As the Belfast Telegraph launches its Woman of the Year awards, Penny Holloway tells Jane Hardy how bursaries and a campaign against knife crime will be a lasting memorial for her son Thomas who was murdered near his home.
There are quite a few awards in society that mark people's talents. But as we launch the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year 2011 awards, it's worth remembering just why these awards are so special. It's because they recognise the unsung heroines of Northern Ireland — and because the winners themselves are special.
Last year's overall BT Woman of the Year, Penny Holloway (58), underlined the point when speaking to us from a family trip to her niece's Bat Mitzvah party in Boston. She was nominated for her long and courageous campaign to get justice for her son, Thomas Devlin, who was stabbed and killed in 2005 after going to buy sweets one evening from a corner shop near his home in north Belfast.
When the police seemed to be getting nowhere with the search for his killers, Penny stepped in and with her husband, Jim, set out to ensure her son's killers were sent to prison.
“Winning the Woman of the Year award was a very positive thing for me, once I got over the shock,” says Penny. “Personally, I feel very privileged that people felt I'd earned it. Becoming Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year was a recognition of what I had been doing. And for my daughter Megan, son James and husband Jim it was quite pleasant. People spoke to me afterwards and what they said was touching.”
Nobody who witnessed Penny collecting her trophy from Wendy Austin at the 2010 awards can have felt unmoved. One felt that the tears were never far away as Penny made a dignified acceptance speech.
She said at the time: “It's quite humbling to get this. Of course, I would definitely rather not have got this award, but I feel it is for Thomas, and for the many mums who have parted from their children in the same way I did.”
Yet the joy was clear too, plus the sense that this award was for Penny's whole family, but most importantly, for Thomas, whose life was ended at the age of 15 but who will be remembered for a very long time via the bursaries Penny started in his name that are now helping other young people take a different path from the one leading to violence and disaffection.
Penny gave me an update on the progress she and Jim have made with the Thomas Devlin Fund, which is the main focus of her life these days. “We have just launched some more awards in drama, so young people will get more financial support as they get involved in new areas.” The aim of the group is to help young people make more of themselves and lead them into fulfilling projects.
All this work wouldn't have happened if Thomas had not been in the wrong place at the wrong time on that night in August 2005. CCTV footage finally nailed Thomas' killers Nigel Brown and Gary Taylor in May 2010. But it took four and a half years of hard work, determination and never giving up on the part of Penny who even had to challenge the legal establishment in the form of the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). Initially, in a much criticised move, the PPS decided not to prosecute the two men, who between them have close to 90 previous convictions.
What kept her going and how did Penny cope in circumstances that must have seemed overwhelming? It's to do with the sort of fierce maternal instinct that made her the obvious winner of the Belfast Telegraph Mum of the Year as well as the overall winner. Looking back, she says simply: “I just had to make sure justice was done for Thomas. I knew the police believed in the case and knowing that, I always believed it could be done.”
She and Jim kept up the pressure, became experts in the law relating to the horrific case, in which another friend with Thomas was also attacked, and were determined to see it through.
Thomas' image, of a smiling, bright looking teenager — capturing the boy she has described as “our youngest son, a bright and intelligent boy who was kind, |caring fun loving and popular with all those who knew him” became familiar during the long |campaign.
Rather than becoming embittered, Penny has used her fight for justice to benefit others and society. In terms of knife crime, she wanted to highlight the issue and feels some positive results are now coming through.
“We are working with Belfast City Council and with Translink to support community projects that will help reduce the culture that permits knife crime to flourish.”
And in this vital work, Penny's award last year has definitely helped, giving her more clout with this important project. “I think a lot of people have heard of the Belfast Telegraph award, so it's been a very positive thing. It's given us extra profile which helps.”
Turning the ultimate negative, of losing your child, into something positive is a remarkable achievement. Another, important, achievement is keeping your family together after this kind of tragedy. There is a litany of families who break up after this kind of tragedy, including the parents of Sara Payne, but happily this hasn't happened to the |Devlins.
Penny says now: “We're doing well. Megan is at Nottingham University doing her PhD and enjoying it. It's something to do with kidneys. And James is still working in Glasgow.”
Asked whether the family has evolved rituals to mark Thomas' death, Penny says that they remember him on August 10, the day he was attacked, rather than August 11 when he finally succumbed to his injuries. She adds: “We still have a lot of Thomas' friends round then. They always come to see us, and there was about 20 at our house this year. We go to the Tech, his school, and leave flowers, then come home for a catch-up.”
So who would this remarkable woman select as her nominees for the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year 2011?
Having reflected, she says: “Two people, if I may. One is a consultant surgeon Sigi Refsum at Belfast City Hospital who deals with breast cancer patients and has pioneered mastectomy and reconstructive surgery done together, helping many women.
“The second is Arlene Healy, who’s doing important work at the Family Trauma Centre in Wellington Park.”
These are the recommendations of last year's Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year. Now it's over to you. Your nominations will determine who among the thousands of superb Northern Ireland women, working in different fields, being magnificent mothers or coping with tough circumstances, will gain a prestigious Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year award.
As Penny sums up: “It was humbling to be nominated and win, but it was for Thomas and we’re still working in his memory.”