Cookies on Dublin People website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. We also use cookies to ensure we show you advertising that is relevant to you. If you continue without changing your settings, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on the Dublin People website. However, if you would like to, you can change your cookie settings at any time by amending your browser settings.
Hide Message
  • Northside East

The story of Christy Moore and the Stardust song

Tuesday, 2nd February, 2016 11:29am
The story of Christy Moore and the Stardust song

Christy Moore with Stardust campaigner Christine Keegan. PHOTO: DARREN KINSELLA

The story of Christy Moore and the Stardust song

Christy Moore with Stardust campaigner Christine Keegan. PHOTO: DARREN KINSELLA

IN TANDEM with their painful battle for compensation, relatives of the Stardust victims campaigned tirelessly to ensure that their loved ones would never be forgotten. It would take more than a decade before successive governments would make good on a promise to provide a permanent memorial to the victims. The campaign to honour the Stardust dead is a story of political inaction, broken promises and profound disappointment. It is also a story of censorship.

Like so many others, Irish folk singer Christy Moore was deeply affected by the tragedy. Despite the countless number of gigs he had played at home and abroad since his career began in the 1960s, the singer remembers exactly where he was performing when he heard about the Stardust. At the time he was a member of the critically acclaimed band Moving Hearts, who were playing the first of two concerts in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, on the night of the fire. The band considered cancelling the second show on account of the news but decided to go ahead and donate the proceeds from the gig to the Stardust disaster fund. A minute's silence was observed during the emotional performance.

Christy Moore was renowned for performing socially conscious songs that covered topics ranging from Travellers' rights to the conflict in Northern Ireland. No stranger to controversy, Moore's emotive ballads about the hunger strikes of 1981 had been banished from the airwaves. One of his most popular songs, 'Back Home in Derry', was banned after the authorities realised it was written by the late Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike three months after the Stardust tragedy. The reaction on that occasion was no surprise to him. But little did the singer realise how much trouble he would be in over a song about a fire in Artane.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Moore wanted to write a song in honour of the Stardust victims. The song's title came about after he heard a mother tell a television reporter that her daughters went out one night "but they never came home". Moore's acute sense of injustice was heightened by the fact that the families and victims had yet to receive any compensation for their loss and suffering. By this stage, the Butterlys had settled their malicious damages claim against Dublin Corporation. The irony of the situation was not lost on the singer.

"I used Woody Guthrie's technique of describing events to create not only a picture of the event, but also the underlying inequalities, injustice and blatant discrimination that still exist in our society," wrote Moore in his autobiography. "I just heard a mother utter that sentence and it struck a chord and convinced me that I needed to write about this. I wrote it because I try to write songs about things that affect me. I'm always seeking to express my anger or my sorrow or my sense fun by the things I see around me. I certainly wanted to write about the Stardust because, I suppose, I felt there was a class thing involved as well."

After enjoying considerable success in the 1970s, both as a solo artist and with the influential traditional Irish group Planxty, Moore hit the big time in 1984 with his 'Ride On' album. His eagerly awaited follow-up, 'Ordinary Man', was released during the summer of 1985. The Stardust song, 'They Never Came Home', was the second last track on the album. The record was officially launched in O'Donoghue's pub on Merrion Row in Dublin on July 29. Journalist Gene Kerrigan, writing for Magill magazine at the time, noted: "There were good songs on the album but the most deeply felt was 'They Never Came Home' - the Stardust song.

Just days after the launch, Clive Hudson of WEA, Moore's record label, received a letter from legal representatives of the Stardust owners. It claimed 'They Never Came Home' was in contempt of court. it contained, they contended, a comment on matters still before the courts. The album was already in the shops and had been receiving considerable airplay on the radio. WEA was forced to recall the album from record stores and contact radio stations, urging them not to broadcast the song in case the allegation of contempt was upheld in court.

Moore was stunned. It had never entered his mind that the song would be the subject of a legal challenge.

"In my innocence I didn't have the song vetted," he recalls. "We just went for it and I suppose that anybody who had heard the song prior to its release assumed that it was telling the truth."

Around 12,000 copies of the 'Ordinary Man' album had been produced and distributed. It was already number one in the album charts. 'They Never Came Home' was also the B-side of Moore's latest single, 'Delirium Tremens', which was number six in the Irish music charts. Despite every effort by WEA, both the album and the single were still available in a number of Dublin outlets by the time the contempt case came before a special vacation sitting of the High Court on August 9, 1985. While Moore found the prospect of a court case stressful, he was more concerned about the effect it would have on the Stardust families. He feared they would think the song exploited their situation. He needn't have worried - many of the families turned up in court to express their solidarity with the singer.

"I was scared going into the High Court," Moore later wrote. "It was a high-profile case and I was most concerned, both about the likely outcome and how the case itself would affect the bereaved families and the injured survivors. The court was thronged and there in the front seats were many, many families of the lost and the injured who came out to support me. It was a very moving realisation for me."

The High Court action was based on complaints that the song would prejudice the outcome of litigation concerning over 200 compensation claims resulting from the Stardust fire. The application by Eamon Butterly, Scott's Foods Ltd and Silver Swan Ltd was for an order of attachment for contempt against the author and singer of the song, Christy Moore; the song's producer, Donal Lunny; and WEA (Ireland), distributors of the record.

Counsel for the Butterlys, Brian Dempsey, said it was his clients' view that some of the words of the song interfered with and prejudiced issues which were sub judice (in the course of the trial) and in contention already before the courts. One lyric complained of went: "Just how the fire started, sure no-one can tell." This was inaccurate and misleading, Mr Dempsey argued, as Dublin Circuit Court had determined that the fire had been started maliciously in the case taken by the Butterlys' companies against Dublin Corporation. Mr Dempsey said it was also inaccurate to state, as the song did, that "hundreds of children are injured and maimed, and all just because the fire exists were chained."

An affidavit from Christy Moore was read to the court stating that the subject of the song was, in his opinion, a matter of public and social concern. He had been unaware that the subject matter and the words were capable of prejudicing the applicants' defence in other proceedings. If this was the case, it was deeply regretted. But counsel for the Butterlys claimed that the overall effect of the song was that, through the media and on the radio, almost everyone in Dublin would come to know as a definite "fact" that the locking of the doors had caused the Stardust deaths.


Sean MacBride, Senior Counsel for Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and WEA, said his clients did not concede that there had been any contempt of court. He pointed out that the Stardust tragedy had been widely discussed and debated in the public arena for over four years, including on a number of television programmes. MacBride also described WEA's efforts to stop distribution of the record as soon as they learned of the contempt proceedings.

Mr Justice Frank Murphy found that the song was in contempt of court. He ruled that the lyrics of the song contained statements or comments calculated to prejudice a fair trial of matters already before the courts, in particular the statement about the fire exits being chained. Justice Murphy said the question of punishment did not arise, as the statements complained of had been made unintentionally. He also took into account the fact that the parties involved had endeavoured, to the best of their ability, to limit the damage by stopping publication and halting distribution of the record.

The decision came as a bitter blow to Christy Moore and his record company. As a result of the verdict, the song could no longer be promoted, distributed or sold in shops in Ireland. 'They Never Came Home' effectively had been banned.

"I was shocked," says Moore of the verdict. "I didn't know to what extent the court case was going to run. I was very innocent of such things."

As a dejected Christy Moore and his manager, Mattie Fox, left the High Court, they were approached by a Stardust victim, Larry Stout, who wanted to say thanks to the singer. Stout, a painter/decorator whose hands were badly disfigured in the fire, felt the song had done the relatives and victims a great service by highlighting their case. Christine and John Keegan, who had also attended the court hearing, shook hands with the singer. "Thanks Christy, thanks," was all that Christine could say.

Although no punishment was imposed on Christy Moore or the record company by Justice Murphy, the implications of the ruling were punitive by their very nature. Thousands of singles and albums were recalled and destroyed by WEA and a new song had to be recorded in place of 'They Never Came Home' for a reissued version of 'Ordinary Man'. Costs in the High Court case were also awarded against the singer. The whole episode cost Christy Moore, his manager and record company in the region of £100,000.

Ironically, the new song was recorded close to where the Stardust had been, in Nicky Ryan's Artane studio. Up against a three hour deadline, the song was literally recorded as it was being rewritten. The result was 'Another Song is Born', a powerful, emotion-packed ballad with an angry undercurrent.

"I suppose in a way it's a much angrier song," says Moore. "Sometimes when you have to find a different way to say something, you find a more powerful way to say it."

The banning of 'They Never Came Home' (it was eventually released on a Christy Moore box set in 2004) has not discouraged him from writing controversial material. Since then, however, all his songs are first vetted for potential legal problems before finding their way onto his albums. After the victims' compensation battle was over, he continued to play the Stardust song live in concert, although it was suggested that he shouldn't sing the offending line.

"It doesn't matter if that line is in or not," insists Moore, "because in a way it's not a particularly important line in the song. With or without that line, the song still tells the truth."

To this day Moore feels that in the case of the Stardust tragedy, justice wasn't served.

"I think the whole thing was handled very cynically," he says.

•'They Never Came Home - the Stardust Story', by Neil Fetherstonhaugh and Tony McCullagh, was originally published in 2001 and reprinted as an updated edition in 2006. The book was adapted for the award-winning RTE two part drama, 'Stardust'. Limited copies still available on Amazon

Listen to Christy Moore's song here.

Read the digital editions of the Dublin People Northside East, Northside West & Southside here