‘It’s affected my whole life, every relationship. It’s the loss that’s always there’

Families of the victims of the Stardust fire hope new inquests will help bring healing

Phyllis and Maurice McHugh, who lost their only child, Caroline, in the 1981 Stardust disaster, and Lisa Lawlor, who was 17 months old when her parents, Francis and Maureen, died in the fire.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Phyllis and Maurice McHugh, who lost their only child, Caroline, in the 1981 Stardust disaster, and Lisa Lawlor, who was 17 months old when her parents, Francis and Maureen, died in the fire. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Lisa Lawlor (40), who lost both parents in the Stardust inferno 38 years ago, says the tragedy has affected her whole life.

She was 17 months old when her father, Francis Lawlor (25), and mother, Maureen Lawlor (23) went out “for a few drinks on Valentine’s night”.

“I have no memories whatsoever of my two parents other than the pain, loss and complete and utter devastation. I grew up in the shadow of this disaster. I lived with my father’s parents. I’m an only child and the Stardust left me on my own in this world. My grandmother was crying day in, day out.

“I remember starting school and kicking the legs off the teacher because I just did not want to be there, or anywhere. I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t know what it was. Part of me died and I was never normal, whatever that is. My heart was broke.”

I know it’s going to be hard what’s going to come out, but I will keep this day in my heart

The mother of two is separated. “It’s affected my whole life, affected every relationship I’ve been in. It’s the loss that’s always there. It’s been very tough, very lonely. It’s tough being me.

“My grandparents died in 2000 and 2003 and there were times I felt ‘I’m done’ and ‘I can’t go on’. Life was just too hard to cope with.”

New inquests

Asked about her feelings about new inquests into her parents’ deaths, she says she is “very emotional” and “can’t believe this day has come”.

“I know it’s going to be hard what’s going to come out, but I will keep this day in my heart. I have a wound in my heart that’s won’t heal. Kids didn’t even heal it, but this will bring me closer to healing. Today is a good day.”

Phyllis (80) and Maurice (80) McHugh lost their only child, Caroline. She was aged 17 when they travelled to Manchester to go to a wedding. Caroline had been due to go too, but stayed in Dublin to go to a dance competition at the Stardust.

“We got the news on the Saturday morning, before the wedding, that she was missing. We flew straight home,” says Phyllis.

“We were just numbed, empty,” recalls Maurice. They didn’t take part in the original tribunal of inquiry, chaired by Justice Ronan Keane.

The news of a new inquest into Caroline’s death, it takes the weight off our minds

Though they participated for a time in the Stardust victims’ group, set up in 1985 by the late John Keegan, they “avoided” later campaigns and reviews of evidence.

“We always wanted to get justice and the truth for Caroline, but the campaigns? No, we tried to forget about that and move on, but wasn’t possible. It was always there, always on our minds.”

‘Persistence’

They say the “persistence” of Antoinette Keegan – John’s daughter – brought them back into the campaign two years ago. “Antoinette kept ringing us, the last few years, time and time again, asking us to come and join her. So we did.”

Since then, and with the assistance of former Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan, meetings around the country and a postcard campaign, which saw 48,000 sent by members of the public to the Attorney General calling for fresh inquests, have paid off.

“The news of a new inquest into Caroline’s death, it takes the weight off our minds,” says Maurice. “We were looking for justice all our lives, always wondering whether we’d get it and we always sort of thought we never would.

“Our daughter is buried up in Sutton and we go up there once a week,” says Phyllis. “This is our day to go, Thursday. We have to mow it, and we just look after it, spend about half an hour or an hour every week, just making it nice.

“We always remembered her on her birthday and the anniversary. We missed a lot losing her, with her,” says Phyllis. “I find it very hard when we go to see family at events – all the children and grandchildren.”

Asked if they feel the depth of their loss has been acknowledged by the State, they say: “No. Not up to this it hasn’t been acknowledged, not at all. Maybe now.”