stardust baby Harrowing extracts from new book by Lisa Lawlor, who lost her mum and dad in tragic Stardust fire
As the 40th anniversary of the Stardust Tragedy approaches, the Sunday World publishes the first extract of a book written by Lisa Lawlor, who lost her mum and dad to a fire the city will never forget.
Lisa Lawlor lost both her parents to the worst fire tragedy in the history of the State - a loss that stays with her every single day because she and other relatives of the Stardust Tragedy are still waiting for answers about what really happened.
Now, on the 40th anniversary, in a bid to let some healing begin, Lisa tells the story of that tragic evening and how it shaped her life in her new book, Stardust Baby.
Her mum and dad, Francis and Maureen Lawlor, were young and in love. They had been married a few years and were besotted with their baby girl.
After Lisa's birth, Francis and Maureen rarely went out at night, but a friend persuaded them to go for a few drinks at the Stardust, leaving their 17-month-old daughter with a babysitter. They never came home.
In the wake of the disaster, Lisa's paternal grandparents stepped in and took care of her. For a family living in the heart of inner-city Dublin, in the midst of the heroin epidemic of the 1980s, it was tough.
Lisa's grandparents tried to fill the gaping hole in her life with gifts, but nothing really helped - and inevitably resentment started to simmer in the extended family.
As several members of her family succumbed to addiction and crime, she suffered emotional abuse at the hands of a family member and struggled to find her own path in a community rife with heroin and social problems.
Stardust Baby is the heartbreaking story of a woman whose every waking moment has taken place in the shadow of those awful flames, and of an extended family that toppled into dysfunction in the face of tragedy.
I know that my parents loved me. "You were the light of their life," my family told me. "They were totally smitten with their baby girl. The only wonder is that they went out at all that night; they never liked to leave you. Your mammy just danced attendance on you all the time, as if you were the most perfect baby in the world."
I was just a little tot, aged a year and a half, when my parents died, but I have heard so much about them and that awful night, that sometimes it feels as though I had been there myself; as though I saw the fire, smelled its fumes, and heard it crackle as it destroyed the Stardust and all those young lives.
My aunts and other members of the family told me endless stories about them - Maureen and Francis - and I have been able to piece together much of what happened on the last night of their young lives, that cold February night.
Disco dancing was still big at the time, and a lot of the young people from north Dublin entered contests at the Stardust, vying to be the best dancer in the nightclub and go home with a trophy.
The Stardust in Artane, opposite the Artane Castle Shopping Centre, was the trendiest venue in north Dublin and all the young people flocked there to dance and strut their stuff to the latest tunes by groups like Madness, Queen and Spandau Ballet.
The club was huge, with two bars, a dance floor, a stage, and areas for seating. Maureen, despite her misgivings, was tempted by the prospect of a night out.
She had had her pretty blonde hair blow-dried and sprayed and she had a lovely new outfit ready to go.
Francis took his wedding ring off and put it on top of the telly before they went out, to keep it safe. There were 846 young people crammed into the disco that cold night, all dressed up, excited, and having a great time. The scents of Brut cologne and Charlie perfume filled the air.
Maureen and Francis had planned to come home early to let the babysitter off, but they were having so much fun that they stayed on later than they had originally intended; they did not want to miss the dance competition, which was still in full swing at one in the morning.
At about half-past one, a girl sitting in the area known to management as the West Alcove noticed that it was suddenly getting very hot, and she assumed that the heating had just been turned on.
A few people noticed smoke, and then flames, in an unoccupied area of the nightclub, but the management and staff still had no idea that something was wrong.
Minutes later, more people started becoming aware of the flames beginning to lick the backs of the chairs in the area where they were sitting. The management was alerted to the situation, and after a few minutes the music stopped. "There's no reason to panic," the DJ said over the speaker system.
The lights then went out, but the staff emerged with lit candles, and continued to reassure everyone.
At 1:42am a young man called Peter O'Toole used the only telephone on the premises to dial 999 to report the theft of his girlfriend's handbag to the guards. While he was making the report, he noticed the fire and it was recorded in the police transcript, as were the screams and cries of the dancers as they suddenly realised what was happening.
A woman who lived about 200m away saw the flames outside several minutes before anyone inside was aware that something was wrong, and she called the fire brigade. A brigade was dispatched, but long before it could reach the discotheque, the flames had burst through the flammable ceiling, which was now melting and dripping on to the young people below, setting the seating and carpets on fire as well as the disco patrons' clothing and lacquered hair.
Everyone panicked and started clambering over one another, screaming and roaring, desperately trying to escape. For many, the attempt to escape was fruitless, as several of the fire doors were padlocked, and the windows in the toilets had iron bars that made them impossible to escape through.
The fire brigade tried but failed to remove the bars from outside, while the disco patrons who were stuck inside screamed and begged for help, grabbing at the bars even though they were too hot to touch and seared their flesh. Many had made it safely outside, but for the moment nobody knew who was still in the fire or what was happening to them.
Francis, my dad, managed to get out of the inferno and into the cold night air. He started to run around, looking for Maureen among the huddled groups of young people standing outside in a state of shock while the fire brigade did its best to keep the situation calm.
"Has anyone seen Maureen?" Francis asked the panic- stricken teenagers. "Where's my Maureen?"
None of them knew who Maureen was. They just shook their heads. Some of them were crying and unable to speak at all. Francis soon realised that Maureen was not there. She was still inside."I'm going back in," Francis said. "I'm going to get her."
Francis filled his lungs with air and ran back into the fire. Nobody tried to stop him.
Neither Francis nor Maureen came out again.
When the news came on the radio that evening that there was a terrible fire at the Stardust, the teenage girl who had been hired to mind me ran out of the house in a panic, because one of her family members was at the disco. In her fright, she must have completely forgotten about me, or maybe she assumed that someone else would come to take care of me in her absence. I was all alone until 11 the next morning, when my mother's parents, Paddy and Elizabeth Farrell, came to get me. By that stage, I was in a state of utter panic. My nappy was full, and I was standing in my cot and screaming, beating my little head against the bars as though I knew that something terrible had happened.
- Lisa Lawlor is donating a percentage of her share of the sales of Stardust Baby to National Family Support Network, fsn.ie, an umbrella group which supports family members who live with substance abuse.
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