Stardust preliminary inquest hearing a ‘momentous step’ in path to justice

Families of 1981 fire victims have to now ‘been met with obstacle after obstacle’, solicitor says

The preliminary inquest hearing into the deaths of 48 people in the 1981 Stardust tragedy was “momentous step in the families’ path to justice” the Dublin coroner’s court heard on Wednesday.

Solicitor for the families of 44 of the victims, Darragh Mackin, said the inquests next year would "draw a line in the sand on previous, failed investigations.

“Up until this point the families, who have fought relentlessly for 39 years, have been met with obstacle after obstacle, failed investigation after failed investigation.”

Fresh inquests were ordered last year by then attorney general, Séamus Woulfe, into the deaths of 48 young people who died in a fire at the Stardust ballroom in Artane, in the early hours of February 14th, 1981.

Most of those killed were from Artane, Kilmore and Coolock, though among them were young people from Ringsend and from Northern Ireland.

In his letter to the coroner, Dr Myra Cullinane, read into the record, Mr Woulfe said the “scale and horror of the tragedy was such that” Stardust was and remained “the greatest such disaster to have occurred in the history of the State”.

At the original inquests, held between March 1st and 5th 1982 “there was an insufficiency of inquiry as to how the deaths occurred”. It was “in the public interest and in the interest of justice” that fresh inquests be held.

Opening the hearing Dr Cullinane took two minutes and 40 seconds to read the names of those who never came home from the Stardust that night.

They were Teresa McDonnell, Jacqueline Croker, Margaret Kiernan, Susan Morgan, Mary Kenny, Caroline McHugh, Martina Keegan, Mary Keegan, Thelma Frazer, Julie McDonnell, Sandra Lawless, Donna Mahon, Robert Hillock, Michael Farrell, David Morton, James Millar, Michael Griffiths, Francis Lawlor, Maureen Lawlor, George O'Conner, John Colgan, James Buckley, Richard Bennett, Eamon Loughman, Gerard McGrath, Eugene Hogan, Paul Wade, Helena Mangan, Paula Lewis, Brian Hobbs, George McDermott, Marcella McDermott, William McDermott, Paula Byrne, Murtagh Kavanagh, Margaret Thornton, Kathleen Muldoon, Michael Barrett, Robert Kelly, John Stout, Michael Ffrench, David Flood, Caroline Carey, Mary Kennedy, Carol Bissett, Josephine Glenn, Brendan O'Meara, Liam Dunne. All in court then stood for a minute's silence in their memory.

Dr Cullinane invited a family member of each to describe their loved one in “pen portraits”, at next year’s inquest, “to bring some human details of those lives lost that we are here to vindicate”.

Despite her staff’s best efforts they had been unable to locate any family for one of the deceased – Susan Morgan from Derry, she said.

She reiterated an appeal for any eye-witnesses on the night who had yet to come forward, to do so.

“If you believe you have evidence that can assist these inquests please do not keep it to yourself,” she said.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, no families were able to attend the hearing in the small court-room, though they could attend remotely. About 35 gathered outside before, many of them carrying photographs of their loved ones and wearing T-shirts saying: “Justice for the 48”.

Among them was Laura Millar (62) from Twinbrook, Belfast, sister of James Millar, who was 20 when he died. He had been working in construction in Dublin and living in Artane.

His death “ruined” her parents, she said. Her father “went to pieces”. The Stardust was not spoken of at home, and it was only in recent months, following a call from a garda, that she heard fresh inquests were to be held.

Samantha Curran was four when her mother, Helena Mangan (22) died. "I remember her going out the night before, getting dressed up and then her not being in her bed the next morning. My mam was a single mother, so she was still living at home. I remember going downstairs and people being upset.

“In my head I tried to make it that she had just lost her memory. She would come back to me. The year she died was the year I started school. I remember sitting in the class that day looking at the other kids crying and thinking, ‘Why are they crying? They have their mammies.’ And I just hoped she’d still walk through the door.

“It was only last year I read her coroner’s report for the first time and I really realised. She’s not coming back. She’s never coming back. It’s like she died all over again and I need answers. Why didn’t she come home? Why were the doors locked? Where was she? I don’t have any of those answers. I need to know the truth. Why wasn’t anyone ever held accountable? I need justice for my mam.”

Antoinette Keegan, who with her late mother Christine spearheaded the 39 year-long campaign for justice following the deaths of her sisters Mary (19) and Martina (16), said it would have been a "day of victory for her". Ms Keegan died on July 14th.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times