The night the music died

An era when showbands ruled the music scene in Ireland has been recalled in a number of recent TV programmes, from the Ardal O’Hanlon documentary on the phenomenon’s halcyon days, to the shocking exposures of the Miami Showband Massacre.

Wednesday, 15th May 2019, 9:00 am
The grave of the Mallett brothers in Ardmore cemetery

O’Hanlon’s Showbands: How Ireland Learned to Party, took a nostalgic look back to a generation when these unique musical outfits packed out halls across the island, while the story of the callous murders carried out by the UVF in 1975 on a hard-working, popular Miami - led at the time by rising star, Fran O’Toole - rekindled more sombre memories.

Also, a new play, Keep Telling Me Lies, written by Brenda Winter-Palmer and developed by Antoinette Morelli and the Karma Theatre Company, last week took audiences back to the golden era of the showbands.

Playing at the Mac in Belfast, it was based on The Witnesses, who enjoyed success at home and abroad in the 1960s, an era when the showbands reigned supreme.

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Between 1957 and 1972 more than 500 showbands were active in Ireland, working up to five nights a week, playing in ballrooms, dance halls and marquees, to crowds, sometimes in excess of 1500.

The North West of the province was a major part of the showband scene and it, too, had its share of triumph and tragedy.

People will recall Gay McIntyre’s Showband, which travelled across Ireland and was highly regarded by dancers and musicians alike as being one of Ireland’s top dance bands. Also Johnny Quigley’s All Stars, a big band with thumping brass arrangements, The Clipper Carlton, from Strabane, known as the band who put the word ‘Show’ in showband; and the Melody Aces from Newtownstewart.

Tragically, a young band that was robbed of its chance to reach those heights was The Statesiders, comprising young men from Londonderry who seemed set to ride the crest of the musical wave and who bucked the trends of the time by being tee-total.

But in 1964, The Statesiders came to a tragic end on a Co Antrim road.

Five of six fatalities in a collision near Cloughmills in November, 1964, were members of The Statesiders who had been playing at a dance in the nearby Tennis Hall. The sixth, Jackie Mallet was not a member of the band like his three brothers, but he had gone along for the ride. The crash happened around 2.15am on a sharp bend just one mile from Cloughmills. In a collision with a lorry, the side of the band’s minibus was crushed.

Four band members were killed instantly. Two others from the minibus died on the roadside in a tragedy that was at that time believed to be the worst ever on a Northern Ireland road. The driver of the lorry told later how he had braked hard and the brakes locked.

Within minutes, a number of cars came upon the crash and dozens of people tried to help.

The tragic story was recorded by the media at the time, as the shockwaves reverberated around Northern Ireland.

One of the first people on the scene was a Londonderry Post Office engineer, Jackie Kennedy, who rendered what assistance he could to the injured men.

A resident who lived nearby told reporters: “When I got to the scene of the crash I saw four bodies laid out on the roadside.

“Doctors and ambulance men were attending two others who were seriously injured. The wreckage was all over the place and the fire brigade and ambulance men were working in the light of car headlights. They had to use cutting and lifting apparatus to get one man clear.”

David Weir, who organised the dance, spoke of his shock: “The band was well liked last year and we decided to ask them to come back again. They were nice fellows - all teetotallers. They were very respectable chaps - real gentlemen.”

Many of the thousands of people attending the funeral of the four Mallett brothers wept openly. They were laid to rest together in the cemetery at Ardmore, just outside Londonderry, and the remains of Daniel McLaughlin and William Harrison were interred side by side in Londonderry’s City Cemetery.

The cortege that followed the hearses carrying the remains of the Mallet brothers was one of the largest ever seen in the city, and extended for almost a mile.

The remains of the eldest, James, and of the younger two, John (23) and Jeremiah (22), had been brought to the home of their parents, Mr and Mrs William T Mallett, in Robert Street, Waterside, the previous day from Ballymena, and the remains of William had been brought to his home at Beechwood Avenue in Londonderry.

Jeremiah (Jerry) was engaged to be married on August of the following year.

James (27) was married with three children and lived in Strathfoyle, William (25) was also married with three children. William Harrison (33) was married with one child and lived on Creggan Road and Daniel McLaughlin (40) was married with four children aged between five and 12, and lived at Cromore Gardens in Creggan.

Mr McLaughlin had given up band work a year earlier but over the previous four weeks or so had gone along at the band’s request. His wife, Phyllis said at the time: “The money he was making in the band was being put away to get toys for the children at Christmas.”

Mr Harrison worked with Jackie, William and James Mallett at the Monarch Electric factory in Londonderry.

Three other occupants of the minibus were injured: Hugo McMonagle , his brother Seamus, and William McKane, of Glenbank, Northland Road in the city.

The large attendance at the removal of the remains included Rev Francis McLaughlin, Derby, who was Daniel’s brother. The remains of all four Mallett brothers were brought together at a packed St Columb’s Church, Waterside, on Monday, November 23, where Requiem Mass was celebrated by Rev J Quinn, CC, Waterside.

All four had attended Waterside Boys’ Primary School on Chapel Road, and senior pupils, accompanied by principal Redmond Friel and teacher Leo Day, walked at the head of the cortege. In the procession were hundreds of workers from the Monarch Electric factory.

Among those in the mourners’ cars were the bereaved parents and the only other surviving member of their family, their married daughter Kathleen Hamill, and the widows of James and William Mallett.

The four young men were buried in one large grave in what was then a new cemetery at Ardmore.

In Londonderry City Cemetery, one of the largest ever corteges to enter its gates brought the remains of Daniel McLaughlin and William Harrison, to be laid to rest.

There were again many Monarch Electric workers in attendance, and from Londonderry Corporation, Aldermen James Hegarty and Alex Magowan, and Councillors J Doherty and AA McCartney joined the mourners, as did members of many bands based in the North West.

Mr McLaughlin was survived by his widow, Phyllis, two sons Pat and Brendan, and two daughters, Jean and Helen. Other relatives were Mrs Ellen McLaughlin (mother), William, Peter and Fr McLaughlin (brothers), Mrs P Dougan, Mrs S Brown, Mrs J McCay and Miss Evelyn McLaughlin (sisters). The chief mourners at Mr Harrison’s funeral were Kathleen Harrison (widow), Paul (son), Mr and Mrs W Harrison (parents), and Seamus (brother).

Wreaths were laid on all of the graves on behalf of the Barristers Showband and the Royal Showband.