I rarely watch movies when I’m flying, but on the plane from Chicago to Dublin last November, perusing my options for in-flight entertainment, I stopped in my tracks when I heard that hiss that comes after a stylus is dropped right in the groove, and then a Northern Ireland accent infused with Woodbine cigarettes: “Once upon a time in the city of Belfast, there lived a boy named Terri . . .“
Terri Hooley. Where do I begin, and what can I say that hasn’t already been said about him? In 1977, he opened his own record shop, “Good Vibrations” on Great Victoria Street in Belfast. The next year, under his own record label of the same name, he released “Teenage Kicks” by a relatively unheard-of Derry band, “The Undertones.” I bought the single and played it relentlessly. It was 1978. It was Northern Ireland. When our kitchen windows rattled, we knew it was a bomb somewhere not too far away, and we wanted to be farther away, to escape . . . “get teenage kicks all through the night.”
Now this may seem neither remarkable nor the stuff of a 2012 movie that was playing on my flight back home, except that Terri Hooley opened “Good Vibes” on the most bombed street in Europe, just two years after “the day the music died” in Ireland, and as I watched Richard Dormer’s brilliant portrayal of him in “Good Vibrations,” I was a teenager again, fingering through the sleeves of vinyl records in Ronnie Millar’s Pop-In record shop in Antrim, my hometown, knowing that Ronnie knew what I’d like and if I asked, he’d play it on the record player for everyone in the shop to hear. And when he did, you would never have known that our little country was in the grip of The Troubles.
There were moments on that flight back home when I wanted to jump out of my aisle seat and cheer for Terri Hooley, for Punk Rock, for everyone who bought a record from a smoke-filled shop just down the street from the most bombed hotel in Europe , and for every musician who ever played in Northern Ireland. I think I maybe even understood - if only for a moment – what Joe Strummer of The Clash meant:
When punk rock ruled over Ulster, nobody ever had more excitement and fun. Between the bombings and shootings, the religious hatred and the settling of old scores, punk gave everybody a chance to live for one glorious burning moment.
But when the movie ended and my remembering began, I felt like weeping for all that Northern Ireland lost between those bombings and shootings. I felt guilty for having left it behind when perhaps the better thing would have been to stay and strive to see far beyond the images that flickered on our TV screens at six o’clock every night. Unlike Terri Hooley, I fled.
Ironic then, that I am shocked when some of my American friends refuse to visit Belfast while vacationing in Ireland. They don’t think it’s safe. “But it’s a great city!” I tell them. “The best in the world! And the Antrim Coast is stunningly beautiful.” I urge them to take the train from Belfast to Dublin, to enjoy the full Irish breakfast on the journey, at the same time forgetting all those times my brother had to get off the Belfast to Dublin train and take the bus because of the threat of a bomb on the line.
So what must it have been like for Terri Hooley trying to convince bands to play in Northern Ireland in the 1970s? No small task. Musicians were afraid to play there because of something terrible that had happened in the summer of my twelfth year.
In the early hours of July 31, 1975, five members of The Miami Showband, one of the most popular bands in the country, were travelling home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge. The sixth member, drummer, Ray Millar, had gone home to Antrim instead to stay with family. On the road to Newry, they were flagged down by a group of uniformed men at what appeared to be a routine UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) army checkpoint. I imagine that like the rest of us they didn’t think anything of it until they were ordered out of their vehicle and told to stand by the roadside while it was checked.
I don’t know if, while standing on the side of the road, The Miami Showband realized that this was not an army checkpoint and that they were instead the victims of a vicious ambush carried out by members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). While the band members waited, two of the UVF men – later revealed as members of the Ulster Defense Regiment – planted a bomb in the back of their van.
However, the bomb exploded prematurely, killing both, and in the chaos that followed, the remaining UVF members opened fire, killing three of the band members. There werereports that the handsome young lead singer, Fran O’Toole, had been shot 22 times in the face. Lying on his back on the ground, he was utterly vulnerable to the men who showed no mercy in spite of his pleas. Brian McCoy shot nine times, was the first to die at the scene. Tony Geraghty was also shot in the back – four times. Des McAlea and Stephen Travers survived the blast from the explosion that flung both of them into the air.