before the massacre the Miami were massive stars of the showband era, had seven Irish number one singles and brought pleasure to thousands, led by singer Dickie Rock and later by Fran O’Toole.

Misery and brutality are frequent bedfellows with musical entertainment, from Sweeney Todd and Chigaco to the recent Irish musical of Angela’s Ashes (which is returning to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in September), so perhaps the Miami massacre as a musical is not such a disturbing idea.

Plus, the genesis of the musical came when one of the two Miami survivors, Des Lee (his stage name; his real name is Des McAlea) approached playwright and producer Martin Lynch (Dancing Shoes – The George Best Story) two years ago and asked him to write the story.

Lynch and playwright Marie Jones (Stones In His Pockets) have been writing it since June 2018; they have worked together a number of times with Lynch’s GBL Productions, which produced Jones’s A Night In November.

“Des is keen the legacy be kept alive,” says Lynch. “He says to me ‘we were the Beatles of Ireland” – and that’s what he wants to see.”

The Miami Showband had various incarnations after it was first formed in 1962, and had six band members – Des Lee, Brian McCoy, Tony Geraghty, Fran O’Toole, Steve Travers and Ray Millar – at the time of the massacre.

While the Miami is synonymous, for many, with the atrocity, the musical tells the whole story of the band, Lynch says, from when it re-formed in 1967, and Fran O’Toole and Des Lee first joined the line-up.

It will evoke what Ireland was like in the 1960s, “particularly for these boys,” says Lynch. “They went from 15 quid a week with a wee group to £65, which was reported as more than the Taoiseach was earning at the time. These young lads at 19 found themselves in paradise – money, fancy car, girls at their feet every night of the week.”

At that time, a father’s job determined a child’s place in life: Fran O’Toole’s father ran a bingo hall and amusements in Bray, Co Wicklow, and Des Lee’s dad was a foreman fitter in Shorts. The Miami “transformed their upper working-class lifestyle”.

Lynch remembers seeing O’Toole on stage in the early days, singing My Girl at the Orpheus Ballroom in Belfast – the first dancehall Jim Aiken promoted. “I want to show the joy we had at that time.”

Martin Lynch and Marie Jones, writers
Martin Lynch and Marie Jones, writers

Both Marie Jones and Martin Lynch were at those dances at the height of Ireland’s showband era, when the Miami were massive stars. Though they didn’t know each other then, they were the same age. Jones was from a unionist background and her father worked in the shipyard, while Lynch’s father was a Catholic docker.

The dancehalls were one of the few places where people from both communities in the North socialised together: they went to the halls “ to dance together and court together and get married”. When he was a bit older, says Lynch, “I remember leading girls home up to Shankill and east Belfast. That was until 1971, when all this stopped abruptly,” he says, though “now kids are meeting in the city centre again”.

He and Marie Jones are happy with their script so far: “It covers everything from the joy of Ireland in the 1960s to the awful tragedy”.

The show has not been cast yet, and GBL Productions is auditioning in London, Belfast and Dublin – with a public casting audition in Dublin in March for 20-year-old actor-musicians to play Dickie Rock and Fran O’Toole.

The script focuses particularly on Fran and Des. During research, Jones and Lynch spent a lot of time “talking to Des about his story”.

British soldiers at the scene of the Miami Showband Killings on the A1 road at Buskhill in Co Down, 31st July 1975. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty Images
British soldiers at the scene of the Miami Showband Killings on the A1 road at Buskhill in Co Down, 31st July 1975. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty Images
The Miami Showband: Dickie Rock (front, second from left) quit the band in 1973 to go solo
The Miami Showband: Dickie Rock (front, second from left) quit the band in 1973 to go solo

They also interviewed Travers, who had been in the band only six weeks before the massacre, and Dickie Rock, the former lead singer who left the band to go solo in 1973.

“Des Lee has suffered to this day from Fran O’Toole’s death. He was tortured by it. He was his mate, they co-wrote songs. He says ‘my sax saved my life’.”

When the band members were lined up by the UVF outside their van, Des Lee asked to check on his sax, and when he rejoined the line, he was farther away when the bomb went off. The five band members (the sixth, drummer Ray Millar, had driven home separately) were standing with their backs to the road and were blown into a field by the blast.

The other UVF gunmen then opened fire on the dazed band members as they lay there, killing three and wounding two. “They say Fran had 29 bullets in him.”

Des Lee and Stephen Travers survived, but the experience scarred both of them, says Lynch.

Quite separately to the musical, the Miami Showband massacre also features as an episode in a new Netflix series ReMastered, investigating some of music’s biggest unsolved mysteries, with “seismic” new information about the atrocity expected. The Miami documentary will be available to 130 million Netflix subscribers worldwide around St Patrick’s Day.

The Miami Showband Story opens at the Belfast Grand Opera House on August 8th, then tours, including to Killarney, Castlebar, Galway, and Wexford, before finishing at the Gaiety in Dublin, September 16th-21st gaietytheatre.ie GBL Productions gblproductions.com. ReMastered: the Miami Showband Massacre will be released on Netflix in March

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