When she was 17-months-old, Lisa Lawlor’s parents Maureen and Francis left her at home in Finglas with a babysitter, so they could have a rare night out. The date was February 13th, 1981, the night before Valentine’s Day. Lisa was recovering from a slight cough, and her mother was worried about leaving her, but Francis was persuasive. He had got tickets from a friend to a disco in Artane.
The disco was at the Stardust. Lisa’s parents – like 46 other young people who went out that night – never came home.
It was also the night that Lisa Lawlor – left alone in her cot by the teenage babysitter who heard about the fire and rushed to the scene – stopped being Lisa. She became the "Stardust baby", the only child orphaned in the horrific inferno.
“Nobody was prepared for the Stardust. They went out one night. It wasn’t like a lingering cancer, dementia or anything like that. This happened in the space of two minutes,” she says.
Even as a little girl, she grew to understand that her role was to be a receptacle for the grief and anger of adults for this unthinkable tragedy. She was dressed up and taken to commemorative events every year, cooed over and passed around on laps. It was, she now sees, a terrible burden to put on a child.
“For most of the people I met, I seemed to be a walking, living, breathing symbol of tragedy and not an ordinary little girl,” she writes in her just-published memoir, Stardust Baby.
"Every time I looked at my grandmother, she cried," she says now of Francis's mother, Lally Lawlor, who raised her, after her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Farrell, died "of a broken heart", just four weeks after the Stardust disaster.
She adored Lally and lived in a state of absolute, low-level terror that her grandmother would die while she was at school; as a result, she spent much of her time in class either in tears, or gazing out the window, willing Lally to still be alive when she got home. As a child, she made the decision that “my grief didn’t matter. Like I had to make them happy. I had to be good. I had to put the big dress on. I lost me in some way. And then I couldn’t look at this woman [Lally] without her literally breaking her heart . . . I was like this unwelcome celebrity to this terrible disaster.”
"I went from lap to lap. I think in my grandmother's grief, she just wanted people to say to her, you're doing a great job. You're brilliant. Because she had nothing else"
She is in the home in Swords that she shares with her three children – 19-year-old Craig, 10-year-old Frankie and Lennon, who is nearly seven – when we talk. Because of the pandemic restrictions, we agree to do the interview by Zoom, but then she has trouble with the technology. So the interview eventually happens over the phone, on a much-needed break (for us both) from homeschooling. Thank God for Craig and the internet, she says. We both thank God for Joe Wicks.
It can sometimes be difficult to draw an interviewee out over the phone, but in Lawlor’s case, there’s no such issue. She is funny, obviously bright, and unusually self-aware.
A toddler, Veda, interrupts every so often to ask her nanny for something. Veda is technically Lawlor’s first cousin once removed – she is the grandchild of Lawlor’s late aunt Alison. After Alison, to whom she was very close, died from a heroin overdose, Lawlor stepped in to help to raise her daughter, Emma. Veda is Emma’s baby. But those kind of definitions don’t matter to Lawlor, who grew up calling her own grandmother “Mam” and for whom now her own little family is everything. And so, to Veda, she’s just “nanny”.
Lawlor tells me that she is wearing her father’s wedding ring around her neck. Before he went out that night, he took it off, and put it on top of the television for safekeeping. “I never take it off. It just means so much to me. I go nowhere without it,” she says.
On Valentine’s Day every year “I went from lap to lap. I think in my grandmother’s grief, she just wanted people to say to her – like I do – you’re doing a great job. You’re brilliant. Because she had nothing else. She really only had me. She kept saying to me, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead.’ She constantly looked at me and said ‘God help ye.’ I mean, that was nearly my name at one stage. If I fell in the park, I’d be brought to Temple Street. I was like a china doll”.
In the book, she acknowledges how that conflict has shaped so much of her life. She hated it, and yet “a part of me liked the attention, because I did not feel that I was special in any other way, and it was all I had”.
Even as an adult, “People would call me over and say ‘my auntie’s sister’s husband’s brother’s wife died in that’. And I’d end up counselling them. I just had no identity. Stardust took me over. It turned me into somewhat of a victim too. ‘Stardust baby’ stuck.”
Ironically, by writing a book with that name, “I hope to close that part of my life now. I’d like to be known as Lisa.”
She had to deal with her own anger too, after she was old enough to understand the events of that night. “Francis – my dad – managed to get out of the inferno and into the cold night air. He took some deep breaths, which must have hurt his scorched lungs, and then he started to run around, looking for Maureen,” she writes.
When he couldn’t find her, he ran back into the fire. Nobody stopped him. Neither Francis nor Maureen ever emerged. She doesn’t know if he found her; if they suffered. She likes to think that their last thoughts were of her, their baby girl. “Sometimes,” she writes, “I allow myself to feel angry with my father for choosing my mother over me and, in the process, making me an orphan”.
The memoir is not just an attempt by Lawlor to reclaim the narrative of her life. It’s also an unflinching look at the ripple effect of the disaster on both sides of the family. “The Stardust tragedy was like a hand grenade thrown right into the middle of these two Dublin families . . . nothing was ever right again for either side of the family,” she writes.
For all that, Lawlor became “the bodily manifestation of my grandmother’s grief”, she also became a target for her grandfather’s fury and distress, and for resentment by some of her eight paternal aunts and uncles, who saw how her grandmother doted on her when, as they saw it, Lally’s grief made her less available to them.
"My granddad used to call my mother names. I think, in a way, he blamed her. And so every day he looked at me he saw this reminder of what was gone and what was lost"
All of this is what made writing this book – which she did with the help of writer Deirdre Nuttall, "who helped me to get my story out of my head" – so difficult, and why it took her so long.
“I was to write this book 10 years ago. But 10 years ago, I wasn’t the person I am today. I would have still been hiding behind the fear of this family. They always suppressed me. If I was speaking out about the Rape Crisis Centre or anything, they would be kicking me and nudging me.”
It was with the help of the Rape Crisis Centre that Lawlor has come to terms with abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of a female relative, someone just a few years older, whom she used to go and visit. She recounts the distressing details in the book. “She was just a nasty, mean person. But the bigger issue was my granddad.”
Beginning when she was about 14, Lally’s husband Robin – who, until then, had doted on her – began subjecting her to what would become years of emotional, psychological and occasionally physical abuse. “My granddad used to call my mother names. I think, in a way, he blamed her. And so every day he looked at me he saw this reminder of what was gone and what was lost,” she says.
She describes some of the incidents of abuse in the book; how he would call her “a little tramp” or “a fuckin’ disgrace”, pulling her hair. He would come into her bedroom when she was in bed. If she turned the heating on without his permission, it was “you’re like your fuckin’ mother. She was a wasteful bitch, too.”
“It was as though a sore had been festering inside him for years, and now something had ruptured it, and it was spewing poison out of his mouth,” she writes.
Even talking about it years later, she still sounds baffled about the sudden change in him. “I remember saying to him one day, there was just the two of us sitting at the kitchen table, no drinking, no screaming, no roaring, for a change,” she says.
“He just looked at me. He was putting the kettle on. And he said, ‘I don’t like you.’ And I don’t really know how you come back from that. Like, if he said it in a blind temper, right? I’d be like, ‘Ah, go on. Will you go away.’ And I remember saying, ‘Ah you do.’ And I just wanted him to laugh and make it make sense. But he didn’t. And then I realised, he really doesn’t like me.”
Throughout the book and in person, Lawlor seems possessed of unusual degrees of empathy, even for the grandfather who terrified her. He was getting old, she acknowledges. She was a difficult, anxious and unhappy teenager. Tragically, some of his own children had become addicted to heroin – both Alison and her brother Denis subsequently died from it. “I think he was increasingly aware of the resentment and jealousy some of my aunts and uncles felt towards me, and that he often heard complaints about how I took Mam for granted and thought I was God’s gift.”
Years later, he was diagnosed with cancer. “I remember when they said, ‘This man is, from his toenails to his brain, riddled in cancer.’ And in my head, I said to myself, ‘That’s it. That’s what was wrong.’” But she’ll never really know if it was the cancer, or if it was just him. He died in 2003, three years after her grandmother. Even after his death, the distress from the abuse she suffered is ongoing.
She was ill-equipped to cope with the Stardust compensation money that she’d been constantly reminded, throughout her childhood, would be coming her way when she was an adult. At the age of 18, she got “the best part of a quarter of a million pounds” into her hands in a cheque. She immediately bought a car, and then a better car.
Salvation came in two forms. The first was John. They met when she finally decided to get a job, working in a homeless hostel. He was a caretaker there and 30 years older than her. Her brother, Denis, starting turning up, hassling her for money, and John stepped in, pushing Denis out the door. After that, she started to look at him differently – as someone who would protect her.
“God love the man, he was absolutely terrified of me. There was no doubt about that.” She laughs. He insisted, over and over, that she was too young for him. It took about six months – “I was like a force of nature” – but she eventually wore him down.
It hasn’t escaped her notice that, orphaned as a baby, the man she fell in love with was already older than her father at the time he died. “John has my best interest, no matter what happens with me and John. I’ve had two relationships since John, and they didn’t like John being around. So they were gone. In a funny way, he’s like my father.”
Though they are no longer together as a couple, he is one of the most enduring, stable influences in her life. She refers to him constantly; during the course of our one-hour chat, she mentions his name 70 times. “You nearly know him,” she laughs, when I point this out. “He’s real wise. He’s a man of very few words. But what he says, he’s always right.”
"I don't get the presence of my mother out there. I have a gut feeling something is not right. It's like she is telling me not to give up on her"
The second thing that saved her was Craig, and her subsequent children, including Emma, who calls her “mam”. “It just makes life easier for me and her, and easier for Craig. There’s no explaining to be done.” She began fostering Craig when she was 21 and he was a baby. His birth mother was a friend of Alison’s who wasn’t well, and asked Lawlor to look after him for a few days. A few days stretched into a few weeks, and eventually social services asked her to formally become his foster mother.
"They need me, because I was in their situation. Obviously, they felt alone and abandoned at one stage. And that's the way I felt. I remember one girl saying to me, 'Jesus, you're like Mother Theresa dragging kids around after you.' I just always had some kid around me."
Her two youngest children, Frankie and Lennon, are not biologically John’s, who has four children from a previous relationship, and had a vasectomy before they met. They tried sperm donation many times, but it wasn’t successful. Lawlor writes how she became pregnant with Frankie when she was going through a rocky patch with John. “John did not have to think about it for long – he told me that while he was not her biological father, he would be the dad.”
But when she became pregnant again four years later with Lennon, John was less impressed. He ended the relationship, though he is still in all their lives and has ended up loving Lennon as he does the other children. She writes with the same honesty about this complicated period in her life as she does everything else. “He was right in saying that I pushed him too far.”
John has been as supportive about the book as he is about everything else. “He just said to me, ‘Off you go, Lisa.’” But he did ask her to change his name (she laughs her head off at this idea) and has said he’ll read it in his own time. “We’re just the very, very best of friends. That man saved me. If it wasn’t for John and the Rape Crisis Centre, I don’t think I’d be here.”
Some members of her extended family are not going to be happy about it, she predicts. “They were always terrified of me saying, as they say, well, ‘more than needed’.” But this is something she needed to do for herself. “Anyway, if I wrote a book about how brilliant they are, if I forgot a comma, they’d remind me.”
Inquests into the victims of the Stardust fire are coming up this year, following a decision in 2019 by the then attorney general, Séamus Woulfe, that they were in the public interest and in the interest of justice, which the families have been fighting for since 1981. Lawlor is clinging to the hope that she’ll eventually find out what happened to her parents, and maybe even what caused the fire. “It’s going to make an awful difference. Because in my head, I have all these scenarios. I need to find out what happened. What happened to them? How did they die?”
She has always had a feeling that her mother’s remains are not in the grave.
“I don’t get the presence of my mother out there. I have a gut feeling something is not right. It’s like she is telling me not to give up on her. I feel like she’s not resting, and I need to know why.”
At 41, she’s looking forward to the second half of her life. “The first half didn’t go right. But I’ve saved the best for last. It’s going to be good. It’s going to be more peaceful. I’m glad that I’m finding myself at last.”
Stardust Baby by Lisa Lawlor is published by Mirror Books