How fire that destroyed the Stardust in 1981 devastated lives for decades

Wednesday is the 37th anniversary of a tragedy that killed 48 people. The 1986 tribunal revealed the searing anguish of survivors, says Caroline O’Doherty.

How fire that destroyed the Stardust in 1981 devastated lives for decades

Wednesday is the 37th anniversary of a tragedy that killed 48 people. The 1986 tribunal revealed the searing anguish of survivors, says Caroline O’Doherty.

THEY were adults who slept with the lights on, for fear that the dark would consume them.

They were workmates and friends, who had neither the focus to labour, nor the peace to relax.

They were family members, who recoiled from the love that surrounded them.

They were survivors who fought for their lives and then could not bear to live.

The injured, bereaved, traumatised, and suicidal of the Stardust nightclub disaster told their stories over 49 days at the Victims Compensation Tribunal in 1986.

But even as the 37th anniversary of the tragedy takes place this Valentine’s Day, many have never seen the final report, written in the wake of the hearings.

Newspaper reports from the time suggest it got little coverage beyond the money the tribunal had paid out.

Awards totalling £10.4m were made — a large amount for the time, although it covered 823 people, which dilutes the headline figure considerably.

Those with the most severe injuries received the largest amounts, but none got more than £200,000, which was modest for a lifelong disability.

Just five people received £100,000 or more, 24 received in excess of £50,0000, and the bulk of the claimants received somewhere between £5,000 and £10,000.

Parents who lost children were among that largest group, their payment in respect of each death set at a maximum of £7,500.

But the figures are not the outstanding feature of the report compiled by the three tribunal members: the chairman, Judge Donal Barrington, and solicitor, Noel Smith, both now deceased, and the then barrister, later judge, Hugh O’Flaherty.

What stands out is the immense physical and psychological suffering the trio witnessed and assessed. “We were struck by the devastation,” they wrote.

They were also taken aback by the neglect that the people testifying before them had endured in the five years between the fire and the tribunal. Many had received no medical support, and only for the advice that they submit a doctor’s note with their claim, might never have been examined.

Four generations of victims’ families who went to a Stardust Memorial Mass yesterday, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at Stardust Park, Coolock. Picture: Stephen Collins
Four generations of victims’ families who went to a Stardust Memorial Mass yesterday, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at Stardust Park, Coolock. Picture: Stephen Collins

The Stardust has often been cited as a case study in fire-safety neglect. Few involved in construction, planning, event-staging, or the fire service have escaped a lesson on the catastrophic mixture of shoddy standards, light-touch regulation, and negligence that led to the inferno.

Even if they don’t know it, they are labouring under laws and regulations forged in the aftermath of the tragedy. Some of those laws have been transformative, others less so, and all require a degree of oversight that many argue is still lacking, but it is indisputable that the Stardust left a valuable legacy on attitudes to fire, its prevention, and preparedness to respond to it.

But there were other lessons to be learned from the night when 48 young people died, when 200 were injured, and when a community was plunged into grieving.

How the survivors and grieving were treated by the institutions of the State, in the aftermath, represents another kind of case study. The lessons to be learned are that while a disaster can inflict pain that no interventions can remove, failure to provide adequate supports almost guarantees the suffering will be prolonged, and compounded by an anger that can become deeper over time.

Those who lost loved-ones at the Stardust have, over the years, described the awfulness of those early hours and days, after news of the tragedy arrived at their doors.

Victims of the Stardust fire are brought to the Church of Our First Lady in Dublin.
Victims of the Stardust fire are brought to the Church of Our First Lady in Dublin.

There was nowhere to go, except the city morgue. There was no organised transport, just the taxi-men who gathered outside and waived their fares; no-one to talk to, except ill-prepared gardaí, untrained for dealing with such situations.

The communities of Artane and Coolock, home to most of the young clubbers, rallied in support of each other, but they were communities in shock, trying to deal with a trauma that threatened to overwhelm them.

The government of the day would say it moved quickly — within four days of the fire, the terms of reference of a tribunal of inquiry into its causes and outcome had been published, and it held its first public meeting just 12 days later. But that tribunal, chaired by Justice Ronan Keane, was to bring fresh trauma, with its now infamous, flawed, and utterly conjectured conclusion that the cause of the fire was probably arson.

The next few years were a blur of legal-wrangling, political rows, and personal struggle.

Hundreds decided to sue the owners of the Stardust, for disregard for public safety, and the State for its failure to enforce public-safety regulations.

They would say repeatedly it wasn’t about money, but about truth and accountability, but money makes even broken worlds go round.

This was Dublin’s northside in the bleak mid-1980s and the families didn’t have money to pay solicitors to prepare cases, so there were moves to secure credit union loans for them. Credit union loans to fight the State for the good names of their dead children? The government shuddered at the optics and the Compensation Tribunal was born.

It fell far short of the response many survivors wanted, but they felt they had little choice, so they attended, one by one, to have their physical injuries inspected and their emotional scars measured.

More than three decades on, the summary in the final report of the three tribunal members provides a powerful reminder of the terrible damage the Stardust caused, and helps explain why still, today, many of those hurt by it refuse to let it rest.

Christine Keegan, who lost two daughters in the fire, Mary and Martina, at a wreath-laying ceremony at Stardust Park, Coolock. Picture: Stephen Collins
Christine Keegan, who lost two daughters in the fire, Mary and Martina, at a wreath-laying ceremony at Stardust Park, Coolock. Picture: Stephen Collins

Here is some of what they wrote:

“We were struck by the devastation which the tragedy appeared to have caused to a local community. A particularly poignant aspect of the tragedy was the extreme youth of many of the victims.

“Nearly all of the victims suffered, in greater or lesser degree, from psychological problems, which are apparently common in survivors of a disaster. One of these was a feeling of guilt at having survived the disaster, where others perished.

Very common was claustrophobia among people, who, before the fire, had been extroverted and full of fun. They were now afraid to go into a dance hall, a pub, or even a bus and, if they did, would be on edge and would want to sit nearest the door, so as to be able to run out in the event of a fire.

“Many of the victims suffered from nightmares and vivid, horrible dreams. As a result, they were afraid to go to sleep at night and insisted on the light being left on in their bedrooms all night.

“Most of the victims had no family doctor and received no medical treatment of any kind. They could not sleep, became cranky and difficult. Many suffered from enuresis (inability to control urine).

“Some fought with their employers and with their families, some threw up good jobs for no reason that they could explain. Many told us that they were easily annoyed and were ‘on a short fuse’. Some left home because another member of the family with whom they had to share a bedroom objected to the light being on all night. Some thought themselves impossible to live with, because they would wake up at night, screaming or in a cold sweat. Some took to smoking very heavily, though this was one of the worst things they could do, particularly if their lungs had been damaged. Some took to drinking heavily. Fortunately, most of those who did had the good sense to give it up after a few months and set about reorganising their lives. Others, unfortunately, did not, and added heavy drinking to their other problems. A very small number took to drugs.”

Relatives at the Coroner’s Court on Store St, after the Stardust disaster in 1981, which saw 48 people lose their lives.
Relatives at the Coroner’s Court on Store St, after the Stardust disaster in 1981, which saw 48 people lose their lives.

Many suffered from depression and a few committed suicide. “While those who were acutely injured received expert medical attention in hospital, in the days and weeks following the disaster, many received no adequate medical support after their discharge, and many others received no medical treatment or support of any kind.

“In many cases, the victims’ parents were driven to distraction, in attempting to cope with the victim’s apparently erratic behaviour, and many employers found it difficult to understand their touchiness and irascibility.

“One result of the establishment of our tribunal was that solicitors preparing applicants’ claims referred the applicants to medical specialists for assessment and report. In many cases, the doctors were shocked — not to say indignant — that people who needed medical advice and treatment had been left without it for so many years.”

‘No matter how much time goes by I will never forget the fire...’

The Stardust nightclub in Artane, on Dublin’s northside, where 48 people lost their lives and more than 200 were injured as a fire ripped through the building in the early hours of February 14, 1981.
The Stardust nightclub in Artane, on Dublin’s northside, where 48 people lost their lives and more than 200 were injured as a fire ripped through the building in the early hours of February 14, 1981.

She was just one of the hundreds who brought their stories of pain, loss, grief, and trauma to the Stardust Compensation Tribunal, but one young woman’s account gripped the tribunal members so much that they decided to publish it in full as a way of illustrating the far-reaching effects of the disaster.

The unnamed girl, who would now be 52, was not physically hurt in the fire but every aspect of her young life was changed by it. Here is her story.

“At the age of 16, I suppose I was like most of my friends at the time; completely wild, outgoing, and very hopeful for the future, never really having encountered any major crisis in my life. I believed in God, went to Mass, helped my mother, and fought with my father about staying out late, just like everyone else I knew.

And that was what I was doing on February 13, 1981.

The week previous to that, I had arrived home quite late from the Stardust and was told that would be my last visit there until I ‘pulled my socks up’, as he put it.

Anyway, after pestering the life out of my mother for the entire week following that night, my mother finally agreed to talk my father into letting me go (had I know what would happen that night I would quite happily have taken my punishment). So after a lot of pleading from both myself and my mother, I was finally allowed to go.

I remember that night very clearly; I remember the panic I got into over trying to find something to wear; finally, after a lot of searching, I found something I was satisfied with.

Anyway, having arrived late (as usual) at my friend’s house, the crowd of us set off. It was somewhere between 9pm and 10pm. We arrived at the Stardust about 20 minutes later, excited about our night out and nervous in case they wouldn’t let us in because we were all under age.

Lucky for us they let all of us in with no problems at all. Looking back now, I am sure I must have looked even younger than 16 but they didn’t seem to mind so I didn’t. I just felt grateful that these fools had let me in and so many other young people in an ‘over 21s club’.

After getting inside, we found a nice seat right beside the stage with a good view to the dancefloor and anything else that might have been going on.

Anyway, after seating ourselves with drinks in front of us, we sat back happily to enjoy our night having assured ourselves that it would be a good one, mainly because our friend Paula McDonnell was dancing in the competition later that night and we fully expected her to win (which she did). Even though none of us were drunk, we were all a little high on the excitement of it all. After all, this was our main highlight of the week for which we had begged, borrowed and stole.

Sometime during the course of the evening, I met a friend of mine called xxxx whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while. We went up the back of the club for a while because we couldn’t hear ourselves speak where I was sitting (this is how I came to notice the locks on some of the exit doors). After a while, we heard the DJ announcing that the competition was about to begin so we both went down to our tables having said that we would see each other later.

She won. We had a great time cheering her on and later yelling at the tops of our voices as she went on the stage to collect her prize. The whole place was in an uproar of excitement. After a while, we all started to drift back to our tables for a drink and to talk about what a great competition it had been.

Just then, I saw a friend of mine on the other side of the floor and I decided to go over and talk to him as I had known him for years but hadn’t seen him in a while. Somewhere during that conversation, for some reason or other, I happened to look up at the ceiling. At the time, I was taking a fag from him. Anyway, as I looked up I saw sparks coming directly at us followed by flames licking their way across the ceiling. Without hesitation, I jumped up and started to run in the direction of my seat. It was then that I noticed that everyone in the place was in the same state of panic that I was in. Funny, but I had not noticed it before I had seen the flames.

As I was making my way back to my table, I heard the DJ announcing everything was under control and not to panic, but as far as I was concerned, everything couldn’t have been more out of control. Halfway across the dancefloor, the lights went out and the place started to fill up with thick heavy black smoke. It seemed thicker than a strong mist. Instantly, as soon as it hit me, I began to cough, at the same time stumbling to where I thought my jacket must be.

I remember thinking, this is it, I will never get out of here alive, never. At this stage, having found my seat and jacket, I had completely lost my sense of direction and I hadn’t a clue where I was going. I couldn’t scream because I couldn’t get in enough air to scream. At this stage, I was beginning to feel like I was going to pass out. It was becoming nearly impossible to breathe. I couldn’t see at all. My eyes just wouldn’t open At one stage, I almost gave in to the fact that I wasn’t going to get out of there alive. I mean, what on earth could I do, everyone around me was screaming and panicking and I remember thinking, ‘Why can’t I scream?’ I thought of my parents and how they would feel but the worst thing was thinking I am going to die in this horrible place and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it. What on earth had I done to deserve this from God?

After what seems like years, I heard someone calling my name and he grabbed me by the arm, although how he found me I will never know. I remember grabbing hold of him, thinking, ‘At least I am not on my own.’

He started pulling me over to the left where he said there was an exit door. At the time, I wasn’t aware there was one there. Instead, I thought he wanted to pull me into some corner to wait until it was all over and as far as I was concerned, it nearly was. Not even my jacket pushed up to my face was helping me breathe anymore.

He pulled, I pushed, I kicked him, hit him, did everything I could do to try and get away from him to the main exit door, even though I didn’t have a clue as to where it was. Eventually, after a lot of pulling on his part, he managed to get me through this door which led into a small hall. There was a door at the other end and he ran ahead to open it. Somewhere between that time and the time we came through the first door, he fell and I lost him. I barely croaked out his name and started feeling all around for him.

After a few seconds, which seemed like hours, I felt his shirt and pulled. With an effort, he got back on his feet and then he tried for the second door. How he opened it, I don’t know, but he did. He came back for me and had to carry me out. I had just about had it at this stage, breathing was almost impossible.

There was a blue Hiace van parked right up against the steps blocking our way out so he lifted me over the railings.

Still choking and coughing (he wasn’t much better at this stage) I started to breathe in the cold air. How to describe that feeling is beyond me. The closest I can get to it is by saying it was like a life-jacket to a drowning man. I never thought I would love cold air as much as I did that night.

He came over to me and put his arms around me. We stood like that for a few minutes, hardly believing we were still alive. I don’t know about him but my mind was going round and round. I couldn’t gather any of my thoughts together.

We stood there and watched as people ran around in circles, some of them with flesh hanging from their bodies and faces, probably not even aware of how they looked.

The scene I saw that night of the poor, young, panic-stricken people I will never forget. To try and explain what I saw would keep me writing for hours if I even could at all, which I doubt.

A man who lived near the Stardust came over to us and spoke to xxxx. I don’t know what he said, my mind was blank.

He took us back to his house and sat both of us down. He kept asking me if I wanted to go to the hospital because by this time I was shaking from head to foot, totally unable to stop it. He gave me some sort of tables, what they were I don’t know, but they didn’t work. I kept shaking for a good hour or more after them.

If anyone was to ask me today what the Stardust did to me, I would say firstly it opened my eyes and made me grow up. For the first time, I was discovering that the world was not the nice cosy place I had always thought it was.

I definitely did change since the fire.

For a start, I became a lot quieter and more reserved. I resented people asking me about the fire. I got really annoyed at people prying, (as I saw it). For some reason, I became quick-tempered and easily agitated with people not only about the fire but about anything I felt was private and personal to me. I wasn’t like that before the fire.

I began to smoke a lot, going from about 10 a day (before the fire) to 20 and more if I had them. Whether it was nerves or not I don’t know.

I also felt and still do feel very nervous in clubs or pubs, always looking for exit doors and completely refusing to sit in a pub unless I know where the doors are. It was, in fact, a while before I went to a club after the fire but when I did, I always remained on edge during the time I spent there.

I still feel the same and get very nervous when I find myself in a position where I am in a crowded pub or club. I don’t think I will ever lose that fear of being caught in a fire again.

My employment hasn’t been very good either. I don’t think this is because of my lack of performance but mainly because I lost my temper far too easily with the people I have worked with and with customers. Almost every job I have had has been where I have dealt with the public and there has been more than one occasion where I have blown it with a customer.

Maybe I should put this all down to nerves, which is most likely what it is.

On the 13th of next month it will have been five years since the fire and in another five years it will have been ten years but no matter how much time goes by I will never forget the fire or the people who were in it. I certainly won’t forget the effect it had on me as a teenager.

‘I still have nightmares of that night’

Maurice Frazer, holding a photograph of his sister, Thelma, at Leinster House, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins
Maurice Frazer, holding a photograph of his sister, Thelma, at Leinster House, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Maurice Frazer has a 37-year habit that grew from the loss of his younger sister, Thelma, in the Stardust fire.

“I’m always checking exits to make sure they’re clear, no matter where I am. But particularly where I work now [in St Vincent’s Hospital],” he says. “Every Friday at 10am in Vincent’s there’s a fire alarm practice and my heart skips a beat every time no matter what. That’s part of the legacy.”

Maurice was 21 at the time and should have been at the nightclub that night, but his girlfriend went home to Cavan for the weekend, and rather than attend a Valentine’s disco without her, he decided to stay home. That decision may have saved his life but it did not spare him the legacy. “I still have nightmares of that night. Myself, Thelma and Michael [Farrell, Thelma’s boyfriend] used to always go there. This was the one night I didn’t and they both died. That’s always in your head.”

Maurice, the second of the nine Frazer siblings, remembers his father’s desperate two-day trek around the city’s hospitals, hoping against hope of finding Thelma, only to eventually be told the gardaí had some charred jewellery in need of identification. That’s how they learned for sure that Thelma was dead.

The grief that engulfed the family was immense, but Maurice believes the anger and frustration that followed did more damage.

“My mum and dad were very united but it did affect them both of them deeply. They both died at 56. They wanted to take a court case over the locked exits and the safety breaches but they’d just paid off the mortgage and they would have had to put the house on the line. The solicitor said, you’ve lost your daughter — do you want to lose your home too?

“My dad, I think, felt very powerless. I remember the Bradford stadium fire in 1985 [in which 56 football fans died and 265 were injured]. We were watching on TV and my dad was walking up and down the room with his head in his hands. He couldn’t believe it happened again.

“Every time there was mention of a disaster anywhere — even the bombings in Northern Ireland — he’d flip because we all knew what people were going through, not identifying the body, never saying goodbye to your loved one, knowing someone was at fault and you couldn’t touch them.” He says no-one in the family got counselling. “We saw no doctors. Years later RTÉ did a programme on it and an offer of counselling followed and I contacted them to ask about a sibling but they said they were only really looking after the parents. Well my parents were dead.”

Maurice didn’t go out after the Stardust. “I basically stayed in and studied but that was hard because I was studying civil engineering and architecture and you were asked loads of questions and not always very sensitively,” he recalls.

He does not accept the view there was insufficient understanding of disaster management and trauma in the early 1980s to enable the State respond adequately.

“We’d had the 1974 bombings [in Dublin and Monaghan]. I was a kid at the time on the train at Amiens St and the carriage shook. So after that I thought they would have been better prepared, but with the Stardust they just wanted to get everything done and dusted as quickly as possible. We got the few bob from the compensation tribunal but it was never about money and I know my dad was afraid it would look that way. He wanted justice because his daughter, a first- aider who would have gone out of her way to help anyone and probably did that night, was accused of arson along with all the others who died and that made him angry. If things are not handled properly from the start, anger multiplies and festers.”

Survivors’ trauma, dismissed in 1981, lingered for years

Over the last decade, the HSE has developed a guide for addressing “psychosocial and mental health needs, following major emergencies”. There was no such handbook in 1981.

The only psychologist called by the tribunal of inquiry interviewed just 24 people, and while he noted grievous suffering, the tribunal concluded, from his evidence, that most of those people “would be able, from their own resources, to overcome their particular neurotic reaction”.

The fire would become “an unhappy memory”, grief reactions would “run their course”, and, if they persisted, this would “be generally attributable to already existing personality weaknesses, rather than the circumstances of the fire.”

Such cold assessments were not borne out in reality. Two years later, a study by Dr Verena Keane found that half of grieving parents had suffered psychiatric problems since the fire.

Fourteen years after the fire, Dr James Mullaney presented a fresh study to the World Congress on Mental Health, which described the survivors as still “quite an ill population”. He said the anger harboured by many of them made him feel like the wall behind him was fire.

Dr Miriam Kennedy, director of communications and public education for the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, says much has been learned about post-trauma impacts since the 1980s, with the experience of conflict in Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia providing valuable insights.

“It isn’t about an immediate, ‘one size fits all’ or imposed form of treatment,” she says. “The need for support is vital, but people need support in different ways. Some people respond to trauma in a stoic way and it isn’t necessarily always a case of ‘better out than in’.

“Up to 20 years ago, there was a huge emphasis on debriefing, but that might not be that helpful, because there are reasons why people deal with things in what we call ‘their own time’, when their mind can process it.

“The immediate, normal response to acute trauma varies — there will likely be shock, a sense of numbing, upset, impacts on the mind, on the visual, on the sense of smell. What is important is that we don’t make an illness out of these reactions, but that people have support and they go at their own pace in making sense of it all.”

But those normal reactions can become problematic, she says. “Looking a few months down the line, after a traumatic event, you may start to see mental health problems — depressive mood, anxiety, hypersensitivity. That’s when the incident hasn’t begun to fade, but, instead it has re-emerged and it’s re-experienced as if it was this morning. That’s a really horrible effect and it affects people’s lives.

“They avoid the place where it happened or they, maybe, withdraw from people and that’s where we may need CBT or interpersonal therapy or psychotherapy.”

People may need help managing the “hot spots” that trigger a trauma; help finding ways to remember the totality of a deceased person, rather than only the awful way their life ended; and help dealing with survivor guilt. “What I would always say is ‘it’s OK not to be OK, it’s OK to need help’. There is more help now and what I would never want is for people to be stuck in the trauma and unable to find a way around it. Even if it’s a lot later, it’s not too late to look for help.”

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