Mum of murdered schoolboy Thomas Devlin making sure tragic teen's legacy lives on
Exclusive: 11 years after the brutal murder of Thomas Devlin, his mother tells how she's making sure the tragic teenager's legacy lives on
In the hours and days that followed the murder of Thomas Devlin, it was a chance conversation that helped his mother find hope amid the despair. The brutal killing of the 15-year-old, stabbed as he walked home from buying sweets on a balmy summer's evening 11 years ago, shocked the country.
For his mum Penny, father Jim and older siblings James and Megan, it was a shattering loss.
But as she struggled to come to terms with the death of her boy, Penny realised that with grief came responsibility.
"It was Fr Sean Emerson, who was our parish priest at the time," she recalls.
"He spoke to us and his words were very powerful.
"It was a very dark time for Thomas's friends and he put it to us that, as Thomas's parents, we had a responsibility to make sure that it didn't remain dark for them.
"We had to find something positive and something good to come out of it."
Those words led to the setting up of the Thomas Devlin Fund, which this year marks its 10th anniversary.
The fund provides grants to young people aged between 15 and 19 who want to pursue a career or study in the creative and performing arts. Later this week, 10 more young people will be given bursaries towards fulfilling their dreams.
Penny describes with pride how the fund has ensured Thomas's legacy lives on.
"The fund has given so many young people such great opportunities to do something that they are really interested in," she explains.
"Thomas's life was stopped not through his own choice.
"He didn't get the chance to even begin to do things that he wanted to do. These bursaries enable young people to have those opportunities.
"It's a good thing that has happened out of something that was pretty terrible for us."
Thomas was murdered in an unprovoked attack as he walked home from buying sweets with his friends on the evening of August 10, 2005.
A pupil at Belfast Royal Academy, he was about to go into his GCSE year at school and had a bright future ahead of him.
He enjoyed playing computer games, music, playing the tenor horn and socialising with his pals.
"Thomas was just a typical teenage boy. He had lots of friends and a very good sense of humour," Penny recalls. "He was having a great summer because he had been over to see his brother James, who lived in Glasgow, and he'd had a good time there.
"He had only just come back and was with his mates, all his friends, and just generally enjoying life."
On that terrible August evening, Thomas had strolled to the local garage with two friends.
It was just a short walk from where he lived on the Somerton Road in north Belfast. However, he never made it home.
The group were set upon by two thugs, Gary Taylor and Nigel Brown. Thomas tried to run away but was pulled off a wall and stabbed nine times.
Just 200 metres from the safety of his home, the teenager lay bleeding to death from wounds to his chest, abdomen, arm and face.
Penny remembers: "I got a phone call from my daughter who had got a call from one of Thomas's friends to say he had been attacked.
"By the time that we got down, the ambulance and police and some passers-by who happened to be doctors were helping.
"We realised pretty quickly it was a very serious situation.
"They took him straight away to the Mater Hospital where they did everything they could to save him. They tried so hard.
"Unfortunately it was too serious an injury for Thomas to survive."
The murder shocked people right across Northern Ireland.
At the time someone suggested to Penny that her son had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is something she has always struggled to accept.
After all, what could be so wrong about a 15-year-old boy walking to his local shop with his friends to buy sweets during the school holidays?
"I think it touched people because they were just doing what normal lads or young people of their age wanted to do," adds Penny.
"They lived their lives normally, without fear of violence or being attacked, and I think that's not an unreasonable expectation.
"Some people said that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I really don't agree with that.
"He was on his own road, on his way to his own home. He had a normal expectation of being able to walk home without fear of attack."
At Thomas's funeral service Fr Emerson spoke of the importance of good conquering evil.
"The worst possible thing that could happen is for those who believe in evil and violence to be allowed to terrorise the rest of us to become like them," he had told mourners.
"Therefore I would ask all of you, especially the young people among us, to continue to focus on doing good things and showing that good will always overcome evil."
It was something the priest also stressed to the Devlin family in private, and they set about creating something tangible in Thomas's memory.
By the following February, the Thomas Devlin Fund had been established.
"It was really that [Fr Emerson's words] which made us think about what we could do," adds Penny.
"Thomas loved music and was into gaming. He also really liked art.
"Quite a lot of his friends we noticed at the time were able to express themselves through music and poetry.
"A number of them wrote poems about Thomas and sent them to us.
"We felt that perhaps this was something that we could help and where we could maybe do something.
"We came up with the idea of a fund and one of the main strands of it was to provide financial support for young people who want to pursue a career or opportunities or just experiences in the music and creative and performing arts.
"Because we knew it was very difficult for them to get funding, we thought providing bursaries would be quite a good way of doing that."
The fund, run by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, has so far benefited 58 people, with a further 10 bursaries being awarded this year.
One recipient was able to go to Brazil to learn about drumming, another went to ballet school in New York.
Penny tries to keep in touch with all those who have benefited from the fund.
"We also had one girl from Lurgan who went to Los Angeles for three months to learn dance. She is now moving to Liverpool to continue that, and has made a great success of it," she added.
"It's good to see what they're doing now and how they have progressed."