Stardust ‘melting ceiling’ probably caused by polystyrene insulation, not ceiling tiles

Inquest into fire in February 1981 heard from sales rep for firm that supplied fire-resistant boards to nightclub

The “melting” ceiling in the Stardust nightclub, reported by survivors of the fire which engulfed the north Dublin venue in February 1981, was “most likely” caused by polystyrene insulation in the roof space and not ceiling tiles, inquests into the deaths of 48 young people have heard.

Fiacre Mulholland was a sales rep in 1978 for Cape Insulation, which supplied claddings and tiles to builders and architects.

He told the inquests on Wednesday the company had supplied fire-resistant boards to envelop structural columns in the Stardust, before it opened as a nightclub, when what was then a former factory was being refurbished.

The inquests into the deaths of the people, aged between 16 and 27, who died in the nightclub in the early hours of February 14th, 1981, heard from their first witnesses on Wednesday. Fresh inquests are being held following a direction by then attorney general Séamus Woulfe in 2019.


Mr Mulholland said he visited the Stardust site “a number of times” in 1978 during reconstruction and could see the suspended ceiling being put in place.

It was a “conventional suspended ceiling grid system, partly infilled with mineral-fibre ceiling-tiles”. There were “large steel ducts in the void above the ceiling” which were clad with polystyrene, he said.

“I remember immediately after the fire survivors interviewed mentioning that the ceiling was dripping. I am familiar with mineral-fibre ceiling tiles and I know they do not melt. I don’t remember making the connection at the time but afterwards I realised the polystyrene insulation around the ducts was most likely the cause of the dripping ceiling as polystyrene has a low flash point, is highly flammable and melts when it catches fire.”

He recalled meeting a Garda Sergeant Quinn at the site of the fire a few days after. “Some of the ducts were still in place. I didn’t make a statement at the time. Nobody had approached me at any stage in relation to the products I had supplied in the refurbishment of the Stardust.

“It is well known that when polystyrene burns flaming droplets of molten plastic are produced along with extensive, black toxic smoke,” he added.

Earlier the inquests heard a statement from Diarmuid King, now deceased, senior building surveyor in the planning department of Dublin Corporation at the time, and extracts from his evidence at the 1981 Keane Tribunal into the fire.

It heard he had, three weeks before the fire, threatened “proceedings” against Stardust management due to overcrowding during an event on January 15th, 1981. The British band The Specials played that night and subsequent reports said up to 3,000 people had been present. The Stardust was licensed to accommodate 1,400.

A registered letter, addressed to Patrick J Butterly, dated January 23rd, 1981, said: “Your attention is drawn to the requirements of bylaw 38 ... which requires special care shall be taken to ensure the means of escape provided to all people on the premises shall at all time maintained unobstructed and immediately available.”

A reply was sent by Eamon Butterly, the inquests heard, in which he said the back exit was “cleared immediately ... and I assure you it will not happen again. I personally take great care to ensure all exits are clear”.

The first witness at the inquests was Henry Armstrong, who worked for Chubb Fire Security, which supplied fire extinguishers. He serviced 15 extinguishers at the Stardust on October 8th, 1980.

On March 6th, 1981 he returned to the scene with a Det Gda Kinsella. He found the remains of two extinguishers under a pile of steel, three missing, two with control heads burnt off and five in working order, as well as four unused fire blankets.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times