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Stardust: 'These families were spectators but today they enter the ring in their own fight for justice'

At an emotional press conference today, families of the Stardust fire victims reacted to the new inquests for their loved ones.

DOZENS OF PEOPLE tried to pack into the tiny room set aside in Buswells Hotel earlier today, a stone’s throw from Leinster House on Molesworth Street in Dublin city. 

“I suppose just first to say, I apologise for the size of the room,” former Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan told those in attendance. “But it was very short notice, given that we only found out from the Attorney General yesterday.”

The Stardust families were speaking again. They’ve had to tell their stories at so many press conferences over the years. This time it was different though. At last, they had some good news. 

Maurice and Phyllis McHugh were there, the word “truth” on their identical, black t-shirts. They went to a wedding in England on the weekend of 13 February 1981. Their daughter Caroline stayed behind. She wanted to go dancing with her friends. She never came home. Caroline was their only child.

Lisa Lawlor was there. She was just an infant when her parents went to the Stardust. Maureen and Francis Lawlor never came home. 

Bridget McDermott was there. Three of her children went that night. Willie was 22 and George was 19. Marcella was only 16 and her parents didn’t even know she’d gone to the Stardust. They thought she was babysitting that night. None of them came home.

stardust-nightclub-fire Mrs McDermott at Buswells today. Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

They all sat at the back and watched as Boylan, solicitor Darragh Mackin, Antoinette Keegan and Eugene Kelly took their seats at the head of the room. 

Eugene was at work on a ship on the west coast of England when he heard his brother Robert (17) was missing. He didn’t find out he was dead until he got home soon after and broke the news to his mother. 

Antoinette had told her father she’d look after her sisters Mary and Martina when he agreed to let them go out on the unlucky Friday the 13th. Antoinette’s injuries after the Stardust were so bad, her family didn’t break the news to her for weeks that her sisters had died. 

The pair fought back tears as they reacted to the news that  new inquests had been ordered for the 48 people who had died in the Stardust fire. 

stardust-nightclub-fire Antoinette Keegan Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

Where they had been denied, overlooked and simply ignored, they were finally getting somewhere. They said today that the new inquests are the beginning of a process where they may finally get justice for their loved ones.

It means so much to so many. 

And it’s been a long time coming. 

Valentine’s Disco

stardust-nightclub-fire Gardaí at the scene after the fire. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Over 800 young people packed into the Stardust club in Artane, north Dublin on 13 February 1981.

It was a big night, as dozens took to the floor for the final of the big disco dancing competition. When the night was winding down, a fire was spotted from one of the corners of the club, which had been closed off to patrons that night. 

Within minutes the fire had gotten out of control. 48 people died, and over 200 were injured. It was a tragedy unlike any Ireland had ever known, one of the worst in the history of the State. 

Taoiseach Charles Haughey cancelled the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis the following morning. RTÉ even 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 probably 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. 

stardust-disasters-crying-grief-funeral-scenes The parents of Julie McDonnell at her funeral on 18 Feb 1981 Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Despite the evidence of doors being 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 them a sum of money and in return they had to drop their cases. 

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

Over the years – through the support of a small number of politicians such as Richard Boyd Barrett, Tommy Broughan and Lynn Boylan – they built up momentum. Firstly, an inquiry set up resulted in arson being struck from the record in the Dáil in 2009. 

Despite repeated protests and campaigns, that’s all that happened for a long, long time.  Eugene Kelly and Antoinette Keegan wouldn’t rest. Mrs McDermott wouldn’t rest. 

stardust-nightclub-fire Families outside Buswells today. Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

For them, there was no question of just “dropping it”. No question of just “getting over it”. They wanted to know why their loved ones died, and they wouldn’t rest until they’d got the answers. 

Their lowest ebb was probably in 2017, when the latest inquiry commissioned by the government said “no new inquiry was warranted” and that the cause of the fire may never be known.

Resurgence

A change of strategy was needed, and it came in earnest with Boylan and solicitor Darragh Mackin got involved with the campaign. 

The Stardust families took to the streets in a different way, asking members of the public to sign postcards calling for new inquests for those who died in the tragedy. 

stardust-nightclub-fire Eugene Kelly's brother Robert died at the Stardust Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

They got 48,000 of them signed. Dublin Fire Brigade got involved and got 1,000 of them signed alone. There was still public support for them, all these years on. 

They sent a detailed document to the Attorney General laying out the reasons they should get a new inquest in April of this year.

Mackin said today: “The family set out in quite extensive detail, the catalog the fresh evidence that had been collected to show that the circumstances of the fire have never been investigated.

“And with full consideration of all of the evidence, the truth can still be established as to what happened that night.

It’s an issue of considerable public interest that the facts and the truth of the Stardust are established. 48,000 people put pen to paper to call for the fresh inquest. And today is a testament to that effort, and to the effort of the families who continue despite the endless obstacles to campaign for truth and justice. 
Over the years, the families have been unfortunately, spectators in their fight for justice. But today, they enter the ring in their own fight.

Just two days ago, the families had feared the worst. The Attorney General had originally said he would provide his decision on the inquest in July. Then it was pushed back and pushed back again. The new deadline was 25 September.

“The repeat postponements have caused us a huge amount of stress,” Antoinette said. Her father John had led the victims families in the 80s and, with her mother Christine, she’d been leading the efforts since then. After all the delays and disappointments, another day was just piling onto the agony. 

But this gave way to relief when the news came through late yesterday.

They’d had overnight to process it but, being in the same small room with so many others wearing the “truth” t-shirts and so many who’d fought for the same thing for so long, it became too much for the pair of them as they thanked everyone who’d helped to get to this point. 

Referencing the victims of the fire, Eugene said: “We’ve got it… We’ve got what we wanted from the spirit world. Please God they helped and gave the strength to myself and Antoinette and the other people to come on this journey with us. Please god we get closure once and for all.”

The inquests are the first step towards that closure, Mackin said.

stardust-nightclub-fire Solicitor Darragh Mackin Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

“It’s the first step in the process,” he said. “And it can give a narrative as the verdict. After that narrative, if there is sufficient evidence for a prosecution, the coroner has the discretion to report it to the Director of Public Prosecutions and that has happened many cases they get my classic example is the Hillsborough case.

So the reality is the first step for these families is getting to the truth. The inquest, we said, will do that. And if there are people who have to be held accountable as a result of those findings, then that will be the next step in the process.

After 38 years, it’s finally a step in the right direction and the emotion in the room was palpable as people from all sides – those there that night, those who’d lost a parent, a child, politicians who’d helped along the way – reacted to something they’d been looking for but thought might never get. 

At the end of the press conference today, Errol Buckley could be seen at the very back of the room. He was named the winner among the boys at the disco competition on that night in 1981.

His brother Jimmy died an hour later.

He had a big smile on his face, delighted that they’re finally getting somewhere. Errol hasn’t been as active in the actions of the committee over the years but he made sure to come out today. 

It means so much to so many. 

And it’s been a long time coming. 

All six episodes of the Stardust podcast are available now wherever you get your podcasts. 

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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