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Stardust 40th anniversary: 'I remember what I did after my brother's funeral. I went to another funeral'

In the early hours of Valentine’s day 40 years ago, there was a fire in the Stardust club in north Dublin.

“This isn’t about a fire. It’s about people’s anniversaries. 48 of them died. We have to remember them. Not lose sight of them.”

FEBRUARY IS A month that Linda Bishop never enjoys. 

“The minute the calendar flips, you know it’s going to be a bad month,” she says this week. “Once the month goes into February, you already start feeling the niggles. You see the advertisements for Valentine’s Day. It all builds up to that day.”

Errol Buckley says it’s one of those big events in the year. A milestone. Like Christmas and Easter. When the month comes around again, it brings him right back. He still has vivid memories of what happened.

For Antoinette Keegan, it’s something that’s always on her mind. “I can remember it like it was yesterday, really I do,” she says. “It’s always there.”

As the clock struck midnight to start Valentine’s Day 40 years ago, Linda was having a great time. 

She’d turned 18 in the January and was out with her friends. Having a few drinks and a dance in a club. There were hundreds of people there. 

Linda knew a lot of them. There were people she knew from school. People from her workplace nearby. 

stardust-disasters-circus-posters A poster seen outside the Stardust on the morning following the fire. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

“We all met up at about eight or nine o’clock,” she previously told the Stardust podcast. “We’d meet in the Silver Swan pub next door. Have a few drinks in there. Then you’d go out – and the bouncers were quite strict – if there was a gang of fellas, they wouldn’t let them in.

“We’d meet fellas from work or from the area and they’d say ‘will you walk in with me’. Now we’d do it for fellas we knew. Pretend we were a couple so they’d get let in. And then they’d go off with their friends and we’d go off with ours.”

Linda remembers meeting a girl she’d known from school in the queue that night. Sandra Lawless. They chatted a good bit on the way in. Sandra was there with her good friend Paula Lewis. Sandra and Paula both died in the fire.

Errol Buckley had gotten there a bit early that evening. He was nervous, but also excited.

He’d reached the final of the disco dancing competition that was taking place that night. His brothers Albert and Jimmy were with him to cheer him on. 

“We were all in the house,” he told us previously. “We’d have one or two beers. You had to be early that night, signing people in for the competition. You could see the crowd gathering then that night. The disco didn’t start till about half 12 and then we were out on the floor giving it loads.”

Errol was a fine dancer in his day and swept to victory. He and his brothers were delighted. In the chaos that followed, he became separated from them. 

“We were running to all the doors asking ‘have you seen Jimmy?’, Errol said. “People would say ‘he was in looking for you’.”

Jimmy Buckley also died in the Stardust fire. 

“It’s something that’s always there,” Errol says now looking back. “It’s like a Christmas – that big event in the year that always comes up. It all comes back to you.

“I go the graveyard on the anniversary every year. My brother is there. And his friends. And their friends. All buried in the same graveyard. You see people that day you bump into on the anniversary every year. You ask how they’re getting on that. It doesn’t feel like it’s been 40 years.”

stardust-nightclub-fire The wreckage of the Stardust Source: PA Wire/PA Images

In all, 48 people lost their lives in the Stardust fire – one of the worst disasters in modern Irish history. It happened in the nightclub in north Dublin just after the conclusion of the disco dancing competition. Today is the 40th anniversary.

The ages of the deceased ranged from 16 to 28. The average age was just 19.5 years old. 

There were young married couples among the dead. Others were engaged to be married. There were factory workers, carpenters, painters, receptionists, shop assistants, students.

Two brothers and their sister died. Another two sisters from the same family died. Parents lost their only child.

The majority of them were from the same general areas. The likes of Artane, Coolock, Beaumont, Edenmore. Working class north Dublin. It sent ripples across the community. It wasn’t just those who’d lost family members. People had lost friends. Girlfriends, boyfriends. They lost colleagues. 

Over 200 people there that night were injured, some seriously. They still bear the scars of what happened that night. Those who were uninjured also live with scars from their experience.

Even during the grim times we’re living through now, it’s an unfathomable loss of life among people so young. 

Funerals

Errol says that talking about what happened to him and the hundreds of others who were that night recently has helped to fully remember the subsequent events after the fire. 

“I didn’t know what I’d done the day of my brother’s funeral,” he says. “I was in shock at the time. But when you’re asked about it, when you talk about it, things click back into place. I know what I did after my brother’s funeral. I went to another funeral.”

stardust-disasters-hearse-flower-scenes The coffins of four young people, who died in the fire leave the Church of St Luke the Evangelist in Kilmore on 18 Feb 1981 Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

There were so many funerals. One after the other. Speaking to the Stardust podcast, RTÉ broadcaster Charlie Bird said there’d been five and six funerals a day. 

“It’s so hard to get your head around it,” he said. 

Photojournalist Eamonn Farrell said: “I think one of the pictures I took shows 13 hearses lined up outside the church in Kilmore. And then I remember when I was in the graveyard there were about five funerals taking place at the same time.”

The Stardust fire was a tragedy on a grand scale. And, even 40 years on, it’s a tragedy for which the book cannot yet be closed. It’s not over yet. It won’t be for so many. Not until the conclusion of the new inquests at the very earliest. 

40 years on

Antoinette Keegan went to the Stardust with her sisters Mary and Martina. Antoinette was badly injured in the fire, spending several weeks in hospital. Mary Keegan and Martina Keegan died. 

“It still feels like yesterday,” she says. “I don’t know how my ma and da did it. I remember them coming to see me in hospital. They’d change from their black clothes into normal clothes to come see me. The doctors said I shouldn’t be told what’d happened until I’d gotten better.

“They told me Mary and Martina were in hospital, and they were grand. They’d buried them on 18 February. I don’t know how they did it. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I could never walk in [my mother's] shoes. She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever known.”

Antoinette’s father John was one of those who spearheaded the committee representing the families of victims in the aftermath of the fire. He died only a few years after Stardust.

stardust-disasters-grief-crying-funeral-scenes-flowers-holy-crosses The wreaths at the graveside in St. Fintans cemetery for the funeral of Julie McDonnell on 18 February 1981 Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

In recent decades, his wife Christine took on the charge and helped to lead the charge for further inquiries into the cause of the fire.

In an interview with RTÉ in 1987, Christine Keegan was asked if it was over for her after the findings of a Tribunal which granted compensation to victims.

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.”

New inquests

After a string of attempts over the years to get the government to grant the kind of new substantive inquiries into the fire they wanted, Stardust campaigners finally succeeded in 2019. 

In recent years, the efforts had seen the campaigners march to the Dáil with hundreds of supporters. Across the country, they managed to get 48,000 postcards signed calling for new inquiries. Their legal team put forth strong arguments that it was in the public interests for fresh inquests. 

All of the protests, the petitions, the press conferences – it eventually led to the Attorney General granting new inquests into each of the 48 deaths which occurred in the Stardust fire.

The Attorney General ruled in September 2019 that there was “insufficiency of inquiry” as to how the original inquests into the 48 deaths were conducted.

After a Covid-ravaged 12 months, it is expected that the inquests will get under way later this year at the RDS in Dublin.

Unfortunately, a delay from the Department of Justice in paying legal costs for counsel representing families of the victims could mean it doesn’t get under way until the summer at the earliest. For this to emerge on the 40th anniversary and present as an issue is something which has been met with scorn and disbelief by the families. 

When the inquests do get underway, however, Christine Keegan won’t be there to see it. She passed away in July.

Parents of those who died in the Stardust would be in their 70s, 80s and 90s now. Many of them will not be able to see what happens at these inquests. 

Antoinette has fully taken on the example set by their mother. Common to many of those who have campaigned for these further inquiries is a strong sense of “we will not let this go”.

They are not satisfied with what previous inquiries have told them. They don’t feel they’ve gotten answers to the questions they’ve asked. They’re hopeful that these new inquests can provide them.

“She was our driving force throughout. Even when she was sick in bed she told me ‘these are my two daughters, I swear to god I won’t drop it’,” Antoinette says. “And I’m going to follow that. And my family around me are supporting me to do just that. We have to keep going.”

0904 Stardust Disaster Inquest (L to r) Christine Keegan, Antoinette Keegan and Eugene Kelly Source: Leah Farrell

Another campaigner who won’t see the inquests is Eugene Kelly. His brother Robert died in the Stardust, and Eugene had been a central part of the campaigning efforts in recent years. 

TheJournal.ie spoke to him for the Stardust podcast and spoke to him again outside Dublin Coroner’s Court for the first pre-inquest hearing just a week before he died suddenly in October.

When talking to Eugene, he was witty and friendly, always willing to have a chat. But there was always something niggling. Something he couldn’t let go. 

He was a strong advocate and fierce campaigner who dearly missed his brother Robert.  

The loss of a loved one in such horrific circumstances is traumatic, but it can also have a wider effect. Every life touches many others. The people who escaped the Stardust unharmed have as vivid a memory of that night as those who lost a brother, a daughter, a son.

At the time of the fire, a general numbness spread through the community. People would hug in the street. Those in their late teens and early 20s might have gone to a dozen funerals or more. Their classmates and friends who’d died. 

Linda Bishop said: “Everywhere you went, you knew somebody or you’d hear another name. A girl who was in my class in school, two actually who were in my class in school. Just so many and then there was two of the Keegans, three McDermotts.

“It was just unbelievable. Then a girl who lived on my road. She had a little girl and she was killed. And then you heard another couple who left a baby behind. It was horrendous. It was just horrendous.”

Lorraine McDonnell, who lost her sister Teresa, described it as an “earthquake going through your home”. 

“But the earthquake is still there,” she said. “It hasn’t gone away.”

Each person left behind their own legacy along with family and friends who would grieve for them. 

As Charlie Bird put it in the Stardust podcast: “But what people have to remember that sometimes when journalists use a story, you say 48 people died in a fire. They’ve all got family and friends.

“That ripple effect spreads out. These are real people. It’s not just a number. 48 is not just a number. 48 is real people and their families and their friends and that ripple effect and we must always remember that. Even going back in time when we just talk glibly that 48 people died in a fire in 1981 in the Valentine’s night disco. We’re talking about real people. We should never forget that.”

Marking it today

Each year, as Errol describes, you’d run into the family members of other victims in the graveyard on the anniversary or at Christmas time. 

For each of the last number of years, a large and well-attended event has taken place to mark the anniversary of the Stardust fire. 

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stardust 942 (1) People gathered for a candelit vigil at the Stardust site last year. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Like everything else now, this can’t happen the same way this year. 

Instead, people will be asked to light a candle and say a prayer to mark the 48 who died. 

“There’s a video going out on social media at 3pm,” Antoinette says. “It’s a pre-record of a candelit vigil. It has to be low key this year, and we understand that.”

The community cannot come together in person in the same way this year on what would have been one of the largest gatherings to date to mark the Stardust anniversary. 

Linda Bishop says: “It’s a shame we can’t do it properly this year. I’d always go to the mass, and then over to the [Stardust] Memorial Park. 

“You do see the same faces, sometimes it’s people you only see now once a year. When they read out everybody’s names, it’s always so heartbreaking. Looking at all the people affected by it.”

The Memorial Park on Dublin’s north side has recently been refurbished by Dublin city council, with a dedicated gardener assigned and butterfly bank added.

stardust-tragedy-25th-anniversarys File photo. The Stardust memorial park in 2006 Source: Graham Hughes/Rollingnews.ie

Those who were there that night have made that effort to explain to the younger generations the significance of what happened in the Stardust, and the effect it had on them. 

“I have my family all around me, and they’re a tremendous help,” Errol says. “My mother and my brother, Albert, were front and centre in the campaigning before. And I never really got involved. It’s different now. I need to carry on what they were doing for Jimmy. 

No matter how long it takes now it’s important to follow it through. Put all the cards on the table. Everybody is fucking dying around us. But there’s new faces coming up. We’ll carry it on for them. 

Two people who’ve also remained campaigning are Maurice and Phyllis McHugh. Their only daughter Caroline went to the Stardust for the Valentine’s disco while they went to England for a family wedding. 

Caroline never came home. She was just 17.

Phyllis told the Stardust podcast: “She wanted to do everything. She was very happy. I’m glad at the end we gave her everything she wanted. We didn’t have her for very long anyway.

“She wanted a motorbike. Maurice’s brother had been killed off a motorbike. He was only 25. We were saying no you can’t have a motorbike, you can have a car for your 21st. She didn’t make it that far.

“An awful lot of people have passed on with no idea what happened to their kids. You go to Sutton, you see the kids graves and then their mammy and daddy’s names below it… I’m very good now thank god. Except we haven’t got our child, that’s the sad part.”

stardust-nightclub-fire Maurice McHugh at his home in Dublin holds up a picture of his only child, Caroline Source: Niall Carson

Linda Bishop, recalling when she first met the McHughs, says it’s vitally important on a day like today to remember the people at the heart of this story. And make sure they’re never forgotten.

“It was actually at a wedding a few years ago,” she says. “I didn’t know who they were, but they were introduced to me. And I heard Caroline was in the Stardust, almost the same age as me. I’m 58 now.

“Phyllis asked me if I’d any children, and I said I’d two boys. She asked about grandchildren, and I said I have some of them too. And that’s what she was missing. Caroline had never gotten the chance to have that. She hadn’t either. That just breaks your heart. 

I always say, willing or not, time is gonna come along and drag you with it. Whatever’s coming, will come. I’m so hopeful [with these inquests coming up]. People need to put this away. If they’re able to close the book on this at last, they won’t have to wake up every day thinking about it. It’s always here. It’s not over yet but I’m hoping some day it will be. 

The below are the names of all those who died in the Stardust fire:

  • Michael Barrett
  • Richard Bennett
  • Carol Bissett
  • James Buckley
  • Paula Byrne
  • Caroline Carey
  • John Colgan
  • Jacqueline Croker
  • Liam Dunne
  • Michael Farrell
  • David Flood
  • Thelma Frazer
  • Michael French
  • Josephine Glen
  • Michael Griffiths
  • Robert Hillick
  • Brian Hobbs
  • Eugene Hogan
  • Murtagh Kavanagh
  • Martina Keegan
  • Mary Keegan
  • Robert Kelly
  • Mary Kennedy
  • Mary Kenny
  • Margaret Kiernan
  • Sandra Lawless
  • Francis Lawlor
  • Maureen Lawlor
  • Paula Lewis
  • Eamon Loughman
  • George McDermott
  • Marcella McDermott
  • William McDermott
  • Julie McDonnell
  • Teresa McDonnell
  • Gerard McGrath
  • Caroline McHugh
  • Donna Mahon
  • Helena Mangan
  • James Millar
  • Susan Morgan
  • David Morton
  • Kathleen Muldoon
  • George O’Connor
  • Brendan O’Meara
  • John Stout
  • Margaret Thornton
  • Paul Wade

About the author:

Sean Murray

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