Stardust inquest: ‘The first dance he ever went to was also to be his last’

A member of Dublin Fire Brigade walks through the ruins of the Stardust Ballroom

Ryan Dunne

The sister of a 17-year-old boy who was killed in the Stardust fire has told the inquest how he had only started to socialise and that “sadly the first dance he ever went to was also to his last”.

Donna O’Connor said the trauma of the death of her beloved brother George 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,” said Donna as she delivered a pen portrait of George at the Dublin District Coroner’s Court today.

George was one of the 48 victims of the Stardust fire who lost their lives when the flames swept through the nightclub in Artane in the early hours of February 14, 1981.

"He may be just a body number on the inquest list, but to us, he was the first born, a grandson, a big brother, a nephew, a cousin and a loyal friend to those who knew him,” Donna told the jury.

Families welcome fresh Stardust fire inquest

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 such comics and films as Star Wars, Star Trek, and War of the Worlds. Donna said the family still have many of his notebooks of 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.”

Donna said she then headed off to bed that night with not a care in the world, only to be woken by utter chaos. She recalled 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 that 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.”

The jury also heard a pen portrait of Brendan O’Meara, who was 23 when he died. The portrait of Brendan, written by his siblings, was presented by his sister, Margaret Smith, who described him 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,” said Margaret, 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, and 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,” said John.

This afternoon, the brother of a 19-year-old man who died in the fire said it destroyed his grieving parents, adding that the manner in which things were “pushed under the carpet” in the wake of the disaster was "an insult to everyone who died and all those loved ones who were affected”.

“We can’t change our past, but we should learn to accept that the way this was handled was wrong and could have been avoided,” Alan Morton today told the jury at the Dublin District Coroner’s Court, during a pen portrait of his brother, David.

“David, or ‘Chesty’ as he was known to his mates, was six years older than me, so from my perspective there was no getting away from the fact that he would always be the big brother and we were very much like chalk and cheese,” said Alan.

He revealed that football-mad David got the nickname ‘Chesty’ as he was happier having a shirt covered in mud than having a dirty ball mess his mane of dark hair. Alan said that their parents, especially their mum, pushed David to stay on at school to get a good education and job, but David had other ideas, as all he wanted to do was leave and get a job.

“He was suddenly starting to have an interest in clothes, music and girls and knew the only way he could have these was with a job as things were tight back then for my parents,” said Alan.

“I’m sure David had plans to eventually settle down, but again, he was only 19 when he died and had a whole life ahead of him.”

Alan said he will always remember the night his parents received news of a fire in the Stardust. He said that his brother wore a David’s star around his neck, and it was this item that was used to identify him.

“I’m sure my parents did everything they could to hold it together, but I could see the effect and impact it was having as the days progressed,” he said.

“No parent ever wants to bury a child. We all try to be strong but no matter what, I don’t believe any parent will ever get over it. I know for a fact that the death of my brother destroyed my mum and of course my dad. Both tried to deal with it as best they could. Unfortunately, back then the support probably wasn’t what it’s like today.”

He said that the family dealt with the situation as best they could. Their mother tried her best, but their father struggled, and being “a typical Irishman” meant bottling everything up inside.

“We would visit the grave every Sunday. I hated it, I didn’t understand, but deep down I wanted to support my parents,” said Alan.

“I always think of my brother when I return to Dublin. I make every effort to visit the grave and have a chat; it’s not something that comes naturally. The funny thing is I never celebrated Valentine’s Day, even to this day it’s doesn’t interest me. Luckily, I have an understanding wife,” he said.

Alan said that the fire and subsequent death of his brother destroyed his parents, but the way the whole thing was just “pushed under the carpet” was an insult to everyone who died and all those loved ones who were affected.

“I just want someone to accept that what happened was a dreadful event that could have been avoided. I want the memory of everyone who died to be remembered and honoured and hopefully for all the families affected to get some closure,” said Alan, concluding: “We can’t change our past, but we should learn to accept that the way this was handled was wrong and could have been avoided.”

The jury also heard a pen portrait of Kathleen Muldoon, presented by her brother, Hugh, who described his sister as a very mature young girl, good-natured, thoughtful and helpful at all times to her family. He said Kathleen got on well with all her school friends and went on social nights out, and she loved football and music.

“My mother went to the local village and heard about a terrible fire that happened in Dublin, not realising at the time that her own daughter was in the fire. We had no house phone at the time. Kathleen’s remains were confirmed by her uncle a few days later,” said Hugh.

“Life very much changed for everyone in our house that day. Going to a disco or a social event was difficult. Going anywhere indoors was a nerve-wracking experience for our parents, who would be waiting for you to come home in anticipation.”

Hugh said that Kathleen is remembered every day by their family, and she is remembered on her birthday, on Christmas, on her anniversary and at family events.

“Kathleen would have pursued her career in nursing, got married and had her own family. Looking after and caring for people is something she loved. Kathleen was a go-to person in our family growing up and very helpful to her mother and father,” said Hugh.

“We, as a family, want the truth to come out as to what happened and why this has taken so long. Making television programmes about it and newspaper stories is no help to the families.”

Hugh concluded by saying: “We’re asking that the truth comes out, and it’s a long time to wait. Let the deceased rest and the families rest.”