The fighting life of Christine Keegan

Christine Keegan lost two daughters in the Stardust blaze that claimed 48 lives. She spent the rest of her life looking for answers until her death this week, writes  Political Correspondent Aoife Moore
The fighting life of Christine Keegan
 Christine Keegan, who lost her daughters Mary and  Martina in the Strdust tragedy in  1981,  during a protest march to the Attorney General's Office to hand over 48,000 signatures they collected calling for a new inquest into the fire. Photo: Gareth Chaney 

The death of Christine Keegan on Tuesday is the worst fear of the Stardust Justice Campaign realised.

A woman who had dedicated her life to campaigning died without the answers she deserved.

Born in Dublin, Christine Daly got off to a shaky start with John Keegan, her neighbour, after he asked her out when she was reading in her garden.

She'd said yes, but forgot about the date and was surprised and unprepared when John appeared later in his Teddy Boy suit. She said his feelings were hurt that she'd forgotten about him. 

Despite the initial mixup, they married and had eight children together, first living in Manchester, where John worked, before moving to the "country" in Coolock, in Dublin's northside.

They had five daughters and three sons: Antoinette, Mary, John, Martina, Lorraine, Neville, Susan and Damien.

They lived an "ordinary and happy" life with "a lot of love in the house". 

John worked double shifts, he planned to build an extension for the girls to move into, Christine raised their children.

On Valentine's Day in 1981, Mary, Martina, Antoinette and John all went to the Stardust nightclub in Artane for a night out. John was turned away from the door for being underage, the girls and their friends went inside.

Finding out what took place in the next few hours was the life's work of Christine Keegan, her daughter Antoinette and hundreds of others who make up the Stardust Justice Campaign.

There were 750 people inside when the fire ripped through the popular nightclub, claiming 48 lives, maiming hundreds more, and is still the largest fire disaster in the history of the State. The bodies of five young men lay unidentified until 2007.

Mary and Martina died in the Stardust, 13-year-old Lorraine was called to identify Martina's necklace.

Antoinette was rushed to hospital where she stayed for weeks recovering, believing her two sisters were alive and in hospital too. 

Doctors had told John and Christine to keep the news from their daughter in case she went into shock.

In archive footage, Christine says that Mary was very good at school, she thought about becoming a nun and was always writing poems and reading.

Martina loved clothes, "fashion was her thing", the night of the Stardust fire she'd forgotten her belt, the outfit didn't look right, and she made Antoinette run back to the house for it.

Footage in the aftermath of the fire shows Christine in tears, describing the fallout of losing her two daughters.

"Damien is only three," she cries. "He asked where they had gone and I told them they were working with holy God in heaven.

"The lies I had to tell the poor child, he thinks they're coming back when they're done their work."

The black and white footage of Christine crying in John's arms at her daughters' funeral is still used when trying to depict the unbearable sadness of the Stardust tragedy.

The days and weeks after remain "a blur" for the parents who lost children, Bridget McDermott who lost her three children, William, Marcella and George, says she barely remembers their funeral.

The then-Taoiseach and local TD for the area, Charlie Haughey, was filmed walking through the wreckage of the fire hours after it had been extinguished — a move that has since been criticised by fire experts.

The aftermath of the Stardust fire in Dublin on  14th. February, 1981.
The aftermath of the Stardust fire in Dublin on  14th. February, 1981.

He stood in the living room of one family where he vowed to parents he would get to the bottom of the issue. 

Phyllis and Maurice McHugh, who lost their only child, Caroline, in the fire, upon returning one evening from the funeral home, found the Taoiseach in their kitchen, making similar promises.

In November 1981, a tribunal of inquiry found that mismanagement by the building's owners, Eamon and Patrick Butterly, had "contributed significantly" to the deaths and injuries. 

Locks and chains had been draped over the bars on the emergency exits, the toilet windows were sealed shut, other exits were blocked by chairs.

Despite the findings of safety breaches, there were no prosecutions for the fire.

The only prosecution related to the Stardust fire was John Keegan, convicted for punching Eamon Butterly and ordered to pay him £1,457 in damages.

The tribunal concluded with a finding of "probable arson", likely started deliberately on a seat near the dancefloor.  It was a  finding that was always disputed by survivors, who said the fire came from above, and that the roof of the building fell down around them "like hot coal".

The Butterlys were compensated by Dublin Corporation, awarded damages of £581,000 (more than €730,000 now) for the "malicious" fire.

Due to the arson finding, the families were not able to seek the same compensation.

State papers revealed later that the Butterlys also asked the government to pay for their costs of appearing at the tribunal of inquiry.

After the tragedy, life continued in a new-normal. Antoinette was dubbed "The golden girl" by her siblings because Christine doted on her.

"She always said she was lucky she got me, she was lucky I survived, so I could do no wrong, I got whatever I wanted," Antoinette said.

None of the families were ever offered therapy or counselling by the State, and the trauma took it's toll. Christine and John would fight. 

"There was a change in the house, he would blame her and she would blame him," Antoinette added.

"It wasn't either of their faults but it was hard to cope."

John Keegan died six years after the fire from stomach cancer, Christine told people "it was the shock" from losing his girls.

Christine kept on her fight, raising her children alone, Damien was just 10 when he lost his father.

"She was very caring," Antoinette said.

"We couldn't have ever asked for a better mother, she'd light up a room, we depended on her so much.

She was so strong throughout the tragedy and after me da dying, rearing her kids on her own, carrying on the campaign.

Antoinette says after her father's death, the drive for justice only became more important. When asked now, she says she campaigns "for Mary, Martina and my da".

In 1985, singer Christy Moore was found guilty of contempt of court after writing and releasing a song, entitled "They Never Came Home", about the families' plight.

The song was banned and removed from the 'Ordinary Man' album it had appeared on, with original copies taken off the shelves.

The lyrics of the song are still banned in Ireland, as they are considered libelous.

When approached by the Irish Examiner for this article, Mr Moore said he would be honored to talk about Christine Keegan after first meeting her at High Court in Dublin. 

Stardust campaigner Christine Keegan and her daughter Antoinette Keegan (who lost her two sisters Mary and Martina Keegan) mark the 38th anniversary of the Stardust fire during a protest outside Leinster House, Dublin. Photo: Collins Dublin
Stardust campaigner Christine Keegan and her daughter Antoinette Keegan (who lost her two sisters Mary and Martina Keegan) mark the 38th anniversary of the Stardust fire during a protest outside Leinster House, Dublin. Photo: Collins Dublin

She, along with the other families, came to support Moore when the song was challenged by Eamon Butterly.

"When the families came to the High Court that day to support me, a bond was forged that has lasted until this day," Mr Moore said.

"I’ve known Christine and her family ever since. We have met on many occasions.

"Christine was a lady, in the face of ignorance and oppression, she always retained her dignity, and although her heart was broken she still looked out and cared for those around her.

"I will always remember the inspirational courage and fortitude of Christine, her late husband John, and their family.

"I’ve been privileged to stand with them on many occasions, on pickets, marches, protests, and memorials.

"Despite Judge Murphy’s ruling, I still sing the song. I’ve always felt honored that the families embraced it.

"It has been requested all over the world. It stills the night as people remember and reflect upon the injustice still inflicted upon survivors and the families of victims."

In July 2008, through pressure from the families and media, and testimony from fire experts, the government appointed Paul Coffey SC to conduct an independent examination of the case for a re-opened inquiry.

His report ruled that there was no evidence to prove the cause of the fire was arson.

The view of some fire experts is that a first-floor storeroom containing highly flammable cleaning products is likely where the fire started. The room's contents acting as a major accelerant which quickly spread due to PVC-coated fabric on seats and carpet tiling on walls.

Likewise, eyewitnesses from nearby houses say the blaze began in the building's roof space which was "glowing" in the nightsky. Two phone calls were made to Dublin Fire Brigade on the night, the families say only one is on the public record.

Over the years, the families meet often, they campaign, they speak to media on the anniversary — the campaign continues with little fanfare.

They travel to Derry where they meet the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign, who offer advice on how to take on the state.

Each year in this period, Christine brings journalists into her home in Coolock, she makes tea, she bears her pain and the story is written. 

Damien would come home from school for lunch and find reporters in the house, or the table covered in newspaper clippings. "I would get annoyed about it and start fights with her," Damien recalled.

"I didn't want to be known as a Keegan from the Stardust, I wanted to be my own person, but that wasn't my mam's fault.

"I look back now and think I should've helped her more, she just wanted justice for her kids. My life was torn apart by the Stardust and you don't even notice it at the time.

"I'd hear her crying in her room at night, she was just destroyed over it."

Those who know Christine say she'd easily met over 100 journalists in her life, yet nothing changed. 

Taoiseach after Taoiseach, election after election, the candidates would come to the northside, they'd promise they'd get the Stardust back on the cabinet table, they'd meet the families, then nothing.

In 2014 the campaign gained a passionate supporter in then-Dublin MEP Lynn Boylan, who vowed to help.

Boylan took Christine and Antoinette to Brussels on a delegation of female leaders at the European Commission.

"It was this delegation of women who campaign on different topics, I remember Christine always had a bag of crisps in her handbag," she laughs.

"Even in Brussels, we went to the Christmas market and Christine had brought a bag of Tayto with her.

"Out of the three of us, Christine was always last to bed, she'd have sat up singing all night."

In 2017, in another blow, an official assessment concluded that the true cause of the fire would "probably" never be established and a new inquiry was unwarranted.

The families refused to give up, and with the aid of new solicitors in Phoenix Law, based in Belfast, began a new campaign for a fresh inquest.

They found new evidence through Freedom of Information requests and previously unheard witness testimony.

Through their campaign, 50,000 people signed postcards calling for a new inquiry, these were presented to the then-Attorney General Séamus Woulfe.

On September 25, 2019, Woulfe granted a fresh inquest.

In a statement, the Office of Attorney General said:

“He (Woulfe) considers that in the original inquests there was an insufficiency of inquiry as to how the deaths occurred, namely, a failure to sufficiently consider those of the surrounding circumstances that concern the cause or causes of the fire.

“The Attorney General is thus satisfied that the holding of fresh inquests is, on balance, in the public interest and in the interests of justice.” 

In a letter to the families' solicitors Mr Woulfe wrote: "Drawing on analogies from the Hillsborough case in England, my view is that, where there is a disaster of such magnitude, there is, in the first place, the entitlement of the families of the victims to the public revelation of the facts, but also a distinct and separate imperative that the community as a whole should be satisfied, even if belatedly, that there should be sufficient inquiry at any inquest held to maximise the chances that the truth should emerge."

Christine Keegan appears at a press briefing to media where an application was handed into the Attorney General's Offices in Dublin's City centre asking for a new report into the Stardust tragedy. Photo: Collins Photos
Christine Keegan appears at a press briefing to media where an application was handed into the Attorney General's Offices in Dublin's City centre asking for a new report into the Stardust tragedy. Photo: Collins Photos

The families were vindicated. For years they had compared their plight to those families in Liverpool, and the Attorney General had too seen the similarities in the circumstances.

The initial happiness at the announcement, the years of campaigning, the dream realised, has since subsided.

Time and the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the inquiry to the backburner. The families have had little in the way of contact from the State. 

There are concerns that social distancing will further delay what will likely be a long-running inquiry, and the largest ever held in Ireland.

It is these fears that are ever-present in the hearts of those who campaign for Stardust. 

When she was alive, Christine Keegan often said she feared she would die without ever getting answers for her daughters. When she was diagnosed with dementia, Antoinette still thought her mother would be at the new inquest, even if she couldn't fully take it in.

Christine kept her faith until the end. A few weeks ago, Antoinette asked her mother if there was a God, she said she thought that God must be cruel, Christine told her that God was good.

On Tuesday, before the inquest began, Christine's fight ended. 

"I tried to comfort her in her dying breaths," Antoinette said.

"We had ten minutes alone, we played a few songs for her, and I decided I would tell her a white lie.

"I told her the inquest was starting soon: 'So you relax and go to Mary, Martina and me da, they're all going to have a party waiting for you.

"'Do me a favour', I said, 'Keep guiding me, I'm going be lost without you.

"'This inquest is for you mam.'"

Forcing Antoinette Keegan to lie to her dying mother is the last, but not the worst, indignity forced on this family by this state.

Ireland turned it's face away from Christine Keegan's sorrow for too long and now she's gone.

We owe it to her memory, and the memory of all of those who died in the Stardust fire, to look them in the eye and ask for forgiveness.

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