When the gunfire and the screaming fell silent and the cursing and obscenities of the soldiers had all stopped, I lay on my back, motionless, staring at the sky, half-lit by a half moon, trying to make sense of what had just happened. ‘I had managed to roll onto my back. I slowly brought my hands across my chest and carefully counted my fingers. It was suddenly very important to me, as a musician, that I had all my fingers. They were all there. I thanked God as I heard my platform shoes click against each other; I still had both legs. Finally, I raised myself up, almost to a sitting position, to check if my back was broken. I managed to get up on my knees but I found it hard to breathe. I thought that I was still just winded from being punched in the back by the soldier.’ (Extract from The Miami Showband Massacre; A survivor’s search for the truth.)
It was a relief, too, that none of my clothes were wet with blood but, in reality, I had massive internal bleeding that I was unaware of.
In the months that followed my initial physical recovery, I had to attend a psychiatrist for assessment. Since I appeared to have dealt with the trauma “too well and too soon”, he considered giving me sodium pentothal to help me re-live the experience in a controlled environment rather than to have it “hit me like a ton of bricks” in the near or distant future. I couldn’t understand why he was concerned and I repeatedly told him “I went to a gig and, on the way home, the lads were murdered and I was injured but I’m fine now and I want to get on with my life.” However, the doctor decided that, for the time being at least, I had dealt with the incident and that no further monitoring was necessary but he cautioned me by saying “maybe you’re one in a million strong enough to deal with such an experience but I must warn you that in six months or a year or ten years or even twenty years, the wall might fall on you.”
We reformed The Miami Showband in October 1975 and I was convinced that I could get my life and career back on track but it was impossible: Sure, the crowds flocked to “see” us in their thousands and the new band was super slick and professional and exciting but a terrible, inexplicable grief, that I’m still unable to articulate, tore at my insides and made life in that band unbearable for me… In 1975, we knew nothing about post-traumatic stress disorder and so I left the band and returned to my hometown, Carrick on Suir in South Tipperary, to make a fresh start.
Anne and I moved to London in 1982 where we built a good life and, by blocking all thoughts of it from my life, I was sure I could put the “incident” behind me. When our daughter was born in 1992, I felt a positivity that I hadn’t felt for years. However, despite some notable successes as a musician and an entrepreneur, this inexplicable feeling of un-fulfilment continued to gnaw at me. In 1997, we decided to return to Ireland and, while I continued to commute to my office in London, we settled comfortably in Cork’s leafy suburbs.
My testimony about the reality and futility of violence was considered valuable as a counter narrative to that of radicalisation and my confidence as a speaker grew.
In 2009, I was asked to say a few words at the opening of the offices of The Omagh Support and Self Help Group in Market Street; close to the site of the 1998 Omagh bombing and, following that, I was invited to speak at the International Radicalisation Awareness Network convention at The Ulster American Folk Park with Terry Waite which, in turn, led to invitations to speak at conventions and universities throughout Europe. Speaking at these events gave me a renewed sense of value and an opportunity to transform a terrible experience into something worthwhile. My testimony about the reality and futility of violence was considered valuable as a counter narrative to that of radicalisation and my confidence as a speaker grew.
In February 2013, when I was speaking in The Hague, my friend, Jo Dover who, at that time, was a programme manager at The Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Centre in Warrington, invited me to a “dialogue residential” i.e. “a sharing of experiences with other victims”. Jo was confident that I could help other victims by explaining how I dealt with my trauma. However, I had great difficulty in admitting that I was a victim as it somehow seemed like capitulation, a sign of weakness or even an admission of defeat so I accepted on condition that Jo understood I was attending as a “survivor” rather than a “victim”.
Jo Dover met me and some of the other attendees at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport and soon all twelve of us were happily chatting with each other at the impressive peace centre. We were split into two groups of six with the groups in separate rooms. The comfortable couches and armchairs along with the soft lighting held all the promise of a relaxed evening of easy conversation during which I was sure I could dispense some wise words of comfort and assurance to the others about how I had successfully dealt with my traumatic experience.
Each of us had been asked to bring “a personal object that connected us with the experience that changed our lives” and I brought a used guitar string, in its original grease-proof pouch, that my friend and band mate, Tony Geraghty, left at my home just a few days before he was murdered all those years ago; it was small and fitted easily into the inside pocket of my jacket.
As each speaker stood up to speak, they placed their personal object on a low glass table in the centre of the room and explained its relevance to their experience. Some brought old, lovingly-framed, photographs, others had wedding rings or small pieces of jewellery while one had a pair of gloves that belonged to her father who was murdered when she was just a little girl. Each story, while unique to the teller, was heart-breaking which made me more determined than ever to help them get over their grief and get on with their lives just as I did.
After some time, it was the turn of a former British soldier who had witnessed terrible things in Aden during the so-called “Radfan Uprising” of the sixties: Tragically, his story began as an abused child and each consecutive period of his life appeared to have traumatised him further. The object he had brought with him was a toy fire engine which, he explained, was the focus of his life since all he ever wanted to be was a fireman. Unfortunately, when he eventually realised that ambition, drugs and alcohol had taken their toll and that too was a crushing failure. The more he spoke, the more I was convinced that Jo had, wisely, given me an opportunity to redeem some poor creature like him and, through my own personal success story, I was determined, now, to change his life with some well-chosen words of wisdom; but my misplaced confidence bordered on arrogance and was about to be checked.
After thirty eight years, without any warning, just as the psychiatrist had predicted, “the wall fell on me”. I couldn’t speak.
My turn came and I stood up to speak: I confidently introduced myself and, as I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket for Tony’s guitar string, I said “my name is Stephen Travers and the object I’ve brought with me today is……”
After thirty eight years, without any warning, just as the psychiatrist had predicted, “the wall fell on me”. I couldn’t speak, I was instantly paralysed and terrified, and tears came that had remained dry since 1975. I was no longer in Warrington; I was at Buskhill in a field between Banbridge and Newry and the slaughter of my friends was in full flow. Horror that I had suppressed for many years was playing out before my very eyes and deafening me to the edge of insanity.
I can’t say how long it lasted but, eventually, the awful sound of murder gave way to the sound of comforting voices and, as my sight returned, the first face I saw was that of the tormented British soldier who I was convinced I could help but, now, along with the others, he was comforting me. As I tried to regain my composure, I felt profoundly embarrassed and I apologised to everyone present who assured me that “it happens to everyone sometime”.
I had overstepped the boundaries of my long-guarded safety zone: I felt like a boxer, knocked to the canvas for the first time: After the murders, I had erected emotional protection barriers. I had set limits which, for many years, I did not cross. During media interviews, I spoke only about aspects of my experience that I could deal with emotionally but, over time, that safety zone unwittingly expanded: Writing the book in 2007 required me to, tentatively, glance into the darkest of places and while working on the movie screenplay was also risky, I was still cautious and selective with the intimacies I shared. The re-opening of the murder case by the British government’s Historical Enquiry Team was welcome, draining and confrontational but it demanded only cold, hard facts rather than any thorough examination of my psychological trauma.
It took me some years to regain my confidence but Warrington enabled me to better understand and empathise with my fellow victims… and, perhaps, even with the men who tried to kill me…I realise now that I didn’t survive the experience unscathed and that I am not the “one in a million” I led the psychiatrist to consider I might be; I am like every other victim of the horrors visited upon us during the madness that spread like an evil virus during those dark days we curiously call “The Troubles”. The psychological trauma caused by that savage and unnecessary conflict is widespread and undoubtedly transgenerational and, unless we appreciate our shared pain and acknowledge the Truth and Reconciliation Platform mantra that No “side” has a monopoly on suffering or loss, our fingers and our feet may still work and some backs might still be straight but the invisible Internal Bleeding of our people will last many more lifetimes.
Stephen is a friend of Shared Ireland and has previously done a podcast with us discussing the Miami Showband Massacre along with Eugene Reavy with us here.
Stephen Travers was a founding director and the first editor of The Irish World newspaper in the UK. He is also an author, screenwriter, composer, arranger and record producer. Stephen was a special observer with the international charity “Children in Crossfire” in East Africa and has addressed victim support and Radicalisation Awareness Network conferences and universities across Europe and The USA on numerous occasions.
In 2019, Stephen received the “Chicago iBAM Person of The Year Award”.
Stephen Travers is a survivor of The Miami Showband Massacre. The Book – “The Miami Showband Massacre; A survivor’s search for the truth” is available directly from the publisher here. You can watch The Miami Showband Massacre Netflix documentary here.
You can follow Stephen’s twitter here.