Stardust review: Excellent documentary that quite rightly conveys the full horror of that night

Television: Three-part film’s strength comes in never falling into ghoulishness or sensationalism

By necessity, Stardust (RTÉ One, Sunday – Tuesday) makes for harrowing viewing. The three-part documentary about the Stardust fire and its scandalous aftermath contains horrific descriptions of the dead – of bodies still licked by flames as they were lined up outside the nightclub by emergency services, of family members unable to identify loved ones, so extensive were the injuries.

There is eyewitness testimony, too, from survivors who saw the club in Artane, Dublin, engulfed by flames on Valentine’s night 1981. On that dreadful evening, 48 people died, 214 were injured – while countless others would bear the emotional scars for life.

“The flames was going across the ceiling then there was a gush of fire and it was like the material from the ceiling was falling on fire,” recalls Phyllis Campbell, who worked as a lounge girl in the club.

“The lights went out ... People screaming, glasses smashing, the roars of the fire – so we held on to each other and we went through the bar – I slipped and fell. I remember my aunt asking if it is really, really bad – and she saying half of Coolock is gone.”

It’s hard to watch. But it is only proper that the full horror is conveyed so that viewers can understand the suffering of the families and the importance of their fight for justice. Crucially the film, aired over three nights, is never ghoulish or sensationalist. The dead are not reduced to statistics but presented as loved sons and daughters.

“In a way, we didn’t know then what the scale of the tragedy was, how many people had died and the numbers who were injured,” recalls Charlie Bird, the late RTÉ reporter who covered the Stardust and who was interviewed about it before his death this March.

Charlie Haughey [the mercurial Taoiseach and local TD] arrives, and the most bizarre thing of all is that we walked through the Stardust. We were allowed in – talk about forensics, it’s the most bizarre thing. We were actually allowed to trudge through it.”

Alongside the horror, the viewer will feel anger at how the families were treated. A 1981 tribunal presided over by High Court judge Ronan Keane stated the fire was a result of “probable arson”. The owners and managers of the nightclub, the Butterly family, later took a case against the State and were awarded £580,000 compensation for “malicious damage”.

This was a stomach-turning example of victim blaming, and the families were understandably appalled. While the owners of the Stardust received hundreds of thousands, those families were fobbed off with just £5,000 for a dead child.

You can’t put a price on the death of a loved one – but the State did so and added to the trauma of the families and the survivors. “You were told to strip off and show your scars. You had to stand in front of three people to show your injuries,” recalls one survivor. “They decided we’ll give you x amount. We were told you don’t speak about this again.”

Why were they treated in this way? One reason is that this is how power works in Ireland – the further you are from the centre, the less you matter. But class was also a component: if you came from a working-class community, your life was judged to be worth less than that of someone from a more “respectable” background.

“These people are living in a working-class area,” says journalist Ken Curran of the unsubstantiated theory that the blaze was started deliberately. “Sure, what else would they do? [But start the fire]. It suited the agenda. Let’s get this over and done with. Let’s move on. ”

However, if the State wanted to move on, the families refused to give up. The long fight for justice is covered in episode three, which concludes with this year’s reopened inquest into the Stardust. We accompany Bridget McDermott, who lost three children in the fire and whose marriage subsequently unravelled when her husband tried to numb his grief with alcohol.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “It took three of my kids who just went out to enjoy themselves.”

But she never stopped fighting. In April, she and the other families were finally vindicated when a jury concluded the dead had been victims of unlawful killing. Justice had been served – though far too late and without anyone held accountable. This excellent documentary stands as a powerful indictment of a state and a society that let the families for decades suffer and which had to be shamed into doing the right thing.

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