A murdered showman. A lost childhood

Weekend Read: Forty years after the murder of Fran O’Toole and other members of the Miami Showband by a loyalist gang, his daughters Rachel and Kelly speak publicly for the first time of the atrocity that changed their lives

 

Fran O’Toole would have been 70 next February. In photographs of the Miami Showband in the 1970s he is a slim and beautiful young man in blue denim , bright-eyed and brimming with fun and music and confidence in himself and in the future.

Fran O’Toole and his fellow band members were shot by a loyalist gang on July 31st, 1975. Fran and two other members died in the attack, which became known as the Miami Showband massacre and is one of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The murders, when Fran was just 29, cast a shadow over those photographs. He and his young wife, Valerie, had two small daughters. Rachel was four, Kelly three, when their father vanished from their lives.

The O’Toole family have never spoken publicly about the tragedy. They want, now, to celebrate him, to talk about what his loss meant to them, and to call to account those who, when they killed him, wrecked the lives of those who loved him too. That is why they have taken part in a radio documentary, After the Music: The Daughters’ Story, on RTÉ Radio 1 today.

Mother and daughters live half the world away, on the west coast of Canada.

Rachel lives with her “unmarried husband”, Paul, in a lofty apartment on the edge of Chinatown in Vancouver. She is a highly regarded production designer, buzzing with creativity as she strides through the sets she and her team have created for The Magicians, a fantasy television series. Rachel stops to check on two women polishing silver candlesticks for an outdoor picnic scene, deals with a question from a carpenter, takes a call from a director, and explains to me the steps taken to ensure that a dungeon in which scenes will be filmed involving a young woman and a monster is scary but not pornographic.

Kelly is also artistic. For now her main focus is bringing up her two young sons, Declan and Darrian, in Langley, a town on the southern edge of greater Vancouver. There are teachers to be seen, gymnastics classes to get to, homework to be supervised. Kelly and her husband, Dustin, maintain daily rituals, including all members of the family talking at dinnertime about the good and bad things that happened to them that day.

Kelly does not allow the boys to take part in games that involve shooting people. She is known among her friends for her ability to give insightful advice on their problems.

They do not see their mother, Valerie, although Rachel talks to her sometimes on the phone. In an interview by phone for the documentary Valerie says: “When Fran was killed I went to bits, and I still never got put back together again, really.”

Rachel has a photograph of her parents on a plane journey together. “My mother looks purely happy,” she says. “It is really sad, because they are sitting on a plane and she is looking out, and someone just turned and took a photo of them, and it is one of those photographs that you look at and think, She has no idea what is coming. You know their future is destined for darkness. I always do this countdown: how many happy Saturdays left here?”

Rachel remembers enough to know that life was fine when she was a little girl in Bray, Co Wicklow. She remembers playing on the sofa, waiting for her dad to come home. She remembers running around the garden with a tambourine. Seeing her first snow and him coming home and throwing a snowball right at her face in the window.

She remembers that the young women who ran the playschool she attended used to engineer situations so that her dad had to come in. She remembers rainbows, playing with her cousins, her grandmother teaching her how to peel apples. She remembers her grandfather’s bingo hall on the seafront, 99s and rides on Shetland ponies, and, always, music in the background.

She is aware now, looking back, that she was privileged as the daughter of a local celebrity. “Nobody got in my way. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. I remember thinking that everything was cool. There was no anxiety. It was all good,” she says.

Kelly remembers little of those days – just a few fragments: the names of their dogs, Sookie and Weenie, something about a witch in the window of a doll’s house – and nothing of her father. “I feel as if I am missing from part of my life,” she says.

Their cousin David, whose father, Michael, was Fran’s older brother, remembers that they used to all head out into the Wicklow Mountains in Fran O’Toole’s souped-up purple Ford Capri for walks with the family’s Alsatian, and that Fran lived for and adored his daughters.

David was in a band at school, and Fran used to come and help them prepare for talent contests. Fran loved soul music above all, David says. “He loved Otis Redding and was always being asked to sing Mr Pitiful.”

Fran was always close to music, he says. “He always had a guitar in his hand or he was playing the piano. It wasn’t something he did at a set time,” David says. “You were aware of his creativity.”

‘The best soul singer in Ireland’

Fire and Rain

Some of the songs have not been recorded, and some are not recognised even by Des Lee, who wrote songs with Fran. Lee says that Phil Lynott described Fran as the best soul singer in Ireland. (He also called him a “breadhead” for joining a showband.)

Des remembers Fran’s pride in his little girls, and the magnificent apple tarts that his mother made for the musicians while they were working in her house, where the extended O’Toole family frequently met.

When the Miami were travelling around the country Fran would produce photographs of the girls and talk about how good they were, he says.

Everyone knew Fran’s ambition was to go solo as a singer-songwriter. He liked Elton John and listened intently to Gilbert O’Sullivan.

David remembers the night in 1974 when the family gathered around the television to watch Fran compete on RTÉ’s Reach for the Stars show, the euphoria when he won. Part of the prize was to make a solo programme, Me and My Music.

The programme was recorded in the spring of 1974. Towards the end of it he sang a song that he and Des had written, It’s Over, Goodbye. By the time it was broadcast Fran was dead.

‘We were known as the Irish Beatles’

There was not much to be joyful about in the small towns of mid-Ulster during the dark and murderous early 1970s. But dancing was big, and everyone had learned how to jive and twist and rock’n’roll. When the Miami rolled into town the boys got on their platforms and their flares and girls wriggled into their miniskirts and lashed on the blue eyeshadow for a glam night out. There would be brilliant covers of the latest pop songs as well as soul classics and ballads.

The ambush happened on the road back to Dublin. The guys thought it was a regular army checkpoint. It seemed authentic, because the loyalist gang manning it had the uniforms and the weapons.

The gang included Ulster Volunteer Force paramilitaries, local soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment and at least one special-branch informant. They lined the five members of the band up along a ditch, then planted a bomb in the van. It exploded, killing two of the loyalists.

The rest of the gang then opened up with machine guns and a pistol. Fran O’Toole, Brian McCoy and Tony Geraghty died in a hail of gunfire. Des Lee and Stephen Travers were injured but survived, their lives thereafter a struggle to overcome the horror of the experience.

David O’Toole remembers the phone call that came to his parents in the early hours, the grief that overtook the family.

Rachel remembers people looking at her from doorways, someone telling her that her father had gone to play harp with the angels. “I thought this was ridiculous,” she says. Why would her father choose to do something as boring as that instead of staying home to play with her?

Valerie O’Toole went to pieces. After just a few months, on a respite holiday in Spain, she met a man from Canada. They immediately got engaged, and very soon afterwards they married. She brought him back to Ireland.

Rachel, used to being collected from playschool by one of her parents or grandparents, registered her protest when this stranger was sent to collect her. “She screamed and screamed,” says David.

In April 1976 Valerie and her new husband took Rachel and Kelly and one of the dogs and sailed to Canada. “There were no goodbyes,” says David.

‘Like a witness protection scheme’

The worst thing by far was the utter sense of isolation that descended. “We’d lost our father. Our mother had only enough energy to deal with her own grief and paranoia and get through her own day. My sister and I became strangers. We were just kids out floating on our own out in the middle of a huge ocean.”

Kelly says that, after a tragedy, “in some families people bond together really close; in others they fend for themselves. Ours was a fend-for-yourself house.”

There was no discussion of their father, nor of the extended family back in Ireland. No stories about the past. And so it went on for 10 years until their Uncle Michael and his wife, Aunt Joan, came and persuaded Valerie to send the girls back to Ireland for a holiday.

The rediscovery of the family was joyful but tinged with sadness. Their beloved grandmother had pined away and died within three years of their leaving.

“The loss of Fran, and then the two girls being taken away, was just too much for her,” says David. “She died of a broken heart.” Their grandfather had also died.

After the girls returned to Canada they began to talk and connect with each other. Rachel left home at 17 and returned to Ireland for a year when she was 21. Kelly followed soon after.

David introduced them to Dublin’s music scene, and they discovered a shared sense of humour. Joan and Kelly watched black-and-white movies on weekend afternoons, a comforting habit that Kelly has kept up.

Now the O’Toole sisters are close and cannot imagine life without frequent phone calls and meetings. “We owe Michael and Joan a lot,” says Kelly. “They were amazing.”

Informants. Negligence. Recklessness

Police Service of Northern Ireland

Flanigan will say that the ministry of defence as an employer was responsible for the behaviour of its employees in the UDR. He will say that the membership policy of the UDR was reckless, allowing known loyalist paramilitaries to get access to training and weapons. Declassified documents show clearly that this was known at the highest levels but that nothing was done to stop it.

The case against the PSNI is that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, its forerunner, was negligent in its vetting of applicants to the UDR, and that it failed to investigate the loss of security-force weapons, many of which ended up in the hands of paramilitaries.

The case will also involve examining the use of special-branch informants, including, it appears, the notorious UVF killer and Glenanne gang member Robin Jackson. A former UDR member, he is believed to have been at the scene of the Miami ambush.

‘We were raised to be emotionless’

“I love Dustin’s family, but as far as my own close family is concerned, if it wasn’t for Rachel I would have nobody. We were raised to be cut off and very emotionless,” she says. “I still carry that. If anything goes wrong I just shut down and go inwards. We are like people living in a house that has no foundations. It doesn’t matter whether it happened a month ago or 40 years ago. We are still dealing with it to this day.”

Rachel still feels a sense of shame when she sees families behaving lovingly, because she grew up not knowing about such love. They feel neither Canadian nor Irish. When she is in Ireland Rachel feels that people do not know how to talk to her about what happened to their father.

“Everyone knew him more than Kelly and I did. I have my handful of childish memories. They are shocked because I look so like my dad. They don’t know what to say. It is as if we are symbols of grief and suffering. Being there just reminds me how awkward and strange my life is because of it.”

Kelly says that she feels jealous of Miami Showband fans, as they have real memories of Fran O’Toole, while she just longs to know what it would feel like to have a father.

Rachel has the cover of Fran O’Toole’s first solo album on the wall just inside the door of her apartment. “It is not the first thing I see. It is purposely off to one side, so that I can kind of forget it is there but then see it and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ ” she says.

Her partner, Paul, is from Northern Ireland, and his mother was a big fan of Fran. “But above it is a piece of art that my nephew made for me. It is really sweet. It is a little handprint with a little heart in it, on a stalk like a plant, and he told his mother, my sister, Kelly, that he wanted to give it to me.

“The picture of my dad is kind of sad, and it is nice to have this picture by his grandson, who he never got to meet but who, along with his brother, makes our lives very happy.”

After the Music: The Daughters’ Story is on Documentary on One, on RTÉ Radio 1, on Saturday, December 19th, at 2pm

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