The sister of a 17-year-old killed in the Stardust fire has told the inquest of how the trauma of her brother’s death caused her to withdraw into herself to the point that she could not be around people if they started talking about him.
"Two things in life change you and you’re never the same: love and grief," Donna O’Connor said, delivering a pen portrait of her brother, George, at Dublin District Coroner’s Court on Wednesday.
George O’Connor was one of the 48 victims of the Stardust fire who died when the flames swept through the Artane nightclub in the early hours of February 14th, 1981.
"He may be just a body number on the inquest list, but to us, he was the firstborn, a grandson, a big brother, a nephew, a cousin and a loyal friend to those who knew him," Donna told the jury in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda Hospital.
She described George as "a homebody" who was quiet, reserved and not one for going out much. He was a huge science-fiction fan and was always drawing, trying to replicate the spaceships from comics and films like Star Wars, Star Trek, and War of the Worlds. Donna said the family still have many of his notebooks containing these drawings.
She said George was only starting out on life’s journey as an adult when he died in the fire.
"He loved working his job and made some lovely friends, who encouraged him to come out of his shell and start to socialise. Sadly, the first dance he ever went to was also to be his last," she said.
"My memories over the years have faded to a point where whenever I try to remember, all that comes to mind is George getting ready for the dance, my mam ironing his shirt, him drying his ‘afro’ hairstyle, and me critiquing his outfit and telling him no girl would ask him to dance dressed like he was."
The same outfit – what was left of it – I had mocked just a few hours before
Donna recalled she headed off to bed that night with not a care in the world, only to wake to utter chaos. She remembered heading off with her father and uncles to collect dental records and going into the coroner’s courtroom to identify a clear plastic bag of clothes.
"The same outfit – what was left of it – I had mocked just a few hours before, then over to the canteen in Busáras to wait for the dental records to be compared," Donna said.
She said being a shy and private 15 year old at the time, the trauma she felt caused her to withdraw even further into herself and for a solid 10 years she could not be around people if they started talking about George.
"But that is not to say that I, and we, do not think about him and miss him every single day. I wonder how very different all our lives would be if he were still here. What career path would he have taken, would he have married, had kids, stayed in Ireland or lived abroad," she said.
"When meeting new people, the question if I am the eldest always brings out the familiar furrow on my forehead and I never fail to ponder how to answer this question.
"What to say, I wonder silently. I am or I’m not – yes, or no? Sadly, I was thrust into that unwanted position of ‘eldest’ which was never meant to be my birthright."
Donna concluded by saying: "Two things in life change you and you’re never the same: love and grief."
The Stardust fire robbed us of our wonderful, exceptional, selfless brother
The jury also heard a pen portrait of Brendan O’Meara, who was 23 when he died in the fire.
The portrait of Brendan, written by his siblings, was presented by his sister, Margaret Smith, who described Brendan as a very handsome young man who was always the best dressed in the family.
"Unfortunately, the Stardust fire robbed us of our wonderful, exceptional, selfless brother," she said.
"My children were deprived of sharing their lives with their Uncle Brendan and making their own memories with him. We relive the heartache of losing Brendan, not only at the Stardust anniversary but on a daily basis," Margaret said, adding that he is forever in all of their hearts.
Margaret also read a pen portrait written by her brother, John, who said Brendan was his "buddy" as well as his brother because there was not much between their ages, adding they always maintained a great relationship.
"I miss Brendan very much still. I look at his photos as he was then. He was just 23-years-old when we lost him, and I wonder what he would look like today.
"I look at myself now. I am in my 60s and my hair is grey, and I think to myself that he’d probably look just like me. I still talk to Brendan at his graveside and tell him I will treasure all my memories I have of him," John said.