Eamon Butterly, former manager of the Stardust nightclub in north Dublin, where 48 people died in a 1981 fire, believed the venue was “one of the safest places around” when it opened in 1978.
Giving evidence for a third day at Dublin Coroner’s Court on Tuesday, the 78-year-old said there was “nobody around at the time” to advise on fire safety and regulations.
He insisted it had not been his responsibility to understand conditions attached to the use of carpets tiles to line internal walls.
Mr Butterly reiterated his view that it was the responsibility of the local authority, Dublin Corporation – now Dublin City Council – to veto their use in 1976 when he was overseeing the conversion of a food-processing factory on Kilmore Road, Artane into a nightclub.
Fresh inquests into the deaths of 48 people, aged 16 to 27, in the early hours of February 14th, 1981 are underway following a 2019 direction by then attorney general Séamus Woulfe that they be held as the original 1982 inquests failed to sufficiently investigate the circumstances surrounding the disaster.
Michael O’Higgins SC, for families of 10 of the dead, listed several major fires that occurred “quite close” to the opening of the Stardust. These included the Grand Central Hotel in Bundoran, Co Donegal in 1980, in which 10 people died and one exit had been “nailed shut”, and in the Summerland leisure centre fire on the Isle of Man in 1973, in which 50 people died and where emergency exits had been padlocked.
Mr Butterly said he had not been aware of these incidents.
“Was this not something that was utmost in your mind, [that] fire is a big deal?” Mr O’Higgins asked.
“Yes, but sure we thought we had one of the safest places around,” Mr Butterly replied.
Mr O’Higgins said Mr Butterly seemed to be under the impression that fire safety planning “in your time” was not as clear as it is “nowadays”.
“Safety was paramount but there was nobody at that time to tell you how to make people, the staff [safe], to teach you what you had to do to make the place safe when you were converting it,” Mr Butterly said.
“Are you saying ... you never entered into any risk assessment?” counsel asked.
“We wouldn’t sit down and discuss it, no,” he replied.
Mr Butterly, whose family company Scott’s Foods owned the Stardust, agreed there was fire insurance in place for the venue, as it was “recognised as a risk”.
“Protecting interests doesn’t stop there with the property and the property owner,” said Mr O’Higgins.
“No,” Mr Butterly said.
“Was there any corresponding acknowledgment or discussion that we’ve got to look after the safety of the people?”
“What was decided?”
Mr Butterly did not provide an answer.
Mr O’Higgins then took Mr Butterly through Dublin Corporation’s bylaws for places of public resort at the time. He put it to the witness that the late Harold Gardner, who acted as architect advising on the conversion, had bought Mr Butterly a copy of these.
“But you never read it.”
“Did I not?” said Mr Butterly.
Mr O’Higgins quoted from the bylaws, including that if chains and padlocks are used to secure doors when the venue is closed, they should be hung on a “key board ... in an aligned position and shall remain upon the board during the whole of the time that the public are on the premises”.
In 1981 Mr Butterly said chains and locks were instead draped over exit-bars “to save them getting mixed up”.
Mr O’Higgins said on Tuesday: “What you’re in effect saying is the convenience of the staff outweighed the willingness to comply with legal obligations.”
“That’s what you’re saying,” said Mr Butterly.
“Would you agree?”
Earlier, Mr O’Higgins asked Mr Butterly why he had not informed himself about the flammability of carpet-tiles used to line internal walls in the venue to ensure they complied with planning conditions.
Mr Butterly said he obtained a fire-certificate from the carpet-manufacturer which was provided to Dublin Corporation.
“I expected that if Dublin Corporation were happy with whatever the spread of flame was, and they were happy to allow us to put them up on a wall, they were happy and I was happy then,” Mr Butterly said.
The inquests have heard carpet-tiles used to line most of the venue’s internal wall played a significant role in the rapid spread of the fire.
In 1976, when planning permission was being sought, Dublin Corporation’s chief fire officer stipulated that carpet-tiles on walls must have a Class 1 surface-spread of flame. The tiles used in the Stardust, however, had a Class 3 or 4 surface-spread.
Mr O’Higgins said Mr Butterly had had an “obligation” to understand what Class 1 surface-spread meant and to ascertain whether the tiles met the standard.
Mr Butterly said he relied on the late Harold Gardner, who acted as architect for the conversion project, to understand planning conditions. Mr O’Higgins said Mr Gardner had not been qualified as an architect and had not been employed to supervise the conversion project.
“I saw him every day,” said Mr Butterly. “He was a gentleman.”
He said he spoke to Mr Gardner, the carpet-tiles salesman, Declan Conway, and to his father, the late Patrick Butterly, about the condition that the tiles have a Class 1 spread.
“We got the proper certificate and the corporation agreed to put them up. And if the corporation didn’t agree to putting them up we wouldn’t have put them up ... We didn’t put them until we got the permission of Dublin Corporation.”
“You knew what the conditions were?” Mr O’Higgins asked.
“Yes,” Mr Butterly replied.
“You didn’t know what surface spread of flame test was.”
“So, surely as night follows day you ought to have found out what it meant?,” Mr O’Higgins asked.
“Well, surface, no. The surface spread of flame was like flame as it spread. Is that what you mean?”
“It had a particular meaning Mr Butterly which you might not have been expected to know. But that didn’t relieve you of the obligation of finding out.”
“I assumed that if the corporation ... that they would know and they would say, ‘No you can’t”
“You never asked your own architect?”
“I’d say I did. I can’t remember.”
“I am suggesting to you that it is baffling that you would not ask what it meant,” counsel said.
“Is it a bit of an arrogant approach that you wouldn’t bother asking the architect something you clearly knew nothing about? Was it that you just coudn’t be bothered?”
Mr Butterly said he appreciated the laying of the tiles on the walls may, as described by Mr O’Higgins, “have had very serious consequences”.
“Do you think it’s acceptable to be presenting something not knowing what it is they are looking for?”
“I was asked to get a certificate. I didn’t know what class 1 was but I knew the corporation would know...I asked the person supplying the tiles to get the certificate. And he got the certificate. I didn’t know what it meant. Mr Gardner gave it to the corporation ... and the corporation knowing these tiles were going on the wall were there on a daily basis.”