Stardust inquests: Emergency exits found locked several times before nightclub fire

Testimony from electrical inspector read into record at inquests into the deaths of 48 people in 1981


Emergency exits at the Stardust nightclub, in which 48 people died in a fire in February 1981, were found locked and obstructed on several occasions in the months before the disaster, inquests into the deaths heard.

Testimony from Martin Donohue, electrical inspector with Dublin Corporation at the time, also described serious overcrowding a month before the fire broke out. His evidence was read into the record at Dublin coroners court on Thursday.

Fresh inquests into the deaths of 48 people aged 16-27 at the north Dublin venue in the early hours of 14th February, 1981, ordered by then attorney general Séamus Woulfe in 2019 are being heard by coroner Dr Myra Cullinane.

Mr Donohue, now deceased, told the Keane Tribunal in 1981 he had found an exit chained and locked during an inspection on 4th September 1980. He said he told Eamon Butterly, manager of the venue, “it should not have been locked”.


“It was an exit door. As far as I was concerned it shouldn’t have been locked,” he said. It was opened in his presence.

During an “in-performance” inspection on the evening of November 25th, 1980 he found a door locked and chained, he told the 1981 tribunal. When a security man had been reluctant to open it, he brought it to the attention of the head doorman.

He told him the lock and chain should be taken off. The head doorman said the panic bolt had been broken that night. “I told him it would have to come off. He said, ‘For security reasons’. I said I wasn’t interested in security but safety and if he wanted security he could put a security man on the door and that is what he did,” Mr Donohue said in 1981.

He later described “about 2,000 people” queuing to get in on January 15th, 1981 to see The Specials. The Stardust was licensed to hold 1,400 people. He said when he told Eamon Butterly the club was full and no more people should be allowed in, that Mr Butterly said they had tickets, but stopped more coming in.

The inquests heard testimony, described by Brenda Campbell, KC for 10 of the bereaved families, as “very important to the families”, from Declan Conway who sold the carpet tiles that lined the walls of the venue. At the 1981 Keane Tribunal it was stated the fire spread rapidly along the walls.

Mr Conway worked as a sales rep for Bernard McLoughlin Ltd, which supplied floor coverings to trade clients. In 1977 Eamon Butterly was seeking a “solution” as to how the walls of the former food factory, which was being converted into the venue, would be lined.

Mr Conway said he came across carpet tiles as wallcoverings while visiting Illingworth, a carpet-supplier in England. He suggested these to Mr Butterly, who told him they would have to be red, and would need a fire-safety certificate. A fire certificate was supplied and Mr Conway won the contract for the carpet tiles.

Ms Campbell told Mr Conway the inquests had heard that planning permission for the Stardust was contingent on all wall-linings having “a minimum Class 1 surface spread”.

When asked if he knew what that meant, Mr Conway replied, “No”, and it was the first time he had heard of this. Ms Campbell stressed it was not Mr Conway’s responsibility to ensure the Stardust complied with the planning condition, but said it emerged at the Keane Tribunal the carpet tiles he sold were “Class 3 or 4″.

Mr Conway said: “Whatever [fire certification] we got from Illingworth satisfied Mr Butterly ... The terminology ‘Class 1′ never entered any of the conversations we had.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times