'It’s a very tragic story, but at the same time a lot of joy, a lot of laughter, a lot of fun' – how to stage a musical about Miami Showband

For four decades the narrative around one of the most successful groups of the showband era has, understandably and rightly, revolved almost solely around the senseless massacre of three of the band’s members. Forty-four years ago this month, on July 31, 1975, five members of the Miami Showband were stopped in their minibus at a bogus British Army road-check outside Newry. Two UVF men had planned to plant a bomb on the bus but it exploded prematurely, killing them, and in the subsequent minutes three of the five Miami Showband members – singer Fran O’Toole, trumpet player Brian McCoy, and guitarist Tony Geraghty – were shot dead.

Against all odds, singer and songwriter Des Lee survived the blast along with bass player Steven Travers (the sixth member, drummer Ray Millar escaped the bomb as he spent that night with his parents in Antrim) and they saw three men, one former and two serving UDR soldiers, convicted of the murder of their friends and fellow musicians.

However, questions remain about exactly what happened, and why, on that isolated stretch of road that night as these young men travelled from Banbridge to Dublin.  While most Irish people over a certain age are familiar with the massacre and the fallout (and a recent Netflix documentary has brought the story to a wider, global audience), there is more to the Miami Showband story.

A new musical seeks to acknowledge that horrific moment in time on the night of July 31, 1975, while also celebrating those young men’s several joyous early years together as the ‘Irish Beatles’.  Written by Belfast playwrights and long-time collaborators Martin Lynch (Dancing Shoes – The George Best Story) and Marie Jones (Stones in His Pockets), The Miami Showband Story follows the band from its origins to the tragedy and beyond.

Told from Des’s viewpoint, it is a tale of redemption of a young man who, in the aftermath of the tragedy, lived in self-imposed exile in South Africa for two decades, battled alcoholism, and still struggles with survivor guilt, but who ultimately manages to return to the stage to sing again.

For Des, keeping the names of his ‘brothers’ Fran, Brian and Tony in the public consciousness has become the driving focus of his own life.  “They died a very tragic death.  They were my brothers, and I want to keep their name alive,” he tells Independent.ie.  Des commends Martin and Marie for doing a “fantastic job” in writing the play, which he will watch for the first time along with other survivors and family members in Belfast on opening night.

“It’s very to-the-point and it’s very hard-hitting at times.  I have read the script and it wasn’t very easy for me to read because there’s joy and there’s laughter but there’s a lot of pain,” he says.  “I don’t want people to dwell too much on the massacre.  I know it’s a massive part of the play and it has to be included; it’s a very important point but at the same time I want people to see from the beginning how the Miami went through all those years of bringing so much pleasure to people in Ireland down through the years, through their entertainment.”

It’s hard to grasp now quite how successful the Miami Showband were in 60s and 70s Ireland, and abroad, despite the fact that showbands (with members often totalling eight or nine) were uniquely Irish.  The original line-up, founded in 1962 with Dickie Rock amongst them, played the London Palladium, which was unheard of for an Irish band at that time.  In 1967 the line-up changed.  Des and his songwriting partner Fran O’Toole joined and they went on to tour America and play Las Vegas and Carnegie Hall.  They were known as the ‘Irish Beatles’ at the time but Des offers early days Take That, Westlife or Boyzone as a more contemporary comparison.

“It’s phenomenal how successful it was,” he says of the showband scene.  “We used to work 30 days in a row without a night off. We would play in places like the TV Club [now Garda HQ] here in Harcourt in Dublin.  We would play the Arcadia [Ballroom] in Bray and there would be 2,000 people inside and another 2,000 outside trying to get in.  It was just ridiculous, and we had women falling at our feet.  It was a time of sex, drugs and rock n roll.”

“It was in the Evening Herald that they were on the same money as the Taoiseach,” adds Martin.  “These guys went from earning small wages to big lads with loads of money and the world at their feet and that’s the story we’re telling.  The hook in the play is that Des and Fran were best mates.  They were songwriters and when Fran died he didn’t die for [Des], he lived on, and so we have Des wrestling with his own survivor guilt, and the notion of Fran and Des having conversations about their lives.”

Read more: ‘I didn’t feel fear… I felt an intense desire to live’ – Miami Showband massacre survivor Stephen Travers hopes for review following documentary

Just before the massacre Fran was being prepped for a solo career in the US, and Des was earmarked to take over as lead singer of the band.  It wasn’t to be.  Even all these years later Des becomes emotional when speaking about his friends, and Fran in particular.  His grief is compounded by the recent death of his son, Gary.  It has been a very difficult time, he says, but the musical is a positive focus.

“I have a lot of survivor guilt, that I survived and Fran and Brian and Tony didn’t, and that gets to me throughout my life.  I’m here for a reason and I’m delighted the story has gone all over the world with Netflix and now it’s going all over Ireland with this play by Marie Jones and Martin Lynch and it’s great to see that,” he says.

While the notion of a musical may well seem at odds with this particular story, which shifts dramatically in tone from joy to tragedy, Martin references Angela’s Ashes, “one of the most miserable stories ever and it’s a musical”, as well as Les Miserables (Cameron Mackintosh’s version has been running in London since 1985).

“I fall into the tradition of the Irish dramatic writing which is O’Casey and Behan and others who put tragedy right alongside comedy, which the English don’t do,” he says.  “Marie and I fall into that same tradition so we’re very skilled at juxtaposing the two emotions and also the use of song, which is very important.  Even though this is a musical, so song has to be there, I’ve always used song in all kinds of ways and so has Marie and when you put the two emotions together, tragedy and comedy, you actually heighten each of them.”

He adds, “I’ll say one thing – we think we have come up with a beautiful way of dealing with the tragedy.  It’s not going to be in-your-face.  We’ve done it very artistically and beautifully with the repetition of some lines from one of the songs and I think audiences will love it and be very, very emotionally moved by it.”

Of course the band’s music and hits feature prominently along with those of other hit bands and stars of the era including The Freshmen and Dickie Rock.  Des was Martin and Marie’s main source on information for the musical although Martin also consulted with Stephen Travers, and other survivors as well as famliy members.  Des gives wonderful insight into Ireland at that time through his memories of the band.  The Catholic Church’s power and influence on Irish society is perfectly illustrated through interactions between the Church and the band and the band’s management.

Read more: Showbands: Ireland’s chance to party during deeply religious 1950s and 60s

“The Catholic Church in those days was obviously very upfront and very powerful so we had to be careful.  Our management were very strict on us.  The way the band was was very regimented,” explains Des.  “We had one guy in the band, Tony Bogan, who was the drummer and Tony was very strict on everything we did and everything we said, because your image projected to the audience was very important to your success and in those days if you were a bad boy the press had a real go at you and that wasn’t good so we had to be good boys.  Before we would go on stage Tony would check your ‘ones and twos’; your shoes, your ‘Fred Astair’; your hair, and your ‘tin of fruit’; your suit.”

During the summer they would play marquees and festivals the length and breadth of the country, many of which were organised by the local church to raise money for the parish.  As the band leader, Des was tasked with collecting the ‘readies’ or cash at the end of each night.  He recalls one particular night in Galway when he approached the parish priest about payment.

“The first thing the priest would always do, funny enough, was offer you a drink, because that was to soft soak you to get you ready for the shock because he was going to ask you for a few little bob backwards, a donation for the parish,” he reveals.  “I said, ‘Well Father, what did you think of the band?’  He said, ‘You were too loud, you were too dear, and you won’t be back.’” Was there a donation that night?  “There certainly was not!”

From winding up priests to sneaking pints before performances, the antics of this group of young men, laden with talent and full of promise, in those early years are celebrated in the musical.  “It’s a very tragic story, but at the same time a lot of joy, a lot of laughter, a lot of fun,” says Des. 

Ultimately Des made a return to the stage.  A pivotal moment for him came with a concert held in Vicar Street to raise money for the Miami Showband memorial monument in Parnell Square, Dublin.  It prompted his return from South Africa to Ireland and saw him perform on stage among a line-up including the late Ronnie Drew and former Showband member Dickie Rock.  That reunion show features in the musical. 

“People are bringing joy again after what they’ve been through,” explains Martin.  “The show is kind of a redemption for Des and the others.  They overcame what they went through and can still get up and sing.”

The Miami Showband Story kicks off a nationwide tour on August 8 at Grand Opera House, Belfast, including dates at Gaiety Theatre, Dublin 16-21 September.

Full list of tour dates (additional charges may apply at each venue):

8 – 17 August – Grand Opera House, Belfast: £17.75 – £36.75

20 August – Market Place Theatre, Armagh: £26 – £28

22 – 24 August – Millennium Forum, Derry: £25

28 August – INEC, Killarney: €39.20

30 August – Royal Theatre, Castlebar: €34

2 September – Town Hall Theatre, Galway: €28 – €30

4 September – The TLT Theatre, Drogheda: €25

7 September – UCH, Limerick: €30

10 – 11 September – Theatre Royal, Waterford: €28 – €31

13 September – Solstice Arts Centre, Meath: see local venue for ticket details

16 – 21 September – The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin: From €20

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