The long-awaited inquest into the deaths of 48 people who died 42 years ago in the Stardust nightclub fire in Dublin opened, at last, on Tuesday, April 25.
The blaze at Artane in the north of the city in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 1981 was the worst fire disaster in the history of the Irish state. All who died were aged between 16 and 26, while hundreds more were badly hurt and left with life-changing injuries.
An original inquest in 1982 lasted just five days and recorded the cause of the deaths in accordance with medical evidence, with no reference to the circumstances or the cause of the fire. After a long campaign by the families, new inquests were directed in 2019 by then-Attorney General Seamus Woulfe.
His office said at the time, “The holding of fresh inquests is, on balance, in the public interest and in the interests of justice.”
Funding issues delayed the inquest until an announcement in October 2020 when €8 million was allocated from Budget 2021.
A jury was selected last week and started hearing evidence for the first time on Tuesday this week at the hearing expected to last at least six months, sitting four days a week in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. It is expected to pause in July before resuming in September.
It will be the most extensive inquest ever held in Ireland with around 350 witnesses due to give evidence.
Families gathered at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance on Tuesday morning ahead of a march to the hearing venue.
On day one, relatives of some of those who died read pen portraits to the jury members. Reading of the portraits, in alphabetical order, is expected to last three weeks.
The story of Michael Barrett, 17, the last to be identified after the disaster, was the first to be told at the inquest. Earlier, his mother Gertrude Barrett told the Irish Mirror, “We are all apprehensive. It has taken a long time to reach this stage. We have been on a mission for the last 42 years.
“It is an absolute shame that it has taken this long. I will be very emotional. It’s going to bring me back to those days of waiting in the morgue for him. But I am going to do him proud, we all are. We’re going to give them back their identities.”
Stardust survivor Antoinette Keegan, 59, lost her sisters Martina, 16, and Mary, 19, when the three were trapped in the fire. Their parents led the decades-long campaign for full inquests.
Keegan told RTÉ Radio on Tuesday, “We are finally here and it is so sad that my mother and father are not here to see it and witness all they had achieved for the 48 victims. Our family home was never the same after they died.”
She said the traumatic event of the fire is constantly on her mind. “It's a living nightmare. It’s in my brain. I consume it morning, noon, and night.”
Keegan said she would attend the inquest as much as she can to represent her sisters and parents. She said, “We didn't have a family home after the Stardust. We had a happy home and then it was sad. We hadn’t got a home because our parents were outside trying to campaign for justice for the 48.”
The High Court late last year rejected a legal challenge from Eamon Butterly, the Stardust’s former manager, seeking to exclude “unlawful killing” as a possible verdict at the inquest.
*This column first appeared in the April 26 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.