Think Ireland’s Troubles are over? This documentary will make you think again
Ireland in 1975 is a troubled place. Literally. It marks the middle of the Troubles, a sectarian conflict that will ultimately kill and injure thousands. Bombs have been going off in Dublin and Monaghan, people are being kidnapped and “disappeared”, civilians and members of paramilitary groups on both sides are being assassinated.
Enter into this the “showband”: a six- or seven-piece band who were pleasing to the eye and had a knack for covering pop songs.
Showbands were fun.
They made the kind of cheerful music we associate with Elvis and The Beatles, they performed in ballrooms and dance halls, and young Irish men and women became red-faced and flushed as they boogied along to the tunes.
As someone says during the Netflix documentary ReMastered: The Miami Showband Massacre, their performances offered a kind of therapy for young people, who in many ways were deprived of the usual social outlets afforded to people not living in a war zone.
The Miami Showband was established in the sixties and was by far one of the more successful and popular showbands. Members came and went over the following decade and by July of 1975, Fran O’Toole, a young Irish heartthrob, was the frontman.
Stephen Travers had been the bass player for the band for just six weeks when they were stopped at a phony checkpoint as they drove home from a show in Northern Ireland in the middle of summer. That night, half the band members were murdered.
ReMastered: The Miami Showband Massacre is the latest offering in Netflix’s ReMastered series, which re-examines high profile events in the music world, in an attempt to better understand what really happened.
This show was ultimately not so much about music at all, but about how ordinary civilians, who may consider themselves remote from political conflict, can find their lives turned upside down by the machinations of history and the motives of faceless organisations.
In order to understand this documentary, I really had to brush up on my Irish history.
To give you a quick précis: Ireland is divided into two parts — The Republic of Ireland (in the South), and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. This division has religious roots, and Nationalists (mostly Catholics) wished for Ireland to be a united whole, whereas Unionists (mostly Protestants) wished for Northern Ireland to remain with the United Kindgdom.
This conflict manifested as a low-level war between paramilitary terrorist groups: the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Also present in Northern Ireland is the British Army in the form of the Ulster Defence Regiment, and of course, the British spy agencies: the MI5 and the MI6.
In 1975, the Miami Showband was made up of six of young men. Despite the Troubles and the intense conflict happening around them, these men seem to have been politically naïve.
Stephen Travers survived the massacre and through this documentary is trying to seek the truth regarding what happened to his bandmates.
He says he grew up knowing nothing of politics and that his parents were relieved when he decided to dedicate his life to music. At the time of the killings all the band members lived in Dublin, but some were Protestant and some were Catholic, some were from Northern Ireland and some were from the south.
The band was equally popular both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, and they travelled between the two for performances.
One night, five of them were in a van heading back from Northern Ireland when they were stopped by men dressed in the uniform of the British Army, at an apparent checkpoint. They were asked to step away from their van, and two men then made as if to search the vehicle. Suddenly, there was an explosion, and then there was gunfire, and in the ensuing confusion, three band members were executed at the side of the road.
Two men were ultimately arrested and charged with the murder of the Miami Showband members, but the questions remain: why did this happen, and who ordered it?
Was the bomb meant to explode there and then, or was it meant to make it all the way to Dublin before detonating, so that it would seem that the IRA had found a way to smuggle bombs down south?
Who was the soldier with the posh British accent? Were the killings organised by a British intelligence officer, and was Robin “The Jackal” Jackson involved, and was he a double agent?
More than 40 years after the politics of his country literally exploded into his life, Stephen Travers is still trying to answer these questions.
He, and many others, believe that the British Army and by proxy the British government, were intricately involved in the events of 31 July 1975, but ultimately there is no proof, no final answer.
Travers and the remaining band members are certainly closer to closure than they were a few decades ago, but in many ways there are still more questions than answers, for them and I’m sure for countless other Irish people.
The matter of the Irish border is one of the most complicated in the Brexit saga, and is about far more than a long and winding line in the earth.
The Good Friday Agreement, which brought a relative ceasefire to Ireland, was signed 21 years ago, but just this month a journalist was killed covering unrest in Londonderry, in Northern Ireland.
ReMastered: The Miami Showband Massacre is a timely reminder that the Troubles are a raw wound for the Irish, one that has not yet healed over, and one that can be easily scratched open to once again engulf thousands of ordinary lives.