Truth and Justice for the Stardust 48

By Mary Moynihan

June 2024


48 people lost their lives and 214 were injured in the Stardust fire in Artane, Dublin in the early hours of 14 February (Valentine’s Day), 1981. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the Irish state. Countless others suffered loss and devastation. The families, friends, and survivors of the Stardust Tragedy have spent decades campaigning, canvassing, and fundraising to get a proper inquest in their search for the truth and for justice, and now, finally, in 2024, they have accomplished their goal.

In 1981, an inquiry under Mr Justice Ronan Keane said the cause of the blaze was ‘probable arson.’ Despite the lack of proof, the implication was that the fire started on the seats, possibly by someone who was at the event that night. Many did not agree, and all of the families contested this. This decision exonerated the owners of the Stardust building, the Butterlys, as well as Dublin City Council (then known as Dublin Corporation), and the Irish State. This was despite the fact that the building, owned by Eamon Butterly, most likely had locked chains on fire exits and iron bars on windows, and, as a result, many young people were trapped in the fire and unable to get out. Countless died from inhaling poisonous gases from materials used in the building, and many materials in the building were highly flammable.

To put the blame back on the community was wrong. In the RTÉ Stardust documentary, a family member who had lost a daughter in the fire said, ‘our children were criminalised as arsonists.’ It was a shocking decision for the families and entire community, and a second travesty of justice.

Speaking about the case, Tony McCullough, co-author of They Never Came Home said that the families never gave up. He said that ‘they felt that because they were working-class communities they were treated differently, they weren’t treated with the same respect that perhaps more affluent areas of Ireland would have been dealt with by the authorities.’

The Taoiseach at the time, Charles Haughey, was friends with the Butterlys. The Stardust manager Eamon Butterly received £581,000 in compensation from the Irish state for ‘malicious damages’ and the lawyers were paid over £463,500. This was many years before any family member or survivors who had been injured received any compensation. In May 1985, the Stardust Victims’ Committee was established by John Keegan, who had lost two daughters in the fire. While there was a compensation tribunal in the late 1980s for the families, any applicants had to ‘discontinue any legal actions against the Butterlys or the State’. It seemed to be a way to silence people. On top of that, families were offered £5,000 for the death of a child. It was a shocking way to treat people.

Campaigns by the families for a new inquiry continued, but it was not until 2008 that a senior council Paul Coffey was appointed to look into evidence as part of a new independent assessment. The result of this new report was that the original ‘probable arson’ verdict should be struck from the public record. The Irish government acknowledged that, at this point, the cause of the fire was unknown and, very importantly, none of the victims or people present at the Stardust could be held responsible for the fire. It took the families 28 years to have this acknowledged, to have arson ruled out and to have the blame taken away from the young people.

The onus was now on the state to find out what happened. However, they were slow in doing so. Because of the campaigning by the families, a retired judge, Mr Justice Pat McCartain, was appointed to review the evidence. In 2017, he reported that there was no scope for a new inquiry. This was a huge shock. Nevertheless, the families joined forces with solicitors Phoenix Law and continued to campaign to find out the truth. Even now, many of them have spent half their lives campaigning for justice. They have been steadfast in their fight and search for the truth of what happened to their loved ones and, if the evidence stands up, for people to be held accountable for the atrocity that night.

At this stage, the decision for a new inquest lay with the attorney general. The firm Phoenix Law submitted a submission for a second, ‘fresh’ inquest in 2019 on behalf of Antoinette Keegan and relatives of 42 of the 48 people who died. They even conducted a postcard campaign including 48,000 postcards printed with the word ‘truth’ on one side. Finally, a new inquest was ordered by the Attorney General that year. According to solicitor Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law in the RTÉ series Stardust, one of the possible outcomes the families were seeking was a verdict of unlawful killing, but ‘that was met with huge resistance by lawyers who represent Mr Butterly,’ the former manager of the Stardust premises. Butterly’s lawyers wanted the courts to rule that a verdict of unlawful killing should not be open to the jury at a new inquest. The High Court rejected this challenge and said the verdict of unlawful killing would be allowed to be on the table as part of a new inquest.

Mackin described the first inquest as lasting only a very short time, and he said it was ‘ineffective’ and ‘not thorough’. It determined only that people died as a result of burning at the Stardust fire. The model to be used for the new inquest would be different, as it was modelled on the development of the European Convention on Human Rights and had more ‘teeth’. This model was also used in legacy cases in Northern Ireland and in the case of the Hillsborough tragedy.

The second inquest opened in 2023 and lasted a year. As part of the new inquest, the families were able to do ‘pen portraits’ before a coroner and a jury. This involved family members giving a description of the family member they lost. The goal of this inquest was fact-finding and not a trial. The verdict came on 18 April, 2024. It established two main points: the cause of the fire was an electrical fault in the hot press, and that exits were locked, chained, and obstructed. The verdict was ‘unlawful killing’. In the RTÉ Stardust document, one of the family members said the verdict was ‘for them. For the 48.’ The Irish state offered a formal apology to the families. However, the families were not fully satisfied and following this, they still continued to campaign for accountability.

I lived in Coolock at the time, not too far from the Stardust building. On the night of the Stardust Valentine’s Disco, February 13, 1981, I was 15. I remember begging my mother to let me go to the disco, as it was where all the young people went and I had friends who were attending. But my mother said I was too young. We had a big row. She wouldn’t let me go, but promised I would be allowed to attend the following year.

This was not my first introduction to the Stardust building though. Prior to that, I had attended the Stardust venue for children’s discos which had been held there on Sunday afternoons, and I knew the place well. Furthermore, my parents would socialise with their friends in the pub attached to the Stardust building. On Sunday, 15 January, 1981, four weeks before the fire, I attended a gig by The Beat and The Specials which was held in the same Stardust ballroom where the fire would take place weeks later. The gig was attended by hundreds of young people. That night, I remember walking down a corridor to one of the fire exits. We could clearly see a closed lock on a large chain wrapped around the door’s bar, preventing us from opening the door fully. A bouncer saw us at the exit and moved us on, but he made no effort to remove the lock and chain. The fire exit remained locked.

Within our community, many people knew someone who had survived the tragedy, died in the tragedy, or lost a close family member due to the tragedy. Within my own close circle, one of our friends lost his sister. As a community, we witnessed funeral after funeral after funeral. I remember going to school in the weeks after and students in class would suddenly start crying and stand up and walk out with nothing else said. Families mourned. People cried openly in the streets. It was devastating for the whole community, but especially for the families and friends who lost loved ones.

The loss of 48 young lives in the Stardust fire was tragic. The way in which the families and community were treated in the years and decades after was unacceptable – a travesty of justice. In the RTÉ Stardust Documentary, Tony McCullagh, co-author of They Never Came Home, said ‘they were treated like dirt.’ The Stardust documentary series is a moving account of what happened to the young people and their families. It is a testament to the bravery, stoicism, courage, and determination of all the families and friends who never gave up in their fight for justice.

When you witness the calibre of character, the courage and dignity of the families and survivors, it is an inspiration to all. I myself moved to Coolock when I was five and lived there until I was 18, and I am very proud to have grown up there on the northside of Dublin. While I realised the families of those who died or were injured had been badly treated for years after the Stardust tragedy, I did not realise the extent to which this happened. But now I know. It was shocking. It should never have happened.

In memory of the 48 young people who died:


Stardust Pen Portraits: The Stardust Victims Remembered

A digital project on made up of family pen portraits to honor those who died.



A three-part documentary series telling the full and unvarnished story of the Stardust nightclub fire and the 43-year search for justice undertaken by the families of those killed in the fire.


Christ Moore Song: They Never Came Home


They Never Came Home: The Stardust Story by Neil Fetherstonhaugh and Tony McCullagh

Merlin Publishing.


Stardust Baby by Lisa Lawlor

Foreword by Kitty Holland.  Mirror Books.



A film directed by Gerard Walsh


Families, friends, and survivors of the Stardust fire remembering and honouring the 48 young victims after the verdict of unlawful killing was announced on 18 April 2024.