‘We were ignored, told we were liars ... not any more’: Stardust families await State apology

About 40 family members who lost loved ones in the disaster will meet the Taoiseach at Government Buildings on Saturday morning

The Stardust families “will not be ignored any more”, Antoinette Keegan, survivor of the disaster and driving force behind a four-decade campaign for justice, said on Friday.

Speaking in advance of a planned meeting with Taoiseach Simon Harris, Ms Keegan, who lost her sisters Mary (19) and Martina (16) in the inferno, said the families wanted an apology acknowledging “we were put through 43 years of unnecessary, systematic abuse by the State”.

The families “knew quite well in 1981 that what was done to us and all the people who died was unlawful”, she said, “but we were ignored; we were told we were liars; we were told we were mad”.

“Well, we were not mad. We were sad. We told the truth from the very beginning – all the letters, all the documents, all the correspondence. We will not be ignored any more,” she said. “I was 18 when Stardust happened. I have not lived since then. I have fought, and the State is going to have to recognise it did that to me.”


She, along with about 40 others who lost loved ones in the disaster, will meet the Taoiseach at Government Buildings on Saturday morning to discuss an apology. It has been the venue for many disappointments for the families.

In January 2009, Ms Keegan, her late mother Christine Keegan, and Gertrude Barrett, who lost her son Michael (17) in the blaze, staged a four-day sit-in at the security hut demanding publication of the Coffey report. Then barrister Paul Coffey (now a High Court judge) had submitted his report in December 2008. It said the finding in the 1981 Tribunal of Investigation chaired by Mr Justice Ronan Keane, that the fire’s “probable” cause was arson and that it started on a seat in the West alcove of the venue, was not safe.

Mr Coffey recommended “arson” be removed from the public record, which it was by the Houses of the Oireachtas that year.

Though this brought elation to the families – removing the insinuated criminalisation of their loved ones – it left them without a cause for the fire. The families continued on, gathering more evidence in particular that the fire was present in the roof space before it was seen on a seat. The recent inquests vindicated this.

Their evidence was assessed by retired judge, Pat McCartan in 2017. His 49-page report concluded no new investigation was “warranted” – a bitter disappointment to the families and, many observers thought, the end of the road for them.

Speaking to media outside Government Buildings however in November 2017, Antoinette Keegan had a different view. “If they think for one minute in there this is going to knock us, [that] we’re going no further, they have another thing coming. Because we are not stopping,” she said.

She and others had not stopped since 1981. Even as the shell of the Stardust smouldered on the morning of February 14th that year, the survivors and the people of Artane and surrounding areas knew the young people had lost their lives because they could not safely get out of the building as it became engulfed in flames.

They knew the venue’s exit doors had been locked or otherwise obstructed; that windows at the front had been sealed shut with metal plates and bars; that the fire spread with lightning rapidity up carpet-tiled walls; and that no member of staff had been trained or equipped to respond in the face of the catastrophe.

Following the blow the McCartan report dealt them, it was an election flyer from then MEP Lynn Boylan that prompted Ms Barrett to hope the families could look beyond Ireland for justice.

Ms Boylan, then in Cairo with Belfast-based solicitor Darragh Mackin working on the Ibrahim Halawa case, returned Ms Barrett’s call. She later invited families to Strasbourg and introduced them to Mr Mackin.

His experience working on legacy inquests in Northern Ireland, including the 2018 Ballymurphy inquests into the deaths of 10 people who were shot during a British army operation in west Belfast in August 1971, convinced him the venue for justice for the Stardust families would be in a coroner’s court. The 1982 inquests had lasted about 15 minutes each and returned verdicts based on medical evidence only.

In his submission to then attorney general Séamus Woulfe, Mr Mackin argued the original inquests “cannot be considered to have been an effective or adequate mechanism for the purposes of investigating how the deaths came about”.

All our hurt, our pain, our loss was compounded because the State made us feel we basically meant nothing

—  Susan Behan, whose brother John Colgan (21) died

In September 2019, Mr Woulfe agreed, directing fresh inquests be held. There had been “no reference to the surrounding circumstances” of the deaths, “in particular the cause or causes of the fire... at the original inquests”, he said.

The inquests opened in April 2023 culminating on Thursday with the final verdict of unlawful killing in respect of all 48 who lost their lives.

Maurice Frazer, whose sister Thelma (20) died in the fire, will be at Government Buildings on Saturday with other families. An apology must “acknowledge there was huge hurt done to us. There needs to be acknowledgment there was a huge lack of respect shown to us, to our loved ones who died and our parents who didn’t get to see this,” he said.

Susan Behan, whose brother John Colgan (21) died, will tell Mr Harris she wants acknowledgment that “a huge wrong has been done to us”.

“We were left in the wilderness. All our hurt, our pain, our loss was compounded because the State made us feel we basically meant nothing. They turned their back on us and that did so much harm. That was so unnecessary, so disrespectful.

“Such a huge injustice has been done especially to the mothers and fathers who did not live to see the verdicts. I think of mothers like Gertrude [Barrett] and Christine [Keegan] who were made to walk the pavements, spend their lives fighting. Any apology has to recognise the State did that to them.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times