How Penny continues to keep her murdered son’s memory alive

Penny Holloway
Penny Holloway

For north Belfast woman Penny Holloway, it was the words of her local parish priest and family friend Father Sean Emerson that had a lasting impact when she was and her husband Jim Devlin were going through the pain and heartache of losing their 15-year-old son Thomas.

The Belfast Royal Academy student’s death in 2005 was one which shocked the Province, after he was brutally stabbed to death on the Somerton Road, not far from his home, late one August evening.

As his devastated parents and their other two children, twins James and Megan, tried to come to terms with it, Fr Emerson impressed upon them the need to try and find some good that could in some way come out of the tragedy and heartbreak, if they could in any way at all.

The result of that conversation was the Thomas Devlin Fund, established in 2006 in his memory, with the aim of helping local young people who have the same love of the arts that Thomas did by offering a bursary scheme to give them more opportunities to develop their skills and talent further.

This year, the 10th anniversary of the scheme was marked with a special round of extra bursaries, with grants of up to £1,750 being made available for young people aged 15-19 who want to pursue a career or study in the creative and performing arts or music.

To date, these bursaries have helped 58 such people follow their dreams. Penny reveals that drumming, drama and modern and ballet dance are amongst the interests that they have furthered thanks to this funding.

“Thomas was musical, as were a lot of his friends, and a lot of young people express themselves through the arts, music, all of that - it’s all very important to them. And so we decided that we would set up a fund specifically to help young people.”

Penny Holloway, 63, is a woman who’s passionate about young people. She has a soft, lilting tone to her voice, which belies her Welsh heritage; she moved to Northern Ireland in 1971 as a student when she got a place at the University of Ulster in Coleraine.

Today she is Director of Conciliation and Arbitration for the Labour Relations Agency in Belfast, but it was whilst she was working as a librarian at the Ulster Polytechnic (which in 1984 merged with the New University of Ulster, which then became known as the University of Ulster, or as it has been known since 2014, Ulster University) that she met her husband Jim Devlin, a native of Glenshesk in North Antrim.

The pair got married in 1982 in Anglesey, and first lived in the Four Winds area of Belfast, before relocating to the Somerton Road in the north of the city a year later.

They had twins, Megan and James, who are now 30, and Thomas came along four years later.

“He was an easy baby,” she recalls with affection.

“Although he didn’t really like sleeping very much. All the books said that you shouldn’t let them into your bed, so we would go to bed and Thomas would be in his own room. In the morning you would find him there in your bed, and wouldn’t have even known he had come in.”

Penny had what she describes as “a very relaxed childhood” herself.

“I have two brothers and two sisters; my mother was a nurse and my father a teacher, but before that he had been in the Forestry Commission, so my first eight or nine years were spend living in forests!”

Penny and Jim’s own children were equally laid back in their approach to life, and all, she says, had “quite a dry sense of humour” - especially Thomas.

She remembers: “He was in the bath one day. I had plants on the landing, and I went upstairs to find that he had decided to take all of the soil out and put it in the bath because he wanted some kind of mud bath.

“He was very musical - all three of them were. James and Megan did a lot of piano stuff but Thomas decided he wanted to play the tenor horn.

“He enjoyed school, by and large. He was very non conformist, I have to say. He would go to school and have his tie not tied properly, and his shirt hanging out.

“It wasn’t until he got to the school gates that the tie was straightened and the shirt tucked in!”

Penny also affectionately remembers the she came home from work to discover her teenage son had dyed his hair red and became a ‘Goth’.

She smiles: “It was fine by me, I just felt it was far better to let people have these experiences.”

And she relates how she remembers Thomas being slightly disappointed when his new look failed to get anything other than a complacent reaction from his ex-schoolteacher grandfather and Penny’s father, when the family went to visit him in Connemara.

The softly spoken Welsh woman admits she has so many happy memories of her late son and the life he enjoyed. “And he had loads and loads of friends. We didn’t realise how many actually, until the time he was killed. I think there was one night we had about 70 of them in the house.”

This fact only goes a little way to highlight the point that she makes about the far reaching effect Thomas’s murder had on the entire family circle, and the plethora of pals that he was close to.

“The impact of Thomas‘s murder was wide ranging. It was not just the four of us who were affected. It was all of his extended family.”

And it because of the fact that her son’s own young life was cut short so suddenly and cruelly that she feels it is fitting that the Thomas Devlin Fund would enable other young people to avail of the chances in life he so sadly didn’t have the opportunity to.

“And I do love young people - they keep you young, they are so refreshing,” she adds. “They have their whole lives ahead of them, and I think we should give some of them the opportunity to do what Thomas didn’t get to do.”