Mothers of Stardust fire victims tell inquest of their ongoing pain and grief

A long-awaited inquest for the 48 people who died in the fire at the Stardust nightclub in Dublin in 1981 began on Tuesday.

David Young
Tuesday 25 April 2023 16:12 BST
Relatives at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin ahead of the first day of the inquest (David Young/PA)
Relatives at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin ahead of the first day of the inquest (David Young/PA) (PA Wire)

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Mothers of two young people killed in Ireland’s worst fire disaster have described their enduring grief and pain as they addressed a long-awaited inquest.

Forty-eight people died in the blaze at the Stardust Ballroom in Dublin in 1981.

The fire in Artane in the north of the city broke out in the early hours of Valentine’s Day in 1981.

The new inquest, which is set to be the most extensive ever held in Ireland, began with coroner Dr Myra Cullinane reading out the names of all 48 of the victims.

Families were then given the opportunity to speak about their loved ones.

With the pen portraits delivered in alphabetic order, Gertrude Barrett, mother of Michael Barrett, was the first to address the 15 jury members.

She was followed by Betty Bissett, the mother of 18-year-old Carol Bissett.

Michael Barrett was a 17-year-old apprentice plumber who was working in the nightclub on the night of the fire as an assistant DJ.

“Up to and including 13th February 1981, we were a happy family unit, with four children, doing regular things, living a regular life, doing what you do with a family of four aged 17 years and under,” Ms Barrett told the inquest.

Life was good and all was well. But little did I know that Friday the 13th February 1981 would be the last day of life as we knew it and that the following day our lives would change catastrophically forever.

“On February 14th 1981 we woke up to trauma and were catapulted into unimaginable grief and sorrow.”

Ms Barrett recalled the four-day wait at the city morgue in Dublin for confirmation that her son’s body had been identified.

She then spoke of the impact his death has had on the family.

“I will never get over losing Michael in such an appalling way, never,” she said.

“I am forever haunted by the thoughts of his final moments, what were his last words, did he call out for help, how frightened was he, did he know he was going to die?

“Michael should have never had to leave this world the way he did and at such a young age too.

“If I stood here for a month, it still wouldn’t be long enough to describe or share the true impact of the Stardust fire, the experience of the four days in Store Street and the morgue, the funeral arrangements, the aftermath, the trauma, the void in our home and our lives, not to mention the 40-year fight for justice also. I should not have to be standing here today.

“Like a tornado, the Stardust fire ripped through the core of our beings, wreaking havoc and utter devastation in its wake, leaving nothing untouched, be it our home, our lives, our relationships, our education, our future, our outlook on life, in fact our everything. Nothing was ever the same again, never the same and changed forever as we knew it.”

Ms Barrett said the family would never recover from the trauma of the Stardust fire and its consequences.

“It has been absolutely crippling at times,” she said. “It leaves you feeling helpless, unable to cope, numb, disconnected.

“It has caused untold amount of stress and anxiety that takes its toll on your health, your wellbeing, your life.

“Although we have learned to live with it and it live with us, this is how it will be until we take our last breath. And all of this has been compounded by a 40-year fight for justice, which is another story all of its own. I should have never had to fight for justice for Michael, never.”

She added: “All of our life experiences, celebrations and events were and are marred and scarred, tainted and tarnished by his absence. We, his family, have and will continue to wonder what life might have been like had there been no Stardust fire.

“As we write this pen portrait for Michael, remembering the person he was, it saddens us to our core that he never got the chance to fulfil his potential in life and throughout his life and that he never got the chance to achieve his goals, plans, dreams, hopes and wishes. A life ended before it even had a chance to begin.

“Rest in peace, Michael. We miss you and everything about you, every day.”

People inside Dublin District Coroner’s Court, which is sitting in the Rotunda hospital complex, rose to applaud Ms Barrett at the close of her address.

The second pen portrait of the day was delivered by the Bissett family.

Carol’s mother Betty became emotional as she described the aftermath of the tragedy.

“There was so much taken from her that night,” she said.

“Devastating our family, friends and community. When the terrible news came we couldn’t take it in. A bad dream – someone else’s nightmare. She was in hospital and died three days later. She was alone, I wasn’t there to hold her hand or tell her how I love her.”

Ms Bissett told the coroner’s court how she struggled to cope and her family stepped in to help care for her surviving children.

“I lost my child and couldn’t be there for the rest,” she said.

“I meet her school friends often or they visit with their children and I never stop wondering where would she be in her life, would she have had children?”

Her daughter Liz then read a poem she composed about her sister Carol.

It ended with the line: “I just wish I’d got to say goodnight, and I wish I could have held you tight.”

Other Stardust families and legal representatives again rose to applaud the Bissett family members when they had finished their tributes.

Following the two pen portraits, coroner Dr Cullinane adjourned proceedings for the day.

The delivery of all the family pen portraits is expected to take three weeks.

Once those are completed the formal evidence will commence.

The full inquest could last up to six months, with around 350 witnesses potentially due to give evidence.

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 victims’ families, in 2019 then-attorney general Seamus Woulfe directed that new inquests should take place.

Ahead of the first day of the inquest, families gathered together at the city’s Garden of Remembrance and then walked together to the coroner’s court.

Speaking ahead of the hearing, Antoinette Keegan, whose two sisters, Mary and Martina, died in the tragedy, said finding out why loved ones died is the most important thing the inquest can provide.

“It’s very important – it’s a massive day for us, we’ve been waiting 42 years for this day to come, and finally we’re here,” she said.

A solicitor representing some of the Stardust families, Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law, said the inquest marked “a momentous day” in their campaign.

“Today is a momentous day, it’s the start of the end of a very long journey for these families,” he said.

“It’s disappointing it’s taken so long to get to this stage but, crucially and most importantly, today marks the start of what hopefully is the end of this campaign for truth and justice.”

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