Mixed reaction to 'Stardust' drama

Families bereaved by the Stardust disaster 25 years ago, when 48 young people died in a fire at a St Valentine's disco in Artane…

Families bereaved by the Stardust disaster 25 years ago, when 48 young people died in a fire at a St Valentine's disco in Artane, north Dublin, had the opportunity on Saturday to view the controversial RTÉ series about the tragedy.

Some 140 people turned up at Clontarf Castle for the private screening of the two-part drama, Stardust, based on the book They Never Came Home, by Tony McCullagh and Neil Fetherstonhaugh, and due to be broadcast next Sunday and Monday nights.

Despite the presence of counsellors, provided by RTÉ, it was a day fraught with sadness, anger and frustration, much of it levelled at the RTÉ representatives who attended, including Clare Duignan, director of programmes, and Mary Callery, commissioning editor of drama.

Some relatives, who found the fire scenes too distressing, left early. Some objected to the drama format. Others, said Clare Duignan, felt that because the story was told through a small number of central characters, it suggested that only a small number of families were affected, and "diminished the story of others".


Although the drama could not have been made without the Keegan family story at its core, none of the family felt able to attend the private screening. "We wouldn't be able to deal with it," said Antoinette, a survivor of the disaster that killed her two sisters, Mary and Martina.

"But we don't mind the drama going out if it helps to get at the truth. We'll have it recorded and watch it another time."

Her mother, Christine Keegan, said she was "delighted" that it was coming out: "Let the Government know what we've been through."

Jimmy and Kay Dunne, the parents of Liam, who was the 48th Stardust victim, and who are portrayed in the drama, said that the film-makers had done "a decent job".

"You can only work with the tools you've got. They were accused of not doing enough research. All right, but it was based on the book, so blame the writers of the book."

However, Tony McCullagh, co-author of They Never Came Home (published in 2001 and being re-released this week), pointed out that the drama deals only with the years from 1981 to 1986, "and the facts as they were known at that time".

The book incorporates evidence from a Garda file, not known about in the 1980s, which makes it clear, says McCullagh, that gardaí never believed the fire was caused by arson.

Mary Callery said that the film-makers based the drama "only on what information can be stood over".

Some relatives objected strongly to scenes which appeared to support the Butterly side, said Jimmy Dunne, such as a piece of a door with a chain hanging on it (implying perhaps that the door had not been locked).

"I understand their view. Because they wanted the drama to be a documentary, they wanted to see things that were in line with their mindset and have a hammer at Butterly. But it did stand up to him," he adds, noting the strong scenes where several doors were shown being locked.

"I thought people there were in the blame game and the makers were in the firing line unfortunately. It saddens me to see a lady [ from RTÉ] reduced to tears. She was being lambasted and it wasn't her fault. I tried to console her and so did Kay. The person they wanted to vent at was a sleeveen in hiding. He wasn't there."

Clare Duignan said that they would be making some changes on foot of relatives' comments. "We need to say that this is a representation of what happened, that 44 families lost people and that many were injured. That needs to be reflected in the publicity and with a voice-over."

People had also asked that a way be found for RTÉ to "express sympathy" within the drama. Was this because people were angry at RTÉ? "People were angry at everything," said Duignan.

"They kept talking about closure. It's my hope that through this, they get an opportunity to raise these issues again. Four families have relatives who were never identified and are trying to get exhumation and DNA identification now, because they feel it might be possible."

Kathy Sheridan

Kathy Sheridan

Kathy Sheridan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column