Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham recalls searching for his sister after historic fire

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Actor Liam Cunningham attends IMDb LIVE After The Emmys 2018 on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Actor Liam Cunningham attends IMDb LIVE After The Emmys 2018 on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb) /

Tomorrow marks the 24nd anniversary of the Stardust fire, a fatal fire that took place at the Stardust nightclub in Dublin, Ireland in the early hours of February 14, 1981. Over 800 people had gone through to ring in Valentine’s Day. The fire, which is believed to have started as the result of an electrical failure, would claim 48 of their lives.

Game of Thrones Liam Cunningham lived with his family in the area at the time; he was around 20 years old. He recounted his experience on the podcast Upfront.

“I remember exactly where I was,” Cunningham said. “I was up having a lemonade. I was a motorbiker at the time, and, for some reason, I drove past the Stardust just before the fire happened.”

After that, Cunningham went home, but was awoken in bed by what he would later learn was the sound of propane gas tanks exploding. “[I remember] hearing these noises and thinking, what the hell is that? And then being woken up. One of the neighbours had knocked at our door to say there had been a fire in the Stardust,” he recalled. “The radio was on, there was live reports and they were saying, ‘there’s three dead’. 20 minutes later, ‘there’s five dead’. And the number kept going up, and the waiting, as you can imagine, was horrific because, with every increase in the number, it got closer to the possibility that it was one of your own.”

Cunningham’s younger sister Maria was at the Stardust that night, so Cunningham, his father, and neighbors whose kids were also at the club went out to search for their children. “I hopped on the bike and I went straight to the Mater Hospital. And it was carnage. It was like Vietnam,” Cunningham said. “There was just squad cars arriving, ambulances arriving, people coming in with blistered hands. I remember being just overwhelmed in the middle of the night with the amount of things going on, the manic nature of it.”

Happily, Cunningham found his sister and her friend Maria, both of whom had been at the club, at Jervis Street Hospital. Maria was being treated for smoke inhalation but was otherwise unharmed. “I stayed for two minutes, and I said, ‘I have to get home. They don’t know you’re okay. I have to get home,’” Cunningham recalled; keep in mind that this was long before anybody had cell phones.

First Cunningham stopped by the home of Catherine’s mother to tell her that her daughter was alright. “Her mother opened the door in her robe, and I just said, ‘look, I’ve just been to Jervis Street Hospital. I’ve seen Maria and Catherine. They’re okay.’ And she punched me in the chest. It was the weirdest thing. She just punched me in the chest, and she called me a liar because she’d been listening to the news reports and was convinced that there was hundreds dead and her daughter was dead. And I had to fend her off. And I just said, ‘she’s fine. I can’t hang around with you. I’ve told you first. I haven’t even told me mom.’”

Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham on the legacy of the Stardust Fire

Looking back on the aftermath of the Stardust fire decades later, Cunningham sees it as an example of a problem we’re still dealing with today. “The first thing that everybody seemed to do was start finding excuses and trying to blame the people inside,” he said. “It took them so many years to be exonerated purely… because they were working class.”

People were abandoned. These working class people were blamed. It was disgusting. And it’s still going on, the disregard. So the people just felt swept under the carpet and were full of anger and quite rightly.

Obviously, Valentine’s Day is mostly a time of celebration, but it’s good to remember that suffering doesn’t stop just because it’s a holiday. As for Cunningham, you’ll be able to see him soon in Netflix’s adaptation of The Three-Body Problem, which is being shepherded by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss.

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h/t Irish Upfront