"He went to the Stardust and never came home" - Further stories from families still grieving nightclub tragedy

Pic: Families who lost loved ones in the Stardust fire in February 1981 gathered at the Garden of Rememberance before an inquest into the deaths that began this week. (Collins)

by Ryan Dunne

A 12-year-old girl having to be sedated after seeing her sister’s coffin and a mother’s sense of fear “like a physical sickness” are just some of the effects felt by the families who lost loved ones in the Stardust nightclub blaze, the Coroner’s Court has heard.    

The third day of the inquest took place today in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda Hospital, with the continuation of pen portraits detailing the lives of the 48 people who died when a fire broke out in the Stardust Ballroom in Artane in the early hours of February 14, 1981.  

Susan Behan gave an emotional account of her brother Johnny Colgan, who was only 21 when his life was claimed by the blaze. Ms Behan said Johnny was their father’s right hand, their mother’s pride and joy, and her sister Patricia’s hero, for whom he did everything.

“Johnny was so handsome and a truly special person. Johnny’s essence was pure, he was a natural charmer. People were drawn to him like a magnet,” she said, adding that he was always upbeat and positive.  

She said her brother was full of life, loved playing football, having a pint with the lads, and he was always up for the craic. She said that when he walked into a room, he instantly filled the room with love.

Ms Behan said that her father, who is now deceased as is her mother, last saw Johnny on the Friday, which was payday, when Johnny was laughing and rubbing his hands together with his pay packet in hand, contemplating the Friday night out with the lads. She said her mother’s last memory was of them having their tea together on that Friday evening.  

“It was just an ordinary Friday. Little did we know the horror that awaited us,” she said.

“I was 8 and half months pregnant when the Stardust fire took Johnny. The last time I saw Johnny was Thursday, the day before the fire. He patted my bump and said: “I am going to be an uncle soon.” That was the last time I saw him; he went to the Stardust and never came home,” recalled Ms Behan.

She said that the family were told that on the night of the Stardust fire, Johnny helped his best friend Kenny to safety. Kenny said Johnny got out, but he went back in because he could hear girls crying in the toilets.

“I am not sure if this account of the girls is true, but it sounds exactly like something he would do,” she said, going on to say that the effect of losing her brother in the fire continues to this day.  

She said the loss of her brother had left her feeling vulnerable and afraid of letting her children go out as they grew up.  

“Most parents have this fear but mine was like a physical sickness in my stomach. It was a dread, and time has not assuaged my anguish or my fear,” she said, adding that her sense of loss has never diminished.

“There are 48 victims who cannot speak, with 200 young people injured and maimed and 96 parents who want answers, hundreds of brothers and sisters who need closure, thousands of extended family and friends who have been worn down, and millions of Irish people who deserve nothing less than the best efforts in seeking an explanation for the Stardust tragedy,” Ms Behan said.  

The sister of Liam Dunne, who was 18 when he died, also spoke at today’s proceedings. Siobhan Kearney described her brother Liam as “a truly loved son and brother” who had many friends.  

“On Saturday morning after the fire, I found Liam in the Mater hospital. Mum and dad were searching the other hospitals. A lot of my friends were there that night, so it was horrible walking through the hospital, searching,” said Ms Kearney.

She said she found her brother with his face all swollen and bandages on his hands and arms. He was spitting up stuff, she said.

“I said: ‘I’m here Liam, it’s Siobhan.’ He said: ‘I was crawling on the floor and my hands were melting.’ I had to leave as it was terrible,” she said,

That evening, Liam was taken for an operation because the blood flow in his hands was bad. He was moved to the ICU that night and was given 24 hours to live.  

“For the next month, we were in hospital every day,” she said. “I was on my way up on March 11. Liam died at 11.50 that morning. Liam was the last to die on March 11, 1981. I died also. I was 16 and the pain of that sadness has never left me,” said Ms Kearney.

She said that those weeks in hospital were the most terrible and saddest time in their family. She said that Liam was truly a strong young man to fight so hard for his life – but it was not to be.

“That month ripped our family apart. To watch my lovely mum cry and just stare. No talking, just tears. Our family tried to support each other but like most, trying to understand the grief and pain and sadness left us silent,” she said.

She said that living with such a young death at a young age causes a pain you carry with you through life every day.

“I hope from all of this Liam can finally rest in peace and his surviving family can live more peacefully too,” Ms Kearney concluded.

The last of today’s pen portraits was given by Alison Keane, sister of Jacqueline Croker, who was 19 when she died. Ms Keane, who was 12 when she lost her sister, said that their father idolised Jacqueline.  

“Dad and Jackie used to spend lots of time together because they would work together and even go drinking together,” she said.

Ms Keane said her father had to get up early for work, so the family heard the World News at 5am which reported that there had been a fire at the Stardust.  

“The night of the Stardust, my mam and dad knew that she had worn her white coat to go out, but they did not know what she was wearing underneath her coat. I was woken up at seven o`clock by Mr McGregor asking me what other clothes Jackie had been wearing to try and identify her at the morgue. I remember when he woke me up, he told me that there was a fire, but I felt disoriented in shock, in horror, and in disbelief,” said Ms Keane.

She said that she remembers there was news footage taken of her in the neighbours’ garden playing hopscotch at the time, not realising the severity of what was happening around her because of her age.  

“It’s not as simple as just one person being lost to our family. Everyone knew everyone in our community and each loss was felt by the community as well as the families,” said Ms Keane.

She said that after the Stardust fire, it was common to see someone either with visible scarring from a burn sustained that night at the Stardust or someone who had lost someone in the fire.  

“Nobody ever spoke about it with each other in the community because you would have no idea how the other person would react to something so emotional and affecting,” she said. “It felt like everybody was left on their own and so had to deal with the grief by putting it under the rug and just forcing yourself to carry on with life.”

She said that she had to be taken out of the church and brought home to be sedated after seeing four coffins laid out.

“I didn’t get to go to the funeral because of my horrendous state of upset at the sight of those coffins,” she said.

The inquest continues tomorrow, when further pen portraits of the deceased will be read out by family members.

"Did she think of us, or did she know she was going to die?” - Sister of Stardust victim shares family's grief

Pic: Families of those who died in the Stardust tragedy gathered at the Garden of Rememberance before the opening of the inquest (Collins)

By Ryan Dunne

“Even forty years on, I can still clearly see our beautiful Caroline looking peaceful in her coffin wearing a pale blue shroud,” said the sister of Caroline Carey, one of the victims of the Stardust Ballroom blaze who was just 17 when her life was ended.

At today’s sitting of the Coroner’s Court inquest into the fire that killed 48 people at the Stardust Ballroom in Artane on February 14, 1981, Caroline’s sister Maria delivered a heartfelt pen portrait of Caroline, whom she described as a much-loved daughter, sister, auntie, niece, granddaughter and cousin.

“Caroline was a very good-looking girl with a lovely bubbly personality. She was very witty with a very mischievous sense of humour. She had a heart of gold, loved her family and was very popular with her circle of friends,” she said.

She said Caroline was a very talented Irish dancer who competed successfully in many competitions and travelled abroad to dance at festivals with her dance school, before she gave up Irish dancing and took up disco dancing. The Stardust was a very popular venue and Caroline went every weekend.

“Caroline left our house on the night of February 13. She was laughing and in great form and looking forward to a night of dancing and socialising in the Stardust nightclub. That was the last time we saw Caroline alive,” said Maria, adding that Caroline was the only one of her happy group of friends who did not return home that night.

Maria said that in the early hours of February 14, she was woken by a knock on the door and assumed it was Caroline.

“It wasn’t Caroline but her friend to tell us about the fire. The hours that followed brought shock, horror and hysterics, going to every hospital in the city searching for Caroline and leaving her details,” she said.

She told the inquest that eventually a garda called to the house and gave the family the news they had hoped and prayed they would not get – that their much-loved Caroline was dead.

“While watching news reports on TV, we saw Caroline being carried out in the arms of a fireman. He placed her down and tried to resuscitate her, but it was too late,” she said.

“We were lucky, if that’s the correct word to use, in that we could see Caroline, talk to her, kiss her and say goodbye. There wasn’t a mark on her, even her nails were perfect. She looked as though you could call her name and she would wake up.”

Maria said that Caroline died from toxic fumes and did not suffer, as she would have died in seconds. She said that even now, she can clearly see Caroline looking peaceful in her coffin.

Maria went on to say that “a very black cloud” descended on the family home and stayed there for a long time.

“My parents were devastated, and many tears were shed. My Dad tried to console us. He was a man of great faith and told us that Caroline was still with us in spirit, but we didn’t want her in spirit, we wanted her back in our lives,” she said.

“Lying awake at night you would think of her last moments: was she frightened, did she cry, did she think of us, or did she know she was going to die?”

She said that there have been many family events since and Caroline is always remembered and mentioned. She said that there have been many nieces and nephews born into the family since Caroline’s death and most of the girls have Caroline as their middle name, so her name lives on. She also said that three weeks before Caroline’s death, she revealed to the family that she was expecting a baby.

“Forty years ago, teenage pregnancy was a taboo subject. My parents were devastated at the news but put their arms around her and assured her everything would be fine,” said Maria.

“We were a bit like the Snapper family but not quite as mad. Caroline knew that she had the full support and love of her parents and siblings and was looking forward to the birth of her baby, but it was not to be.”

She said that Caroline’s baby would now be forty years of age and could have children of their own.

“The Stardust fire that night cut off two branches from the Carey family tree,” she said.

“I very rarely dream about Caroline but when I do it’s the same dream in which she was injured in the fire and had to go away for treatment. On her return years later, I’m introducing her to all the family she didn’t know. I have aged in my dream, but Caroline is still as she was the night she left home to go to the Stardust. For a split second when I open my eyes, I hope and then realise it’s only a dream and our beautiful, bubbly, witty Caroline is gone and will never come home.”

"Enjoy the dancing" - Last words to loving sister who died in Stardust tragedy

Pic: Families of those who died in the Stardust tragedy gathered at the Garden of Rememberance before the opening of the inquest (Collins)

by Ryan Dunne

Preventing another Stardust tragedy “would be the greatest gift” to arise from the inquest taking place before the Coroner’s Court, which should uncover the “pain and agony” suffered by the families of the victims.

So said the sister of one of the 48 people who tragically lost their lives when a fire broke out in the Stardust Ballroom in Artane in the early hours of February 14, 1981. Paula Byrne was just 19 when she died in the blaze, and at the inquest taking place in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda Hospital, Paula’s sister, Maria, said that the last thing the family said to Paula before she left on the night was: “Goodbye, have a good night in the Stardust, enjoy the dancing’.”

Delivering a pen portrait of Paula today, Maria said that their mother had been expecting her fifth child and suspected it would be another boy, so she chose the name Paul.

“We all knew she was really hoping for a girl. However, on the arrival of a baby girl, Mam decided there would be no name change and called our new sister Paula,” said Maria.

She said that Paula was “always the peacemaker in our house” for whom “going to bed on an argument was not in her nature”.

“Paula was very much a people person. She loved her friends and family and was loyal and devoted to both. She was a beautiful young lady both inside and out and was a true friend for life,” said Maria.

She said that to sum up her sister’s nature and personality in one word it would most definitely be “kindness”.

“Paula had such a good heart; she was a shining light, always willing to do anything for you.

She said that the last time the family spoke with Paula on that Friday evening, she had just gotten ready to go to the dancing competition in the Stardust.

“We chatted for a while and as we left with our Mam to do the weekly shopping our last words to Paula were: ‘Goodbye, have a good night in the Stardust, enjoy the dancing’.”

“Later that evening, little did we know that the distant sound of sirens would be the start of a nightmare that we could not awaken from,” said Maria.

“We rushed to the Stardust hoping to find Paula safe and well and bring her home. The devastating vision of the Stardust and the apprehension of what was unfolding in front of us was terrifying.”

She said that up until dawn, the family travelled around the hospitals hoping to find her in one of the casualty departments, while the media were broadcasting “the horrifying reality” of what had happened.

“We arrived back home without Paula. We held on to the hope that Paula would arrive home safely, having stayed in a friend’s house. It was not until the following Friday in the city mortuary that our last shred of hope for Paula abruptly faded away,” she said.

Maria said that the loss of Paula and the impact on their family is impossible to quantify.

“When you witness the spark of life going out of your mother, you hope in time that it will return. It never did,” she said.

Holding back tears, Maria said that the horrifying night of the Stardust is something no one should ever have to experience. Welcoming the attorney general’s “ethical and brave decision” in the granting of this fresh inquest, she said that “justice will prevail”.

“The dreadful events of what happened in the Stardust that caused such devastation, pain and agony to our family and so many others will finally be uncovered,” she said,

“For our family, nothing can bring Paula back, nothing can erase the loss and pain of the last 40 years. Preventing another Stardust and knowing that no other family would ever have to endure the same trauma would be the greatest gift.”

"More than a brother to me" - Stardust relatives tell inquest of grief 42 years on from tragedy

by Ryan Dunne

The brother of Stardust nightclub victim Jimmy Buckley has spoken of guilt “eating away” at him in the wake of his brother’s death and said that he believes the death by heart attack years later of another brother was also caused by “that horrific night” when fire swept through the Dublin nightclub claiming the lives of 48 people.  

Errol Buckley, whose emotional tribute to his brother Jimmy was read out by Errol’s son Lloyd, told the Coroner’s Court today that Jimmy (23) “was more than a brother to me”.  

“After my father died when I was 12, my mother moved back home to Offaly and I, not wanting to leave the only home I knew in Dublin, stayed. Jimmy took on my parents’ role,” said Mr Buckley.  

“Jimmy was not only a caring and loving brother, he was a very talented singer and  entertainer. He even won a talent show in the Stardust a few months before the fire.”  

Errol was providing a pen portrait of his late brother as part of the inquest taking place at the Pillar Room in the Rotunda Hospital into the tragedy that occurred at the Stardust Ballroom in Artane in the early hours of February 14, 1981. He said that he was dancing in the Valentine’s disco competition in the Stardust that night, which started around midnight. When he was announced as one of the winners, his brother Jimmy “beamed with pride” and jumped up onto the stage to hug him and tell him how proud he was of him.  

“Little did I know, they would be the last words I would ever hear from him,” he said.  

Errol said that outside the Stardust, he was running around for about an hour looking for Jimmy, and after a few hours he gave up, thinking Jimmy must have been taken to one of the hospitals.  

“The next few days were a nightmare, not knowing where he was. Then the guards called to the house and asked us to come to the morgue. Jimmy was eventually identified by his wedding ring,” he said.  

“Guilt was eating away at me. If I hadn’t been dancing that night, Jimmy wouldn’t  have been there.”  

Errol said that his brother Albert and their mother campaigned for justice up until their deaths, with Albert dying from a massive heart attack at the age of 41.  

“The Stardust had claimed another victim as I believe Albert too never really recovered from that horrific night and the loss of Jimmy,” he said.  

Errol Buckley concluded by saying: “You might say, it’s been 40 years, just let it go. Well I ask you, if it was your brother, sister, son, daughter, how would you feel?”  

A further emotional tribute was given by Jimmy Buckley’s widow, Christina Smyth, who said that everyone who met Jimmy and knew him loved him.  

“He was funny and witty and the life and soul of every party. Everyone loved his company,” she said.  

She spoke of how he loved performing for people and won a talent contest for his impression of Elvis. She said his big passion was hurling and she would go along to see him play.  

“He was fierce and brave in play. He also had a great passion for Gaelic football and he played in the minors. He loved to go to Croke Park on a Sunday to watch the Dubs play.”  

“I met this wonderful man when we were teenagers. He was 16 and I was 14. It was love at first sight and we got engaged when I turned 16. I had the honour to marry Jimmy in 1979 and we were so happy. Every day was a laugh living with him.”  

Christina said that the couple were blessed to welcome their beautiful daughter Julieann on February 13, 1980.  

“That is a day I will never forget, as he was so proud and showing her off to everyone and telling all that she was going to be the image of him with blue eyes and blonde hair. He was correct. She has grown up to be like him. She is witty and funny and loving, and a fantastic parent just like he was.”  

She said that on Julieann’s first birthday, Jimmy wanted a big tea party for her to show her off and have everyone come to the house to celebrate, with relations and friends crammed into their little house in Donnycarney.  

“It was a day we will always remember as it was the last time we would all spend together,” she said.  

Christina said that Jimmy’s brother Erroll had made it to the final of the dance competition in the Stardust.  

“I never would have thought this was the last time we would be together or that this would be the night that would change all our lives together,” she said.