Derry and Dublin felt worlds apart in 1981, but the Stardust tragedy brought them together. Now, renewed bonds are helping them fight for justice for others, writes Caroline O’Doherty.
THE Derry girls used to laugh at the perception of their home town as a city under siege, where you took your life in your hands just going out your front door.
“The Derry wans”, Finola McDevitt corrects, remembering how the local lads on Dublin’s northside used to call these somewhat exotic young ladies from the almost alien territory known only, and ominously, as “The North”.
“They’d said they’d never come up here — they’d be terrified — but we grew up with the Troubles and we were used to it,” she says.
Not that they weren’t glad to get away from it all. It was late 1980, the hunger strikes were looming, there was only so much excitement their Shantallow neighbourhood, and the shirt factory and shop jobs, could offer, and the world beyond the border was enticing.
Finola’s sister, Anne, and a pal left first and sent back good reports, so their next-door neighbour, Yvonne Graham, went next, followed by Finola, with Yvonne’s sister, Christine, and, lastly, Susan Morgan, or Susie as they called her.
It was to become a tragic irony that it was only when they left a city at war, for the apparent safety of the Free State, that their lives were put in peril.
The girls had jobs in the Nazareth House nursing home, run by the Sisters of Nazareth, on the Malahide Road, near Artane, in Dublin, and with food and board provided and nearly £40 a week wages, they were delighted.
“You can imagine 16 or 17 girls in the one house, 18 and 19 years old,” says Yvonne. “We had a ball. I don’t think we stayed a night in.”
“Some days, we’d have started work at six in the morning and we were coming home at five,” says Finola. “You were running up the drive and stripping off as you went, diving into the bathroom for a quick wash, into the uniform, and straight over to work, your eyes standing out of your head.
“We used to try to get a wee novice to come with us. She was so good-looking and we couldn’t understand why she wanted to be a nun. We’d say, ‘you’re wasted here, come on out with us’. We just thought everyone should be out having fun.”
Susie added greatly to the fun. A tomboy and skillful soccer player, with three older brothers, she loved practical jokes.
“I remember, one morning Susie started shouting, ‘we’re late, we’re late’, and I jumped up and threw on the uniform and was on the way out the door, when I see Susie dying laughing at me,” says Yvonne. “It was the middle of the night. I could have killed her.
“Another time, I was giving off that we didn’t have a radio and Susie says, ‘I’ll get you one’, and she went and bought me a soap on a rope — a soap shaped like a transistor radio. She was a head bin.”
On regular nights out, Gallagher’s, the local pub, was their main haunt, but, on occasions, they ventured a little further, off to the Silver Swan pub, for drinks, and on to the adjoining Stardust nightclub afterwards.
That was the plan on Friday night, February 13, 1981. “Susie didn’t really want to go and I wasn’t that fussed. We were trying to save a bit of money. So I said, ‘we’ll get a half pint each and sip it and make it last and if we meet the fellas, they’ll get us a drink’,” Finola recalls
“Susie borrowed a shirt of mine. It had, like, a wee flower on the front. I had a shirt on and a tie — ties on girls were the fashion up in Derry — and I remember standing in the queue to get in and passing the tie back to some of the fellas, because the fellas had to have a tie on to get in.”
Yvonne remembers the drink she had in her hand, standing in the line. “It was Pernod and white with blackcurrant. Richie Bennett, God rest him, was drinking one and he give me a taste of it and I says ‘I’ll have one of them’.”
Paul Wade was there, too, delighted to see Susie, who’d been out with him a few times. His brother, Tony, who had become a friend of the group, also joined them.
It soon passed midnight, into Valentine’s Day, but the mood was jovial rather than romantic, except for Finola, who was raging that someone had swiped the sausages off her supper plate.
She laughs at the memory. “I was so looking forward to my sausage and chips and I was giving off, going mad.”
A disco-dancing competition was in full swing, when Anne told Finola she was going home.
“I was talking to her, while she waited up by the door for a man to come and unlock it. I went on back in then, but, as far as I was concerned, she was gone home. Paul had his coat on, too, so I presumed he was gone, too, and if he was, then Susie was.”
A while later, Yvonne and Finola both separately saw something they didn’t understand. “I remember seeing flames, but, to me, it seemed a way, way far back. And then, everything just went mad,” says Yvonne.
“Our Christine and Anne was on the dance floor and I remember roaring at them, ‘get the fuck out’. It was a stampede and everybody was roaring and then everything went black.
“I was being herded along and, all of a sudden, I was outside and there was one of those drink trolleys on top of me. I thought I saw Christine and Anne come flying out, but you were just dazed and you didn’t know what was happening. Richie Bennett got out, but he went back in again and that was him. Gone.”
Finola saw the flames, too, but, to her, they were a peculiar orange ball of light in the distance and it didn’t register with her that it was fire.
“I did hear the DJ asking everyone to leave in an orderly fashion, but everybody was relaxed, having a ball. It was the last thing you expected. I paid no heed, until everybody started panicking.
“Tony Wade grabbed me and said ‘Finola, quick, run’, but I was running up to get my coat. I didn’t have it that long. It was my Blondie coat. Tony was yanking me this way and I was saying, ‘but I need my coat, my money’s in my coat’.
“Then, I was on the ground outside and a doorman standing over me. How I got from praying on the floor to outside, I don’t know, only he must have pulled me out.”
Finola and Tony found each other and started looking for the others. Finola still believed that Anne, Paul, and Susie had left early, so they began making their way down to the Wades’ house, amid surreal scenes.
“I suppose, it was the shock, but we were laughing at everybody passing us, because they had these big black faces and all you could see were the whites of their eyes.
“But, then, a wee bit further on, where the ambulances were, you could see the skin peeling off people and people rolling on the ground.
“We went down to Wades’, but Tony’s mother and father said Paul hadn’t come home, so we automatically got on Tony’s motorbike and started driving around the hospitals. There was a real heavy frost on the ground. I thought it was snow.”
They found Yvonne and Christine in the Mater Hospital, where Christine had been admitted for smoke inhalation and Yvonne was being tended in the emergency department.
“The place was rammed,” says Yvonne. “I remember the nurse pulling down my trousers in front of everybody and sticking a needle into me. It must have been for shock, a sedative or something. I just remember thinking ‘everybody’s here seeing me’, but sure nobody was in any fit state to pay any attention.”
FINOLA and Tony checked St James’s and St Vincent’s, but there was no sign of Anne, Susie, or Paul and their names weren’t on any of the lists that staff had hurriedly put together to try to keep track of the dead and injured arriving in their scores.
It was morning by the time Finola got back to Nazareth House, cold, exhausted and sick with worry. The nuns got her to ring home, but there was no telephone in her house, so she rang Yvonne’s house, next door, and found her own family members gathered there, desperately waiting for news.
“They’d all started to panic. They had us all dead. The parish priest came down to mammy. My poor mammy was so glad just to hear my voice, but I was trying to explain to my sister, ‘don’t be saying our Anne’s not here’.”
Sometime later in the morning, Yvonne arrived back, although she can’t remember how. “I do know I got tea with brandy in it and was put to bed and Finola was raging, because she says to me, ‘I was out all night in the freezing cold looking for youse and I got no brandy’.”
The reunion was almost complete when Anne turned up. “Our Anne sauntered in out of the blue. What happened was she hadn’t gone home early. She’d stayed on. But she was a first-aider and when she got out of the Stardust, she got straight into an ambulance with somebody she was helping. And then when she got to the hospital, they seen she had a bad chest, so they kept her.”
As the day wore on, there was no sign of Susie, so the girls went back out to do the rounds of the hospitals again. Eventually, word came that there was a body thought to be hers. Only there were no identifiable remains, just the remnants of belongings. “I remember going with one of the nuns and identifying her clothes,” says Yvonne. “There was one shoe and her shirt — Finola’s shirt — and her signet ring. I was in bits.”
Over in Derry’s Bogside, another priest was delivering the news to Susie’s brother, Terry, that his little sister was missing.
At just 25, but already married with five children, Terry had long moved out of the family home in Shantallow, but it was he who took on the lonely responsibility of travelling to Dublin to arrange for the return of Susie’s remains.
“That’s a long time ago now,” he says, not quite believing that he’s reliving such a difficult period, in what was a turbulent time in his own life.
Terry was in conflict with the law as a schoolboy, caught with a petrol bomb, and then was shot in the leg by the British army at 18, suffering an injury that troubles him to this day.
He remembers the crowds at the funeral, held in St Columba’s Church in the heart of the city, where Bishop Edward Daly officiated and Susie’s football teammates formed a guard of honour.
“It was a big funeral. I could hardly get up to the grave, there were that many. I was trying to walk around graves and with my leg....” He doesn’t finish the sentence. He couldn’t be a pallbearer, because his leg wouldn’t take the weight of Susie’s coffin.
Yvonne looks at a photograph of herself at the funeral and remembers vividly buying the runners she wore on the day, an extravagance that cost half her week’s wages. But the funeral itself is a blank. “I was on another planet, my mammy used to say.”
Finola recalls struggling to grasp the scale of the tragedy — that while Susie was being buried in Derry, lads they knew, like Paul Wade, Richie Bennett and Eamon Loughman, were being laid to rest in Dublin.
She remembers the new-found friends from Dublin, who travelled to Derry for the funeral, and crying her heart out that she wouldn’t be seeing them again.
“I didn’t want to come home. None of us did. Our parents came down for us after the fire, so we didn’t have a choice. I can see it from their perspective — they wanted us back, safe at home, but I was heartbroken. We’d had our taste of freedom and now we were back home.”
They did return to Dublin twice, once for the cursory inquests and later for the compensation tribunal.
“Before the inquest, you got to go in to see was there anything belonging to you. There was loads of jewellery and I remember asking about a Celtic brooch my granny gave me, but it wasn’t there. We got the remains of our coats, Anne and myself, and they were kept hanging in the front porch for years and years, until they knocked it down. I don’t know why they were kept — my daddy hung onto them.”
The compensation tribunal was uncomfortable. The girls were sent for physical and psychological assessment and thought the process bizarre. “They checked your lungs and gave you shapes to look at to tell them what you saw in them,” says Yvonne. “I was told I had above average intelligence. I thought, ‘what’s that got to do with anything’?”
“You were asked how you were and we didn’t know what to say,” says Finola. “You didn’t talk about your feelings in them days, so we just said, ‘we’re grand, we’re fine’.”
That meant the tribunal never heard of the nightmares that were tormenting them, their anxiety when out in crowded venues, or the loss of their youthful abandon.
“I found a wild difference in myself,” says Finola. “There we were, laughing and joking and life was all about that, and, in a way, you went downhill after it. Your confidence went down. You weren’t the same.”
“That’s right,” says Yvonne. “You were young, free and single — well, on and off single,” she smiles, “and then the whole lot just collapsed down on top of you. I had nightmares for years, burnt bodies coming up the bed at me.” They both took sedatives for some time after.
BOTH stayed in Derry, back to factory and shop jobs, but they got on with life, marrying, having children and, more recently, grandchildren.
Terry, too, had other issues. Later in 1981, he was convicted of possessing a rifle and spent two years in Long Kesh prison.
He never spoke much about Susie, because that’s just the way tragedy was handled at the time. He didn’t make a fuss on her anniversary, because February 14 was also the birthday of his eldest son. Coincidentally, it’s also the day, this year, that Yvonne’s new grandchild was born.
Even when the families were drawn together after Christine married another of Susie’s brothers, Susie was rarely brought up.
“My son’s in the printing business. This is the first time he would have seen her picture,” says Terry, holding the photo he brought to his son’s workplace to be copied and framed for the trip to Dublin to meet up with the Stardust families tomorrow.
As her sons grew to teenagers, Yvonne stocked up on microwave chips and burgers to make sure they never had a reason to put a chip pan or grill on at night, when they’d come in from the pub, and her partner used to tease her for being tight, because she’d hound him about unplugging everything and leaving no electrical item on standby.
“He says he thought I was being miserable, until he saw the documentary [After The Headlines, presented by Charlie Bird, was shown on RTÉ last year and at a special gathering in Derry last month]. He had no idea, because I never spoke about it.”
“It’s the way things were. You didn’t talk about those things,” says Finola. “The hunger strikes kind of took over everything in Derry and there was no counselling.”
She points to the scrapbook of newspaper cuttings her sister, Majella, kept from the time.
“We’ve kept it all these years, but we never spoke about what was in it.”
So, why now? When the Bloody Sunday Trust invited them to meet Stardust families in the city last month, as part of the Trust’s support of the families’ campaign to reopen the inquests, their instinct was to say “no thanks”.
“I was nearly vomiting going up there, I was that nervous,” says Yvonne. “I never really knew what those families were going through, all these years, and when I heard their stories, I says I’ll definitely support them.”
Terry, too, was a reluctant attendee and has mixed feelings about reopening Susie’s inquest. “I want it for the rest of the people. It’s important to them,” he says.
Finola has her own tragic reasons for backing the families. Her elder son, Paul, died suddenly in May this year, after a seizure, and an inquest is to be held into his death.
“You can lose your mammy, your daddy, your sister, your brother, but when you lose a child, it’s something else. I look at them Stardust people, who lost two and three of their children, and it’s heartbreaking.
“I got to see my son — what about those people who were handed body bags with bits of remains?
“The inquest is coming up and I’m dreading it and, at the same time, I want it, because I’ll get my answers. It’s hard to imagine waiting 37 years for answers.”
A pattern emerges from a series of calamities that have devastated communities over recent decades.
First come the mistakes, then the victim-blaming, then the long fight for justice.
It happened with the Ballymurphy Massacre — the shooting dead of 11 civilians over two days in 1971 during an intended round-up of republicans by the British army in Belfast.
The army claimed all the dead were gunmen but they included a priest, a mother of eight, a teenager trying to help the wounded, and unarmed local men shot mainly in the back.
Their inquests have just begun after years of campaigning for justice.
It happened a year later in Derry, when 14 people died on Bloody Sunday after British soldiers keeping a presence at a civil rights march were supposedly fired upon and began shooting.
After 26 years, the relatives were granted a fresh inquiry, which took 10 years to complete, concluding the victims were killed without justification, having posed no threat to anyone.
At Hillsborough Stadium in 1989, 96 football supporters died after a disastrous failure of crowd management and policing which was initially blamed on drunkenness, loutishness and incursions by ticketless fans. Their inquests were re-run between 2014 and 2016 and concluded they were unlawfully killed.
The Stardust families know the pattern too well. Their 48 loved ones who died in 1981 and the many who suffered lifelong injuries were labelled arsonists by the tribunal of inquiry that followed.
Thirty-seven years later, the families, who have twice been refused a fresh inquiry, are now fighting for the inquests to be reopened.
It was Maeve McLaughlin, manager of the Derry Model, a project of the Bloody Sunday Trust, who saw the similarities.
The EU-funded project aims to use the experience gained throughout the Bloody Sunday struggles to assist other communities dealing with legacy issues, particularly where questions of justice arise.
“I remembered the Stardust from when I was growing up and I started looking into it and saw how completely let down by those in power that these families have been,” she says.
“I travelled to Dublin and met them and I was just completely overwhelmed by their grief but also their determination.”
The Model brought family members to Derry last month to meet with Bloody Sunday relatives and share their stories. “We pledged at that stage that we would do as a people and as a community whatever we could to support the Stardust Families in their fight for inquests.”
Representatives will travel to Dublin tomorrow to accompany the Stardust relatives as they walk to the Attorney General’s office with 48,000 signatures calling for the inquests to be reopened.
“Here’s families who are battling against the State, and that was the Bloody Sunday experience. Doors were closed, there was a denigrating of their loved ones, cover-up and a lot of resistance so there are a lot of similarities between what happened here and in Dublin and we’ll do what we can with what we’ve learned to help them.”
Tomorrow, having carried their campaign through 16 governments, 18 justice ministers, and eight taoisigh, the Stardust families will take their plea for action to the door of the Attorney General, Seamus Woulfe.
They want the legal adviser to the Government to order fresh inquests into the deaths of their loved-ones, so as to finally and formally establish the circumstances and causes of their deaths.
The original inquests established only the medical causes of death, mainly burns and smoke inhalation.
In more recent times, inquests generally, using their full powers, have set out a much fuller picture of what happened. The re-opened Hillsborough stadium inquests in the UK, which ran from 2014 to 2016 and delivered a verdict of unlawful killing, encouraged the Stardust families, although they have been asking for fresh inquests since 2006.
Under Section 24 of the Coroners’ Act, the Attorney General can order an inquest, even when one has been held previously.
The Stardust families spent the summer collecting signatures on 48,000 postcards calling on him to do just that and they will gather at Westland Row, in Dublin, at 11am tomorrow, and walk to the gates of Government Buildings, on Merrion St, where the Attorney General’s office is located. The cards will be carried in 48 boxes, each bearing a name of a deceased.
Stardust survivor Antoinette Keegan, who lost her sisters, Mary and Martina, in the fire, said they were overwhelmed with the public support.
“We could have printed twice that number of postcards and got them signed easily,” she said. “We thought it would take us until the anniversary, next February, to do this, but the public got behind us so quickly that we’re ready now.”
The families will be joined by 20 relatives and their supporters from the Bloody Sunday Trust, in Derry, and singer Christy Moore, who has backed them all along.
Moore’s 1985 song, ‘They Never Came Home’, written about the tragedy, was ruled to be in contempt of court, as it referred to the locked doors and cast doubt on the tribunal’s finding of arson.
The ruling banned all radio play or performance of the song and Moore had to destroy all the records and release a new version of the album, costing him and his record company £100,000. He said last week he hoped thousands would turn out to support the families.
Afterwards, Lord Mayor of Dublin, Nial Ring, will host the families and their supporters in the Mansion House, where there will be a candle-lighting ceremony. They will also visit the Dail for Leaders Questions, where local TD and long-time supporter, Tommy Broughan, will ask questions on their behalf.
Antoinette Keegan said she was not telling the AG a reasonable time for a response. “The reasonable time has lapsed long ago,” she said.
1981: 48 young people are killed and more than 200 are badly injured when fire breaks out at the Stardust Nightclub in Artane, Dublin during a Valentine’s Disco.
1982: The report of the Stardust Tribunal is published, with chairman Mr Justice Ronan Keane concluding that the cause of the fire was “probable arson” based on the hypothesis that somebody had slashed open a seat and set fire to the stuffing, despite acknowledging that there was actually no evidence that this had happened or that the blaze was deliberate.
The finding enables the owners of the premises to receive almost £700,000 in compensation. Despite running a venue where exits were chained, barred or blocked, flammable materials were used in the decor, combustible materials were improperly stored and where faults in the electrics had been raised several times, no criminal charges are laid.
1986: The Stardust Compensation Tribunal is established to try to avoid a series of court cases against the State by families seeking accountability for the deaths of their loved ones.
It awards £10.5m to a total of 823 people, remarking that the victims and survivors had suffered terribly and been dreadfully neglected since the fire. It recommends they be supported into the future.
2006: On the 25th anniversary of the fire, the Stardust Victims Committee demand a fresh tribunal of inquiry and the reopening of inquests as the inquests were cursory, declaring mainly that victims died of burns or smoke inhalation without delving further into the contributing circumstances.
2009: A Government-commissioned review by senior counsel Paul Coffey into the Keane Tribunal finds it was wrong to give a conclusion of probable arson. The families are pleased with this but disappointed that the review states that the cause of the fire could most likely not be established by further inquiry.
They are angry to discover soon after that an earlier version of the review, presented to Government in late 2008, suggested the families had a good case for a new inquiry.
2017: Retired judge Pat McCartan is appointed by the Government to examine whether there is any new evidence that would warrant a fresh inquiry. He concludes there is not. He also says the difference between the two versions of the Coffey report was down to mistaken interpretation by the families.
The families reject the findings, arguing the review refused to interview a witness, also excluded by Keane and Coffey, who lived nearby and called the fire brigade earlier than any other witness to report flames on the roof of the Stardust.
The families have long argued that the fire began in the roof space where combustible materials — cooking oils and cleaning fluids — were stored closed to overloaded electrics.
2018: The families run a campaign to collect 48,000 signed postcards calling on the Attorney General to use his powers under the Coroners Act to order the reopening of the inquests. The postcards will be hand delivered by the families to his office tomorrow.