How a tragedy unfolded in the Irish Times
When a taxi driver phoned the Irish Times in the middle of the night to report that the Stardust was on fire with lots of people inside, there was just one novice reporter on duty. She dropped everything and rushed to the scene. This is how successive editions of the paper reported the story throughout the nightThe country edition (2am)
The first edition of the Irish Times on St Valentine's Day 1981, a Saturday, carried nothing about the fire. Conor Brady, the night editor at the time, had approved the country, or “Special” edition of the paper, and had left for the night. It went to press at around 2am.
A picture of a young Maire Geoghegan-Quinn dominated the front page – with a massive poster of Charles Haughey in the background – along with coverage of that weekend's Fianna Fáil ard-fheis. Haughey was telling his party to be ready for an upcoming General Election. Political correspondent Dick Walsh warned that Haughey's speech would be “the longest in the history of Fianna Fáil.”
Elsewhere on the page, Ian Paisley referred to the ard-fheis, saying “that son of an IRA gunman from Swatragh” would be addressing his party's conference, and predicted that “he will once more spew out his venom and hate towards Ulster.” The Irish pound had slumped against the dollar, gardaí were urging the introduction of the death penalty, and Paddy Madigan had been made manager of the Irish rugby team to tour South Africa.
Maev-Ann Wren, a 23-year-old reporter who had been staff in the Times for just a year, was doing the night-shift as part of a skeleton team. Generally, her job was to ring up the Garda and Fire Brigade and see if anything was going on, but usually it was quiet.
She answered a call. It was a taxi driver, saying there was a fire at the Stardust in Artane and that a of people inside.
“Even I knew enough, at that stage, to get into a taxi and go out to see what was going on,” she says. She rang her news editor, Conor O'Clery, and headed out.
It wasn't until she saw a stream of ambulances passing with their sirens blaring that she realised the seriousness of what was happening.
The first journalist on the scene, she was taken aback by what she saw. “My memory is of crowds of young people, very distressed, stumbling about. I wasn't much older than them. There were crowds of gardaí as well, trying to prevent ambulances being blocked. And as the word got out, parents, brothers and sisters began appearing.
“I went up to people and asked them what had happened. Most were in shock, but they talked freely. I went up to a garda, and asked him if there was a centre of operations, but there wasn't. It was just chaos.”
With no mobile phones at that time and no public telephone in sight, Wren spotted a house with its lights on, and knocked on the door. The house would be used by journalists for the rest of the night. She telephoned her copy into the office, where all the necessary staff had been called in by an experienced subeditor, Joe Breen.
The 3am edition
The main headline of the next edition, at 3.30am, read: “At least 25 dead in fire in city club.” It reported that: “At least 25 people were dead and over 40 injured after a fire swept through a northside Dublin club, The Stardust, early this morning.
“A Garda spokesman at Coolock Garda Station said that stage two of the major disaster plan has been brought into effect and that six of the major Dublin hospitals were now on full alert. Every ambulance and fire brigade available was going to the scene of the fire.”
The picture of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was still there, but the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis story had been relegated to further down the page.
A disco dancing competition had been taking place, the paper reported, and the fire broke out shortly after 1.30am. Wren reported from the scene that the DJ had said: “There is a slight problem. Please don't panic.”
The report continued: “Heavy black smoke which rapidly resulted from the red leather seats going on fire resulted in most people being overcome. Tina O'Reilly, from Ballymun, described how people were trampled underfoot. [Eye-witnesses] were convinced that many young people had been burnt in the toilet where they were trapped.
“Frank Brennan [who had attended the disco] had seen many young people screaming and trapped by flames in the toilets. He said they were ‘dead, burned'. He said the only window to the toilet had steel bars and could not be broken... A continuous stream of ambulances rushed into the city and from the city centre... Taxi drivers in the city had been warned to prepare to collect blood.”
A survivor at hospital was reported as saying: “The blaze started just ot the left of the stage, the place went in up five minutes just like a puff of smoke... I was getting my coat. That is how I was saved from being burned alive.”
The 4.30am edition
A slightly fuller account of what had taken place was in place in the 4.30am edition of the Irish Times, as Wren supplied further copy, and was joined by more journalists from the Times. The death toll had risen to 40. Two photographs showed bodies being removed from the Stardust, covered in blankets – Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was removed from the page, and there was just a passing reference to the Fianna Fáil ard-fheis in a side column.
“Some eye-witnesses claimed that several of the fire exits were chained could not be opened,” the paper reported.
The 6am edition
By the 6am edition, the Stardust story had taken over almost the entire of the front page. A picture of the two DJs who played that night, one with blackened face, accompanied another photograph of a body on stretcher being lifted into an ambulance. “At least 44 die in club blaze.”
Wren had returned to the office by this stage. She hadn't realised the extent of the deaths. “I walked in and Conor O'Clery could see I was about to break down. ‘Don't say anything,' he said. ‘Just write.'”
Her piece, seperate from the main article, described the scene as she had seen it, and contained more eye-witness accounts. “‘We were dancing... I was in the toilet and we left. Then we saw the flames. The people left in the toilet were trapped. They couldn't get out. There were steel windows on the bars.' And I asked: ‘So what happened then?' ‘They were burnt... dead.'”
The main article, credied to Wren, Denis Coghlan and Colm Boland, had more information. “At the scene there was panic among the survivors who in hysteria attacked some gardaí and cameramen. One RTÉ cameraman Mr Sean Burke, was kicked and beaten by an angry crowd,” the paper said. The owner of the club was identified as Mr Patrick Butterly. “Fianna Fáil TD Bertie Ahern said at the scene that some friends of his had gone there for a reunion party. He had been unable to find out if they had all got out.”
“A garda at the scene said some of the bodies they had seen were badly charred. They had been ‘burnt to the bone', he said... A fire brigade officer said there was panic and young people trying to escape from the club were unable to open the emergency exit doors... A Garda spokesman at Coolock said ‘I could hear people screaming through our radio in the police station. There was pure panic with people fleeing in all directions. There were ghastly scenes at the club. It went up very quickly and it was burnt out.'... A Franciscan Friar who had been on sick call in the area spent from 2.00am to 4.00am with the bodies at the back of the building anointing them. He said he hadn't counted them and some seemed ‘terribly small'”
The 7am edition
Maev-Ann Wren and some others went for something to eat after the final edition had gone to print at 7am, with the headline telling that 45 people had died. They heard What it says in the papers on the radio. It was then that what had happened began to hit home with those who weren't there. “It was the worst, most upsetting thing I ever covered, and I subsequently worked in Northern Ireland,” she says.