David Young, PA
Relatives of the 48 people who died in a fire at a Dublin nightclub 42 years ago have said it is a “massive” and “important” day as the long-awaited fresh inquest has begun.
The deadly blaze at the Stardust Ballroom in Artane in the north of the city broke out in the early hours of Valentine’s Day in 1981.
It was the worst fire disaster in the history of the Irish State.
The inquest is set to be the most extensive ever held in the Republic and 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.
Jury members were selected last week and the first few days will see relatives of those who died read pen portraits to the hearing.
At the outset of the inquest hearing on Tuesday, coroner Dr Myra Cullinane read out the names of all 48 of the victims.
The first pen portrait presented to the inquest was for 17-year-old Michael Barrett. It was read to court by his mother Gertrude.
The teenager was an apprentice plumber and he 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 of 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.”
In a powerful address to the jury, Ms Barrett recalled the four-day wait at the city morgue for confirmation that her son’s body had been identified.
She spoke of the impact his death 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.”
Gertrude 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.”
Speaking ahead of the inquest, a solicitor representing some of the Stardust families, Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law, said the hearing marks “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.
“More importantly it starts with a tribute (from) every family member who has come here today, a tribute to each victim which we say is very important in a case like this, that we start with and we end with those that are most important – the victims themselves.”
He said the first inquest had looked at “very little evidence” and that reviews carried out since then had been “piecemeal” and “haven’t been asking the right questions”.
“The reality is this inquest, unlike the previous inquiries, will be able to hear all of the evidence, all the witnesses, it will be able to hear expert evidence and it will be able to come to a conclusion with all of that in mind.
“The reality is that previous inquest didn’t look at all the evidence. It didn’t hear from relevant witnesses where this inquest will.”
The inquest is being held in Dublin’s Rotunda.