‘I lost my child and couldn’t be there for the rest’: Mother tells of devastating Stardust fallout

Taoiseach Simon Harris to deliver State apology in Dáil on Tuesday in relation to 1981 fire which resulted in 48 deaths

Betty Bissett (83), whose daughter Carol (18) was unlawfully killed in the Stardust, cannot yet believe the State will “own up” to the “harm” it did to her family and those of the 47 others who died as a result of a fire in the north Dublin nightclub in the early hours of February 14th, 1981.

“At the moment I am thinking [the apology] is going to be taken away. We are that long waiting, getting our hopes up. Promises were broke before we even left the room.”

The Taoiseach Simon Harris met families of the 48, and survivors, on Saturday. He is due to deliver a State apology to them in the Dáil on Tuesday at 2pm.

Ms Bissett is sitting in the house in Ringsend, south Dublin that she, her late husband and four remaining children moved into in 1982. Their previous home, in O’Rahilly House flats in Ringsend, is the one Elizabeth, Carol’s younger sister, remembers as “very happy because it was pre-Stardust”.


Friday, February 13th, 1981 was Carol’s best friend Catherine Moore’s 18th birthday. They and another friend, Tina Brazil, went for a “big night out” to the Stardust in Artane.

Carol was found the next morning in the Mater hospital, in intensive care. “I wasn’t allowed to see her,” said Ms Bissett. “They said to wait for a few days until she was better. I wasn’t able to hold her hand and tell her I loved her.”

Carol died on February 18th. “I got Carol’s coat back and a handful of her jewellery in a plastic bag.”

In her pen-portrait of her daughter, Ms Bissett told the inquests in April 2023: “I had a 19-year-old son, a daughter of 14 and Elizabeth, who was seven. I wasn’t capable of taking care of them and my family stepped in. My children missed their sister and their mam and dad. I lost my child and couldn’t be there for the rest.”

Elizabeth, speaking on Monday, said: “My childhood I just remember my ma always crying. I knew I couldn’t talk about Carol because I had to make sure mam didn’t cry any more. I felt I had to mind ma.”

The tribunal of investigation, established in 1981, concluded the most “probable” cause of the fire was arson. Ms Bissett knew it was not true. “There was nobody could tell me my child could set a place on fire. We knew Mr [Eamon] Butterly [manager], for losing a few shillings, was chaining doors,” she said.

She and her husband went to meetings with families, and to see politicians and solicitors. “Everyone was so angry. In the end I said couldn’t go to those meetings any more.”

Asked about the Stardust victims’ compensation tribunal, established in 1985, she says: “We were brought into the office and we were sat down. Then they said: ‘How much would it cost to keep Carol for a week?’ ... They were so cold and unfeeling.”

She returned to campaigning where she could. “The families, we were outside the Dáil every Valentine’s night for a few years. No one paid us heed.”

In January 2009 she joined other mothers Gertrude Barrett and Christine Keegan and Ms Keegan’s daughter Antoinette during a sit-in at the security hut outside Government Buildings demanding sight of a report by barrister Paul Coffey (now a High Court judge). It recommended arson be removed from the public record, which it subsequently was by the Oireachtas.

There were further meetings, most of which left her feeling “hopeless”. The families were “disrespected”, she said. “There were so many people promising to do this and do that, so many false promises.” The impact on families distressed her: “Marriages breaking up, suicides, people drinking too much.”

The unlawful killing verdict, delivered in respect of all 48 victims at the inquests last week had been overwhelming, as had meeting Taoiseach Simon Harris on Saturday and the promised State apology on Tuesday, she said.

“Yesterday morning I just fell apart. I got up and cried for nearly two hours. That was my release. Then we went to the graveyard and brought the flowers out to Carol. It’s Carol’s time now.”

Ms Bissett does not see the “sense” in a criminal investigation, although Elizabeth said: “There needs to be accountability even if no one even goes to prison.”

Asked about redress, Ms Bissett said: “If it is there I won’t say no. I have grandchildren I would like to help, but it was never what we were there for. We were there for justice for our children.

“Now, I want [Mr Harris] to say ‘Sorry for what happened to Carol and all the children’, and to own up to all the harm that was done to us.

“‘Will I hear that? I am asking myself now: ‘Is it real?’ Tomorrow will tell me whether it’s real.”

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Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times