Deaths of 48 people in 1981 Irish nightclub fire were unlawful killing, jury rules

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The deaths of 48 people in the worst fire in the history of Ireland have been ruled by a jury as unlawful killing.

A jury at Dublin District Coroner’s Court delivered majority verdicts on the victims of the 1981 Stardust nightclub fire in the city on Thursday.

The venue in Artane, north Dublin, was packed with around 800 people when the fire broke out in the early hours of Valentine’s Day.

The Stardust fire - Dublin, Ireland in the early hours of 14 February 1981. Some 800 people had attended a disco there, of whom 48 died and 214 were injured as a result of the fire.
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The Stardust fire took place in Dublin in the early hours of 14 February 1981. Pic: PA


More than 200 people were injured in the disaster.

Fresh inquests into the deaths, the longest held in Ireland, were ordered by the country’s attorney general in 2019, but only began last year.

Samantha's mother Helena was killed in the fire
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Samantha’s mother Helena was killed in the fire

A jury, made up of seven women and five men, delivered the verdict on Thursday after 11 days of deliberation.

Some family members of the victims jumped to their feet and clapped at the verdict, while others were moved to tears as they remained in their seat.

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Others embraced each other as soon as the foreman said “unlawful killing”.

The jury also established that the fire started as a result of an electrical fault in an airing cupboard.

In the ballroom, foam in the seating, the height of the ceiling in an alcove, and carpet tiles on the wall all contributed to the spread of the fire, the jurors found.

Several factors, including lack of visibility because of black smoke, the toxicity of the smoke or the gases, the heat of the fire, the speed of the fire’s spread, lack of staff preparedness and the failure of the emergency lighting system were all factors that impeded the victims in escaping the building.

Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane paid tribute to the “persistence and commitment” of the families who had campaigned for fresh inquests.

“To the families I acknowledge the deaths of these 48 young people is a source of ongoing grief to those who loved them and it remains the defining loss of their lives,” she said.

“However, I hope that family members will have taken some solace from the fact that these fresh inquests were held, that the facts surrounding the deaths were examined in detail, that moving testimony was heard from many of those involved in the events of the night and, most importantly, that you the families felt fully involved in proceedings, however difficult it was to hear all of the evidence.

“The fact that these inquests have been held at all is in no small part due to the persistence and commitment of families over the years.

“And, finally, we remember those 48 young people who lost their lives on that fateful night. It is their lives that we’ve sought to vindicate by way of these inquests.”

On Wednesday, the foreman told coroner Myra Cullinane they had been unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Ms Cullinane said she would accept a simple majority of seven and allowed the jury’s deliberations to continue.

Family members of victims of the Stardust tragedy along with supporters arriving at the Rotunda Foundation in Dublin for the 15th pre-inquest hearing in 2022. Pic: PA
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Family members of victims of the Stardust tragedy along with supporters arriving at the Rotunda Foundation in Dublin for the 15th pre-inquest hearing in 2022. Pic: PA

Pat Dunne held a picture of her brother as she remembered the moment her family found out the tragic news
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Pat Dunne’s brother died in the tragedy

A tribunal of inquiry set up soon after the fire found arson was the “probable” cause, something the families rejected as it appeared to blame those attending the disco and absolved the club’s owners.

This is despite evidence that exits in the ballroom were locked, chained or otherwise obstructed, which the jury confirmed this afternoon.

They were themselves awarded IR£581,000 compensation by a Dublin court in 1983.

But victims’ relatives kept pushing for a new investigation and, eventually, new inquests were announced, only for legal arguments and wrangling over juror pay to delay proceedings by a further four years.

Relatives of those killed in the Stardust fire gather at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin ahead of the first day of the inquest. The long-awaited inquest into the deaths of 48 people in the nightclub fire in Dublin will open later. The blaze at the Stardust Ballroom in Artane in the north of the city occurred in the early hours of Valentine's Day 1981. It was the worst fire disaster in the history of the Irish state. Picture date: Tuesday April 25, 2023.
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Relatives of those killed in the Stardust fire at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin ahead of the first day of the inquest. File pic

Ireland’s prime minister, Simon Harris, described the Stardust tragedy as “one of the darkest moments in our history”.

“A heartbreaking tragedy because of the lives that were lost, the families that were changed forever, and the long, drawn-out struggle for justice that followed,” he said.

In a statement after a jury at inquests into the deaths of the 48 people in the Dublin nightclub disaster in 1981 returned a verdict of unlawful killing, Mr Harris remembered those who lost their lives and paid tribute to their families for pursuing truth and justice “to ensure that such a disaster never happens again”.

He said the Irish government will consider the verdict in full, and the recommendations of the jury.

“I want to acknowledge and thank the coroner, and her team and the jurors,” he said.

“48 young people never came home that night, but as Taoiseach I want to say this to their families; You never gave up on justice for them, you never let Ireland forget about them. They were never alone, and our country owes you a great debt for that.”

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