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With new inquests announced, Stardust families remember, but also look forward at vigil for loved ones

The local community and beyond turned up this week to mark the 39th anniversary of the Stardust fire.

STARDUST BANNER Draft 2

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“YOU’VE NOT HAD your justice. And I know that. And they know that… So thank you very much. You’ve shown great dignity. And it’s very moving as you can see.”

Eamon Dunphy, addressing the crowd, became visibly upset at this point. The Stardust fire was one of the first big stories he covered when he started working for the Sunday Tribune.

He said he and his friend Frank Connolly would do all they could to help the families gathered in Artane that night. His voice wavered as he said: “We’ll do everything we can to keep your case on the agenda.”

Dunphy was one of many speakers at the Stardust vigil held at the former site of the nightclub in Artane this week. Former RTÉ journalist Charlie Bird was another. Members of the Dublin Fire Brigade were in attendance.

stardust 018 Members of Dublin Fire Brigade at the vigil Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

The Stardust tragedy has affected so many, not only the families of the deceased, but the wider community, and beyond.

The families have been granted new inquests for the victims in recent months, but the vigil wasn’t just about that. This was about remembering those who’d lost their lives in the tragedy so long ago. And a huge crowd turned out to mark it.

Stardust fire

This week was the 39th anniversary of the Stardust fire.

In the early hours of Valentine’s Day 1981, the blaze ripped through the north Dublin nightclub which had over 800 people inside.

The crowds had turned out for a Valentine’s Day disco dance. The competition closed at 1.30 am and the winners were declared. Barely twenty minutes later, the venue was filled with smoke and fire as the first emergency services arrived at the scene.

The scale of what happened only became clear in the days that followed. In all, 48 people died and over 200 were injured.

Taoiseach of the day Charles Haughey cancelled the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis the following morning. RTÉ postponed the Late Late Show, which aired on Saturdays back then.

A Tribunal of Inquiry was set up to get to the bottom of it. It found “no evidence of an accidental origin, and equally no evidence that the fire was started deliberately”. 

However, 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 had caused the fire. 

stardust-nightclub-fire Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Despite evidence that the doors had been locked and exits obstructed, the blame didn’t fall on the owners of the Stardust. It fell onto an unknown arsonist.

No one has ever been prosecuted for causing the Stardust fire. The families took civil cases against Dublin Corporation – now Dublin City Council – in the mid-80s but a government scheme to compensate them offered a sum of money under the proviso that they dropped their cases.

Dissatisfaction and resentment among the working-class people for their treatment set in and, when the families started campaigning to get some answers for why their children died in the early 2000s, they were largely ignored at first. 

Momentum built, however, leading to the first big break when the arson verdict was removed from the Dáil record in 2009.

stardust 008 Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Despite that, questions were still left unanswered. All these years later, they want to know what happened to their children, siblings and friends.

To their relief, that finally looks to be in sight, after the Attorney General in September last granted new inquests into the deaths of the 48 victims. 

Those inquests have yet to take place, and Thursday’s vigil at the former Stardust venue was a chance to commemorate those who died, but with a new sense of hope. 

New plaque

Christy Moore had been due to appear and sing the song he wrote about Stardust – They Never Came Home – on Thursday night, but he was unable to make it due to illness.

He sent this message: “Dear friends, sorry I cannot be with you tonight. I will continue to support you in any way I can to keep the memory of your loved ones alive, in Ireland and further afield.

Let us remember the suffering and pain, the survivors and the victims of the fire in Artane. Mothers and fathers forever to mourn. The 48 children who never came home.

The song was still sung, and it was sung very well by Eddie Sherlock.

Charlie Bird spoke with force and resonance from the stage.

“I went to many places,” he said of his career. “I covered tsunamis, earthquakes, and the one thing I learned that you learn as a journalist, sometimes numbers trip off your tongue. ‘Last night, five people were killed in a car crash’, ’20 people’ ‘one hundred people were killed in an earthquake, in a plane crash’.

But remember, every one of those names, every one of those people has a name. They are real people. They have family, they have friends. And that ripple effect spreads out.

A permanent plaque for the site bearing the names of each of those who died was unveiled at the vigil, while a choir sang a number of songs chosen by organisers.

Antoinette Keegan, a relative and campaigner got up to say thanks to many people in attendance on Thursday night, including Sinn Féin’s Lynn Boylan. Antoinette was in the club that night where her sisters Mary and Martina died.

01 Stardust Vigil Mother and daughter Christine and Antoinette Keegan, at the candlelit vigil for victims of the Stardust fire. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

She’s been among the tireless campaigners who haven’t stopped looking for the justice they feel was denied to them and their loved ones.

She said: “We’d like to thank the nation of Ireland who stayed with us and prayed for us, and the huge support we’ve received from around the world. The public spoke, and the Attorney General listened.

So now we’re just waiting for the inquest to be opened.

The way forward

The Attorney General has notified the Dublin City Coroner and requested that preparations be made for new inquests. Whatever form the new government takes, that will not change.

A lot of preparatory work has already gotten underway. Discovery of documents. Finding an appropriate venue for inquests of this kind. 

The process will not be easy. The evidence will be difficult to hear in parts. Families will be given a chance to humanise their loved ones and give them a voice on the record.

The earliest we can expect that inquest to get underway is next summer. 

At Thursday’s vigil, people turned up to remember the victims of the Stardust disaster, as has been their practice for years now.

stardust 15 Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

All of the hurt and pain is still there to varying degrees. Nothing will ever bring their loved ones back.

But things are different now too. There’s a new owner of the site in Artane. The upcoming inquests are the closest families have been to answers for almost four decades, although nothing is guaranteed. 

For now, the Stardust families are able to look forward as well as back.

Additional reporting by Nicky Ryan

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Sean Murray

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