It started off as a sunny summer’s day, but August 10, 2005, was one which would turn to tragedy for the loved ones of teenager Thomas Devlin by its close.
“It was beautiful weather, and Thomas wasn’t long back from Glasgow where he had been staying with his brother,” Penny Holloway recalls.
She remembers how her son spent the day in town with his friends, and then that evening asked his parents to collect one of his friends who lived out in the country, so that they could all go to another friend’s house to play computer games.
This bunch of lads was “a sensible group of people,” according to Penny, and she did not have any concerns about the kind of company Thomas was keeping.
It was the typical behaviour of typical teenagers on a typical day in their school holidays.
But by nightfall, the sun was setting on a sequence of events that were anything but normal. Penny and Jim had gone out to enjoy a meal at the Lansdowne Hotel on the Antrim Road, and had received a call from Thomas to say he and a few friends were going to the local shop to get “supplies”, in the form of crisps and sweets.
“I said to him, ‘just be careful’; it was the usual kind of thing you say, but it was that time of year,” says Penny.
During their meal she and Jim got a call from Megan to say that the boys had been hurt.
“We had no idea just how bad it was. Then we got a call to tell us we needed to get down to Somerton Road. I had assumed he was at home, but realised that if he hadn’t made it home then he was really not good.”
Tears come to her eyes as she goes over - again- the events of that horrific night. It soon transpired that Thomas and his two friends, Jonathan McKee and Fintan Maguire had been attacked by two men as they walked along the Somerton Road. Thomas died after suffering multiple stab wounds in a frenzied knife attack. Jonathan was also stabbed in the stomach, and Fintan managed to scramble over a wall in a bid to flee the attackers.
Nigel Brown and Gary Taylor, both from north Belfast, were convicted of Thomas’s murder.
Penny still remembers with clarity the efforts of people on the scene that night to save Thomas’s life, including a doctor who was driving past and stopped to help, and two more individuals who had been in the hotel that night as well. And she says that the support she and her family received from the local community in the weeks after Thomas’s death was overwhelming.
“So many people called to the house; people were wonderful and our neighbours were absolutely fantastic.”
She adds, her voice full of emotion: “That is the one thing about Northern Ireland, people rally round, they really do. People who were absolute strangers delivered food to the house. I wouldn’t have got through it if it hadn’t been for family, friends and strangers.”
Outlining her own emotions at the time of Thomas’s death, Penny believes she was simply acting on “automatic pilot” during the aftermath.
“I was making phone calls to people to say that this had happened, and I think they were really surprised (at how calmly she seemed to be dealing with it) because I think sometimes, you go into a state of shock. You’re on automatic pilot, and that’s what it was.”
Speaking about the long and indeed ongoing grieving process that only parents who have also lost a child will understand, Penny says it “took many years” to “reach a place where you just manage things a bit better.”
She continues: “The most important thing for us was to make sure that James and Megan were able to enjoy their lives. And Thomas is still very much part of our lives. He was with us for nearly 16 years and we will never forget him. We talk about him a lot, we talk about him at home. It’s not like because he’s dead, he’s gone. It’s just not like that.”