Stardust verdicts: ‘Cathartic’ release for families who sought justice

There was a moment before the jury returned their verdicts into the 1981 Stardust tragedy where time seemed to stand still.

For families who had campaigned for years for justice and who attended the emotional and lengthy inquest, it was all down to this moment.

The relatives of the young people who died in the fire that ripped through a north Dublin nightclub on Valentine’s Day 40 years ago packed into the ornate Pillar Room located on the Rotunda hospital’s grounds.

Stardust nightclub fire inquest
Survivors and family members gathered in the Garden of Remembrance (Brian Lawless/PA)

Chairs that had been used by barristers and solicitors were given up so that the families could sit down, and the coroner’s staff brought in chairs from adjoining rooms to seat more people.

As the names of the 48 people who died were read out, families sat and listened intently.

Some hugged photos of their lost loved one.

As the verdict on the deaths was left to the very end, every step of the jury’s findings was a step towards the truth families had fought for. When it was heard that there was the same verdict for all 48 families, there was a nod of heads.

As details of the deaths of each young person were read out, family members reached out to squeeze and clasp each others’ hands.

As the jury foreman confirmed that the fire originated from an electrical fault in the hot press of the nightclub, family members appeared to breathe sighs of relief.

When the jury foreman went on to confirm their verdict that the carpet tiles on the walls were a contributory factor to the spread of the fire, and that some people had been impeded in their ability to exit the nightclub due to locked, chained or obstructed exits, and that this was a contributory factor in some of the deaths, family members sighed once more.

As soon as the foreman said “unlawful” killing, decades of grief and frustration were released as family members yelled in triumph, jumped to their feet and punched the air.

Stardust survivor Antoinette Keegan
Stardust survivor Antoinette Keegan lost her two sisters Mary and Martina (Brian Lawless/PA)

They shouted “yes”, cried, blew kisses to each other and blessed themselves.

Others sat in their seats as their eyes welled up and some members of the jury also became emotional.

“It took so long to get to the final verdict, but the sense of relief, it was overwhelming, when that unlawful killing verdict was delivered,” said Senator Lynn Boylan, who has made representations on behalf of the families.

“It was cathartic, you could see the shouts, the cries, the sobbing. They’ve waited an awful long time for this and they have been vindicated in that fight.”

The coroner thanked the jury for their service, stating that “the passing of years hasn’t diminished the horror of some of the evidence that you have heard”.

At that point, families of the victims stood up in unison and applauded the jury members at length, with one man shouting “thank you”.

As proceedings concluded, the room became a bustle of congratulations between the families and their legal team.

At one point, the families held a banner with “Truth” written on it near a poster of all 48 victims which hung on a wall in the Pillar Room during the year-long inquest.

As the families emerged together from the Pillar Room, a cloud over their lives lifted, and they walked up to the Garden of Remembrance to the tune of You’ll Never Walk Alone by Gerry and The Pacemakers.

A taxi driver pulled over and leaned out the window to applaud them as they slowly marched away from the inquest room.