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'Our hero, our fighter': Stardust campaigner Christine Keegan - who lost two daughters in tragedy - has died

Christine’s tireless work alongside the families of other victims laid the foundations for the new inquests for the victims of the fire.

Christine Keegan with her daughter Antoinette at a vigil in February
Christine Keegan with her daughter Antoinette at a vigil in February
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

IN THE EARLY hours of 14 February 1981, Christine Keegan was roused by her husband John. 

He’d heard there was a fire in the Stardust club and wanted to know if their girls had come home safe.

She ran quickly into their rooms and noticed that three of them weren’t there. Mary, Martina and Antoinette had asked their dad to let them go to the Valentine’s disco and, even though he was unwilling, John was eventually convinced. 

Two of their daughters never came home and were among the 48 people who died in the Stardust nightclub. Now, almost 40 years on from the horrific tragedy, the woman who was a tireless campaigner for justice for her girls and the other victims of the fire has died.

Christine Keegan passed away last evening following an illness and has been hailed as a “hero” and a “tireless fighter” in the long campaign. Christine and her daughter Antoinette have for many years been a key part of the campaign for justice, keeping the tragedy within the public sphere and helping to secure support for their calls for fresh inquiries.

The Stardust fire in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 1981 at a club in Artane resulted in the deaths of 48 young people and injured 200 others.

The subsequent campaign had been characterised by years and years of government inertia and a lack of progress as the families of the victims tried to secure new inquiries into the deaths of their loved ones. 

Covid-19 has affected every facet of Irish society and its cruel effect has reached as far as the Stardust campaign. Last September, the families, at last, were granted new inquests into the deaths of the 48 victims. These inquests would’ve been likely to start this summer if not for the arrival of the pandemic.

Now, even though Christine has passed, there is a chance that her efforts and the efforts of others may lead to the justice families have for sought in the end. 

Stardust fire

For the Stardust podcast – a six-part documentary series from TheJournal.ie – we visited the home of Antoinette Keegan to hear her story and her mother’s in their own words.

In interviews through the years, Christine had come across as articulate and determined. In-person, that determination was mingled with a wit and a warmness that many of those on the campaign had described over the years. 

In the corner of the sitting room were photos of Mary and Martina, and Christine looked towards them often as she and Antoinette told us their story.

download (39) Gardaí at the scene of the fire. Source: PA Images

Dublin’s emergency services were overwhelmed on the night and there was initial confusion as parents scrambled from hospital to hospital searching for their kids.

This was the grim task of Christine and John who, after many enquiries, were told to go to the city morgue. Mary and Martina were among the victims but they weren’t permitted to see them.

A funeral was held the following week but neither of them told Antoinette, who was gravely ill in hospital at the time. 

Antoinette said: “And my mother and father were coming up [to see me] after taking off their mourning clothes. I’d say ‘how’s Mary’ and she’d say Mary is in the Mater and was asking for you. I don’t know how they did it. 

It was one of those things that they were told they had to do, otherwise I’d have gone into shock and doctors had warned it was 50/50 for me to survive. At the end of the day, they did what they had to do to keep me alive. I always admire them. I don’t know how they did it. It was one of the strongest things they ever had to do. Come in and talk about it after burying the two of them.

Fight goes on

A full Tribunal of Inquiry was ordered into the fire. Christine attended the proceedings every day, listening to the often harrowing accounts of what happened that night. 

The hope that this would lead to a resolution or some closure was – not for the first time when it came to State probes – soon dashed.

The ultimate finding of the Tribunal was “the more probable explanation of the fire is that it was caused deliberately”. In effect, it ruled that someone who was there that night – one of their own – had caused the fire.  It fell onto an unknown arsonist.

That wasn’t good enough for many of the families, and certainly not good enough for the Keegans.

Christine’s husband John Keegan was head of the Stardust Victims Committee for a number of years but soon fell into ill health himself. The toll of losing his daughters bore heavily on him. 

Diagnosed with cancer in July 1986, he died that December. 

Just a few months later, a compensation tribunal was concluded. John Keegan wasn’t granted any because the tribunal determined it couldn’t compensate for “mere grief, however intense”. 

christine-keegan-stardust-disaster Source: Rollingnews.ie

Speaking to RTÉ at the time, Christine clearly summed it up when asked if a line could be drawn under it now.

She said: “It’ll never be over. That memory will be in that house as long as I’m there. I’d like to open the door and let my two children walk in and have my husband beside me, but that’ll never happen. The Stardust took the three of them.”

Modern times

It wasn’t until around the year 2000 that Christine talked to her daughter Antoinette and said she just couldn’t give up the fight. She had to find out what happened to her children. She had to find out how and why they died.

The campaigners frequently made the news over the years with their latest attempts at getting new inquiries into the fire.

There were false dawns in the latter part of that decade but also some positive steps.

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An inquiry that was set up resulted in the arson verdict from the original Tribunal being struck from the record in the Dáil in 2009. But there were no fresh inquiries ordered into the deaths of the people in the Stardust. 

Christine was getting older now. It was over 30 years since the fire. Parents of those who died in the fire were getting into their 70s, in their 80s.

There was anger among families about why it was taking so long to get anywhere. They believed that had compelling reasons for looking at the Stardust fire again. 

In rain or shine, Christine would attend the protests, the rallies, the vigils even though some of those of a younger generation has taken on the main role of campaigning in recent years. 

A switch of tactic to calling for inquests rather than inquiries started to gather momentum. A campaign to get people to sign postcards in support of new inquests received tens of thousands of signatures from around the country.

Stardust is such an enduring tragedy in living memory, synonymous with a sense of injustice, that the campaigners had no problem getting people to sign, and say they could’ve gathered a lot more signatures.

The submission for a new inquest was made early last year. After a number of delays, the Attorney General agreed to grant one.

Speaking to press the following day, the emotion from the people in the room was palpable. Because of the amount of times they’d been knocked back, they didn’t think they’d get this far. 

It was always very clear that even though Christine had, to a degree, handed over the reins of the family’s campaigning to Antoinette, there was still a fire inside her to seek justice.

It was also clear that this, in turn, helped Antoinette drive on, even when the entire situation seemed hopeless and going nowhere.

Mary and Martina were still always in her thoughts, and that in many ways it was like they were still with her, the source of energy for both her own tireless work, Antoinette’s, and even the rest of the campaigners.

They revered her, her determination, and spoke with such respect about her. Her own battle epitomized the wider fight for justice and real struggle experienced by so many families.

download (40) The families the day after the inquest was announced Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

In that press conference last year, Eugene Kelly – who lost his brother Robert – praised those who had lost their lives in the Stardust, whose memory spurred them on and kept them going.

“They helped and gave the strength to myself and Antoinette and the other people to come on this journey with us,” he said. “Please God, we get closure once and for all.”

As the inquests into the deaths at Stardust move closer to what they hope is closure after all these years, Christine Keegan and the memory of her tireless fight will remain a source of strength. 

The Stardust podcast tells the story of the events from 1981 to the present day. You can listen to it here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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About the author:

Sean Murray & Nicky Ryan

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