LISA Lawlor was born the first child of a young couple starting out on married life together, madly in love with each other and doting on their baby daughter.
But before she reached her second birthday, she had become the symbol of a tragedy so enormous that it swallowed the 37 years that have passed since.
Lisa was “the Stardust baby”, the tiny tot of just 17 months whose parents, Maureen and Francis, or Fran as he was known, were among the 48 young people who died in the Valentine’s Night fire of 1981.
Her picture appeared everywhere, her plight was recounted by all and her story became synonymous with the devastation wrought by the fire to the extent that there came a time when she could bear it no longer.
While the families of the Stardust victims were embarking on yet another campaign for a fresh inquiry into the disaster, Lisa pleaded for an end.
She’d had enough, she said. The dead should be allowed rest in peace and the bereaved left to hold onto whatever happy memories they could salvage.
Five years later, it’s a very different Lisa who stands squarely behind the latest campaign which aims to have the cursory original inquests into the deaths reopened.
“I just couldn’t face it before. When I heard ‘the Stardust’, I froze. Too many bad memories, too many nightmares,” she says.
“But I’ve got an awful lot stronger since then. I’ve built myself up with the help of counselling and I know this is the right thing to do.”
The campaign is inspired by the families of the Hillsborough stadium disaster who fought for more than 20 years to have the inquests into the deaths of their loved ones re-opened, and who succeeded in 2016 in getting verdicts of unlawful killing.
But Lisa has an additional reason for wanting the coroner’s court to revisit Stardust. Campaigners have long argued that the death toll was more correctly 49, as one of the victims was expecting.
Lisa says she has been told by a number of people that her mother was also pregnant, which would amount to 50 dead.
“I want to know the truth. Did I have a baby brother or sister? That’s driving me even further to get to the truth and I will find out. Definitely.”
Lisa has rarely felt so certain about anything. All her life she has felt an inner turbulence that left her at war with the world and herself.
It is hardly surprising given she grew up in a heartbroken home in a traumatised community that felt abandoned to its overwhelming sorrows.
After the fire, she went to live with Maureen’s mum, but just three weeks later, her grandmother died.
“She died of a broken heart,” Lisa says.
Fran’s parents took her in then and they did their best with the help of extended family but between their grief and Lisa’s confusion and anger, it was difficult for all to cope.
“There is nothing like losing your mother and father,” says Lisa.
“You can have all these people around you but it was never the same. The instinct to feel a parent’s love is very strong and that was missing for me.
“I was spoiled rotten and that didn’t do me any favours either. At Christmas time, I got everything and I let everyone know it. I’d say to the other kids, what did you get for Christmas and they’d say a baby doll and I’d say, yeah, well I got eight of them.
It was because I was so hurt that I used to want to hurt them, because they had their parents and I didn’t have mine. I used to drive them mad and they’d say, Lisa’s not coming here again, she’s a spoiled brat.”
Lisa struggled at school too, developing a paranoid fear that she would arrive home and find her nan dead.
“I was always crying and saying I have to go home because I was afraid she’d die,” she recalls.
“Things only got worse as Lisa got older and she tried to carve out an identity for herself only to discover she had a readymade label that she couldn’t escape.
“I was always the Stardust baby. I never got away from it. I still have no identity through this. It’s never just Lisa, it’s Lisa from the Stardust.”
“People say, that’s Lisa — her ma and da died in the Stardust. It’s never, that’s Lisa, I know her from school, or she lives down the road. It’s always ‘from the Stardust’.”
At times she felt like a macabre mascot for a tormented community.
“You’d be out somewhere and someone would see you and drag you around to meet someone who knew such-and-such out of the Stardust and they’d sit there telling you my cousin’s sister’s auntie’s young fella died and you’d end up consoling them.
“I’d be there trying to smile through the pain. I don’t blame them. There was so much hurt over the Stardust. The whole community was affected and people would kind of latch on to me like as if I was a doll to be passed around to comfort them.”
CONFLICTING emotions plagued her. She had been told how her dad escaped the fire but went back inside for her mum and she replayed his actions over and over again in her mind.
“I blamed him for the way I was left. My father was out of the fire and he went back in to get my mother and left me with no-one. But if he hadn’t gone back in, I’d have blamed him for leaving my mother. I still don’t know what way I feel.”
Frustration caused her to lash out at her grandparents.
“I felt guilty, like I was a burden because I was the constant reminder of what they lost, but that made me angry and we were clashing all the time.”
One awful day in particular when she was in her teens and preparing to get her first passport, she went to collect copies of her parents’ death certificates as part of her application.
“I went to the office, me feeling all grown up, and the man sealed the envelope and said bring them home to your nanny and she’ll sort out your passport but when I got outside I said I may as well look at them.
“I turned the first page and the name was Fran Lawlor, my father, and it said cause of death — smoke secondary to extensive burns — so the smoke killed him and I’d known that. But when I turned over the second page for my mother, it said 95% burns. I flipped and I ran home screaming and caused killings in the house saying you’re liars, what else are you lying about?
“I was told my mother was dead before she hit the floor — the smoke took her breath away and she died instantly — and then I read that she burnt to death. My grandparents were in bits saying we were only trying to protect you but I went completely mad.”
Despite their rows, Lisa loved her grandparents and was devastated when her nan died the day after her 21st birthday and her grandad followed three years later.
But it was also during this period that the first of Lisa’s four young lifesavers entered the scene. Baby Craig, who she knew from her circle, was one year old and in need of a foster mum. Lisa felt immediately protective towards him and offered to care for him. Sixteen years later, she feels they’ve grown up together and are extremely close.
Craig was six when he got a big sister, 13-year-old Emma, who lost her mum tragically. Again Lisa felt drawn to a child in need and opened her heart and home.
A few years later, Lisa was delighted to discover she was pregnant and she gave birth to Frankie, now seven and named after Lisa’s dad, to be followed by little Lennon, aged four.
“They’re the reason I’m here. Loads of times I didn’t want to live but I had to live because I had the kids,” she says.
Emma is now expecting and Lisa can’t wait to become a granny. But it’s an emotional time too because as she awaits the new addition, she feels her losses all the more acutely.
She is parenting alone after a difficult break-up and wishes more than anything that her own parents were around to be part of the little family she has created.
“Lennon says, my nanny has a little house by the sea but she doesn’t come out,” she says. He’s referring to the grave in St Fintan’s Cemetery overlooking the sea in Sutton where Maureen and Fran are buried and where Lisa visits every Saturday without fail.
“I get a sort of calmness there, a reassurance that everything will be ok. I need that because I have a lot of anxiety and panic.”
Counselling has helped her accept that there are hurts in her life that might never heal but there are ways of managing the pain.
“I focus on my kids and I try to see the good things in my life. I have a best friend, Priscilla Leahy, who has been my rock these last 20 years. I’ve banged on her door crying and she’s hugged me and comforted me every time.
“And it feels right to be part of the campaign. I feel a bit of peace knowing I’m doing something. This is my life, the Stardust is embedded in me and the injustice eats away at me so I have to get justice for my mother and my father and I had a baby brother or sister, for that little child too. And I’ll get it. If I’m 80, I don’t care, I’ll get it.”