The Stardust disaster, in which 48 young people died and more than 200 were injured when a fire ripped through a nightclub in Dublin's northside in the early 1980s, is seared into the hearts and memories of a generation.

But 40 years on, survivors and families of those who perished in one of the worst fires in the history of the State, are still looking for answers as to what happened on that night.

On 13 February 1981, more than 800 people packed into the Stardust Ballroom in the north Dublin suburb of Artane for a Valentine's disco.

The Stardust was one of the places to be and events like this were a social highlight for a generation of young people who were living in a country racked with unemployment and emigration.

A disco dancing contest was being held in the Stardust on the night. At around 1.30am, as the winners took to the main stage to demonstrate their moves, the fire was first spotted.

But people danced on, some thinking it was the dry ice that was usually released from the DJ box.

Within minutes the fire could be seen spreading across upholstered seats and plywood tables, up carpet tiled walls and along the ceiling.

The ceiling collapsed, the lights failed and thick black smoke engulfed the ballroom.

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Explained: The Stardust Disaster

People made their way in the dark, and with difficulty breathing, to the nearest door. While most managed to escape through the main entrance, others made for the emergency exits.

But some had been chained and padlocked to stop people sneaking into the venue without paying the cover charge.

Others were obstructed on the inside by furniture and equipment and outside by things such as skips and vans.

Those who scrambled to the toilets to try to get to safety through the windows could not get past the metal grills and steel plates that had been installed on the outside.

Panic ensued and those inside heaved at the doors to escape, while others on the outside tried in vain to remove the barriers using axes and ropes tied to cars.

When the first fire engine arrived at the scene about 20 minutes later, firemen found piles of bodies just inside the door.

The influx of dead and injured overwhelmed many of the capital's hospitals.

Mothers, fathers, sibling and friends of the missing described going from hospital to hospital trying to locate their loved ones.

Forty-eight young people who went out that night never came home and more than 200 people were injured in the blaze.

All of the dead were aged between 16 and 28. Half of those who died were aged 18 or under. 

Four of them were 16 years old. Eight were 17 years old.

Siblings and couples were among the deceased. The victims came mainly from the working class estates in Artane, Coolock and Kilmore. Almost half of those who died were their family's main breadwinner. 

Five of the victims had to be buried in a mass grave because they could not be identified.

Damage inside the Stardust Ballroom

History of inquests

In November 1981, the tribunal of inquiry into the Stardust disaster, led by Justice Ronan Keane, concluded that the fire was probably caused by arson.

While it criticised some of the safety standards and how the venue was managed, the conclusion exonerated the owners of the Stardust from being legally responsible for the blaze.

That conclusion of the 1981 inquest was disputed by many survivors and victims' families who felt it lay the blame on those who had been inside the club that night.

For the past 40 years, families have campaigned for a new inquiry into the disaster.

After years of protests, petitions and persistence, in 2008, the government commissioned a Senior Counsel to look at the case for a new inquiry.

In 2009 after the report was published, the Dáil voted to acknowledge that the arson finding was hypothetical and that none of those present at the Stardust nightclub could be held responsible for the blaze.

The public record was corrected and the original arson conclusion removed as the cause, due to there being no evidence to suggest that the fire was started maliciously.

In 2017, a retired judge was appointed to investigate the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. He concluded that there should be no new inquiry.

After further campaigning, in 2019 the Attorney General confirmed that fresh inquests would be held because there was "an insufficiency of inquiry as to how the deaths occurred".

Those inquests were due to begin in 2021, ahead of the 40th anniversary of the deaths.

Today, as that milestone is being marked, they have yet to begin, with legal representatives of the family saying that it could be the summer before difficulties with funding for legal representation can be resolved and the proceedings can get under way.

Antoinette Keegan with pictures of her sisters Mary and Martina who were among the victims (File pic)

'Difficult' 40 years for survivor

There have been many survivors and families of victims who have shared their stories over the years.

But the story of the Keegans encapsulates the toll the disaster took on families of those who died and those who survived.

Antoinette Keegan went to the Valentine's disco with her 19-year-old sister Mary and 16-year-old sister Martina.

Antoinette was badly injured and spent several weeks in hospital but survived. Her two sisters died.

Her father spearheaded the early campaign to overturn the inquest finding, but died a few years later.

Antoinette and her mother Christina then took up that baton and campaigned tirelessly for 39 years for new inquests to be held and answers to what happened on that night in 1981.

On a recent Valentine’s Day, the family found out that Christina was sick.

In the summer of 2020, she died before those inquests were held. Antoinette has told her own story on many occasions, but as she spoke this week ahead of the 40th anniversary, her pain and grief can still be heard in her voice. The trauma she endured still apparent.

Choking back tears as she recounted witnessing the start of the fire, she said: "When we were on the floor dancing, the DJ used to let off special effects, like dry ice and I just saw the smoke drifting across the ceiling and my friend said look over there there's a fire and I looked over and there was a small fire on the seat.

"The DJ made the announcement for everyone to stay calm the fire was under control. We walked over to our seats and then the DJ made an announcement for everyone to make their way to the nearest exit.

"The fire was actually coming down on top of us, the ceiling started collapsing on top of us, thick black smoke just filled up everywhere. Then the lights went out and the music stopped and we were just left in pitch dark with flames all around us. And literally we couldn't breathe. It was horrible."

Although she is eager and anxious for the new inquest to get under way, Antoinette highlighted the difficulties families face in sitting through the details of their loved ones inquests once again.

"In March 1982, I was summoned to go to Coroner's Court on behalf of my sister Martina and my Ma was summonsed to go for Mary. And I remember it still. My Ma, my Da and myself in there and it was literally two minutes.

"Two minutes, three minutes for each victim that died. And I just remember hearing about Mary that she had no legs and no hands and part of her head was missing. And I screamed the Coroner's Court down and I was taken out by a policeman and left outside.

"To relive the whole thing again 40 years ago, it's still a memory imprinted in my head. And I can still remember every single detail of that night ... I don't know if I'm going to be strong enough."

Community traumatised by disaster - Archbishop

The Archbishop of Dublin has said that a whole community was traumatised and so many lives were blighted by the Stardust disaster.

At a mass to mark the 40th anniversary of the fire, Archbishop Dermot Farrell said many families have endured enormous suffering and today are reliving the horror of that night.

In his homily, he said their loss is compounded by their long quest for a full account of the tragedy, which he said satisfies the families' need for truth.

Archbishop Farrell said he stood in solidarity with the community in their inexpressible grief and sadness, describing the loss of young life as "beyond tragedy".

He said Amanda Gorman's poem The Hill We Climb, which was read at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, captures the impact of the Stardust on so many, saying it was a "loss we carry, a sea we must wade".