History, heartbreak in N. Ireland Murders of 3 brothers overshadow marches

July 14, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RASHARKIN, Northern Ireland -- The thump of Orange Order drums and the lilt of accordions and flutes marching by could be heard inside the home where three small, white coffins lay in a bedroom.

"There's not too many grieving here [in Rasharkin]. There's a parade out there," said Irene Quinn, a grandmother trying to come to terms with the murders of three of her grandsons.

In this corner of rain-swept Northern Ireland yesterday, history and heartbreak intersected.

Through the streets of Rasharkin, one of the hundreds of parades by the Protestant-led Orangemen moved along, celebrating with music and military efficiency William of Orange's victory over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

And inside a home that they marched past where the tea was hot and the sobs were muffled, a family was trying to endure the unimaginable, a wake for three young boys killed in an arson attack in nearby Ballymoney.

The deaths of the Quinn brothers -- Richard, 11, Mark, 10, and Jason, 9 -- have shocked this land as few others have over the course of a nearly 30-year terror war.

The boys were burned to death early Sunday when their home was firebombed. Their mother, Christine Quinn, 29, her boyfriend and a family friend escaped the fire.

Police said it was a sectarian attack and that the family was targeted because the mother is Catholic. Yesterday, police detained two men for questioning.

The attack came after more than a week of mounting tension and violence over a standoff among Orange Order marchers and Catholic residents along the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.

While Protestant protesters maintained their round-the-clock vigil at a hillside below Portadown's Drumcree Church, there was a sense they had lost momentum and support. Orangeman fought Orangeman at one contentious rally that mirrored the divisions of a besieged organization. One group wanted to march through a Catholic area; the other wanted to call the whole thing off.

In Belfast, the Orange Order made a haunting march past silent Catholic protesters along the Lower Ormeau Road. Normally, this is one of the province's most contentious routes, with British soldiers and police often forced to clear a path for the Orangemen.

But yesterday, there was only the sound of a muffled drum and the splatter of rain as the parade snaked 400 yards past stony-faced residents who held black flags, launched black balloons and displayed posters that read: "Shame."

The politics and passions of Northern Ireland's marching season have been overshadowed by the Quinn murders. At hundreds of marches, the Orangemen stopped in a moment of silence for the dead boys.

At Portadown, the blockaded marchers said they would not back down, but their numbers appeared to be dwindling.

Inside Irene Quinn's home, family and friends sought to make sense of a personal tragedy and a national outrage.

Christine Quinn, a wisp of a woman, could hardly utter a word. Her eyes were rimmed red after a sleepless night. She was wearing a brown shirt and dress and was barefoot. All of her belongings went up in the blaze.

She sat with her mother. And then, she walked into the bedroom where two flickering candles flanked a gold crucifix and the three coffins lay on a metal stand amid flower bouquets. On each coffin was a picture of the boy inside.

Christine Quinn's oldest son, Lee, 12, opened a window to let air into the room. At the time of the fire, he had been at his grandmother's house.

"I just can't work it out, why?" said Harry Patton, an uncle. "You look at the background of our families, and there is nothing there."

Like many in this society where religious divisions often obscure reality, the Quinns are a mixed family of Catholics and Protestants. The boys attended a predominantly Protestant public school.

Friends remembered the boys as lively and inseparable. Richard was a soccer fan who cheered for Britain's most famous team, Manchester United. Mark, the quiet one, liked to ride a bicycle. Jason, the tough one, liked to climb trees.

"They were three little terrors who thought they were angels," said their uncle Francis Quinn.

The boys had a hard life. Two years ago, their father, John Dillon, ran afoul of Protestant paramilitaries, the Ulster Defense Association. He was shot and wounded, and he left the Carnany housing complex in Ballymoney, according to the family.

The couple and their children moved to another part of Northern Ireland, and then to England, where the couple's relationship fell apart.

Christine Quinn and her sons returned to the area six months ago, and they moved into their new home only last week.

The Quinn family had been subjected to threats at the housing complex, where Protestants outnumber Catholics 9 to 1. The grandmother had moved out and her empty home was firebombed last week.

On the last night of their lives, the boys attended the local bonfire that is often a highlight of Northern Ireland's 12th of July holiday celebrations that mark the Battle of the Boyne.

And then, disaster struck about 4: 30 a.m. The house was attacked. The children died. The mother and the other adults got out alive.

"God only knows she'll never get over that," Patton said of his niece, Christine Quinn. "She even heard the wee boys screaming. How do you get it out of your mind? If you hear the screams of the wee-uns and think that's the last you hear of them or see them.

"She lost her youngsters, her home, her clothes," he said. "She doesn't even have a pair of shoes to stand up in."

Today, the family will gather for a funeral and then bury the three boys in a Catholic cemetery on a hill.

Patton said that Christine Quinn could not bear a Protestant burial.

"She has so much hatred for Protestants who've done this," he said. "That's why she wants them to be buried Catholics. I don't blame her. And I'm Protestant."

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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