By Patricia Devlin
POINTING at an image of his bandmates on an assembly hall screen, Stephen Travers asks a roomful of school pupils, ‘Can any of you identify the Protestants or the Catholics?’
It was a question no teacher would dare ask, but for the Miami Showband survivor it was part of an important lesson not being taught in today’s classroom – the horror of Ulster’s troubled past.
Some shook their heads, others sat in silence. All remained transfixed on the bass player’s harrowing words.
They heard about the bomb, how it prematurely ripped through the band’s bus before blowing the musicians off their feet.
They were told about the hail of bullets, how four of the band were shot at point blank range
And they learned how, as Stephen lay critically injured, he tried to whisper into the ear of his friend Fran O’Toole, unaware he’d just been shot 22 times in the face.
On Thursday 250 young people at St Louis Grammar School, Ballymena became the first in the province to hear Stephen’s story delivered in a school setting.
Three other men who also lost relatives in merciless attacks during the Troubles also spoke to students and staff about the devastating impact of paramilitary violence on their lives.
Eugene Reavey, who lost three brothers in a loyalist attack in their south Armagh home; Michael Gallagher whose only son Aodhan was killed in the Omagh bomb and Joe Campbell, whose RUC father was gunned down by loyalists, delivered heartbreaking testimonies to children as young as 12.
“You could have heard a pin drop when the stories were being told,” history and politics teacher Denise Johnston, who organised the event, told the Sunday World.
“I think they will take the stories they heard with them throughout their lives and in doing so seek out justice.
“Sometimes we shy away from talking to our young people about our past in an attempt to protect them from the full horror of it, but here in St Louis we believe that they are taught about past in variations,” Denise said.
“As part of our teaching of history and politics we want to give students the tools necessary to make informed decisions in the future.
“Our past is still our present in so many ways. The pupils fully engaged with the event.”
Stephen along with Eugene and the other relatives have been taking the Truth and Reconciliation Platform (TaRP) talks around Ireland for sometime.
But last week’s event was the first school they’d delivered their bomb and bullet legacy to.
Michael Gallagher spoke candidly about the day he lost son Aiden in the Real IRA’s 1998 Omagh bomb attack.
“One wee girl was very emotional,” he said. “In fact she left the hall but I was glad to see her come back again.
“The message certainly I was giving was we don’t want you to go through this pain and suffering, we want you to learn that there is a better way of resolving your disagreements and differences other than shooting and bombing. For me, that was the key message.
“And I do believe it should be part of the curriculum. The educationalists could put together something – that we probably would never totally agree on the narrative – but yesterday I think listening to people’s person own experiences was absolutely invaluable.”
Stephen Travers, who watched three bandmates be murdered in the 1975 UVF Miami Showband massacre, agreed.
“Truth and Reconciliation Platform succeeds because it personalises the tragedy of violence by presenting a real, live link to the consequences of violence,” he said.
“The young people in Ballymena were able to identify and connect with the brother who lost his brothers, the father who lost his son, the son who lost his father and the friends who lost their friends; TaRP is a living history class.
“I certainly agree with Michael that it should be on the curriculum; for the past ten years, I’ve been inundated with requests to have my book be put on the curriculum and, perhaps, it’s time to seriously consider that.”
Two days after the event, the speakers are still getting inundated with messages of gratitude from the students they spoke to.
One wrote: “We heard things that we wouldn’t be able to read in a textbook or online.”
Another simply said: “They showed us how pointless the Troubles were and the true horror of these conflicts.”