“The kids who burst through the doors at opening time at this down at heel ballroom were all set to have a real good time, a riot. Which is exactly what happened.” So said English pop magazine Record Mirror in its review of the Specials at Dublin’s Stardust ballroom in January 1981. The review continued, “All the pent-up frustration and boredom of living in Dublin’s roughest suburb was beginning to explode. It’s difficult to persuade bands to play gigs in Dublin and after tonight I can see why.”
Trouble started during support act The Beat who, also, had to contend with some “morons at the front with their stiff-armed salutes.” Concerned for everyone’s safety, The Specials threatened not to perform. But they did, and after just two minutes, “the blockheads at the front started to beat seven bales of shit out of one another as the band were forced to stop for the first of many interruptions.” Lead singer Terry Hall pleaded, “No violence, we hate violence,” as the mob invaded the stage twice, causing mayhem and stealing microphones and other sound equipment. When a stack of PA speakers came crashing down on stage for the second time that night, the Specials gave up and walked off.
Despite the chaos, violence and poor organisation, the gig (a charity event to raise funds to take children from Northern Ireland on holiday to the West of Ireland) was memorable for many. For 16-year-old Paul Heller, the music and performance was so inspirational that he is a lifelong fan and became friends with some of The Specials. Paul has “bad memories of the violence but the gig was electric. My parents didn’t want me to go – even they predicted trouble – but I sneaked out the bathroom window and jumped onto the flat roof of our kitchen.” Paul lived in nearby Beaumont so it took only five minutes to get to the Stardust where he joined the long queue and “saw a black man, for the first time in real life.” This wasn’t unusual back then. Even Record Mirror noted that “the black guys in the bands were the only coloured people I saw the whole time I was in Dublin.”
The striking young man Paul had seen was actually another Dubliner; Jeff Keogh a 15-year-old from Dundrum. Wearing Doc Martens, a red Harrington jacket and a pork pie hat borrowed from his father (Ray Keogh, the first black footballer to play in the League of Ireland!), Jeff looked the part. He remembers queuing outside from lunchtime and when “someone mistook and called me Ranking Roger, a doorman looked at me and let me squeeze in the side door because he thought I was with the band. I ended up coming out on the side of the stage and got a roar from the crowd.”
Four weeks later, in the early hours of the 14th February, the sirens of the emergency services woke Paul Heller in his Beaumont bedroom. Worried and not knowing what was happening, Paul’s father did a head count check of his children. All were safe and at home. But outside, they heard the news of the horror happening at the nearby Stardust and of the fatal fire which killed 48 young people.
Quotes are from the Record Mirror review by Simon Ludgate except for those attributed to Paul and Jeff. Photo of Terry Hall on Stardust stage as featured in Record Mirror is by Colm Henry.
Photo of Paul Heller along with his brother Joe on left and Paddy Foy centre with thanks to Paul
Photo of Specials at Connolly Station in 1979 is by Jill Furmanovsky
Words: Brian McMahon, Brand New Retro