July 27, 1998 12:00 PM

It was as if 30 years of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland had been concentrated into a few minutes of pure terror. The three Quinn brothers—Richard, 11, Mark, 10, and Jason, 9—had been sleeping peacefully in their second-floor bedrooms in the town of Bally-money when the gasoline bomb came crashing into their living room around 4:30 on Sunday morning, July 12. “I was wakened by the children screaming,” their mother, Chrissie, 29, later told the British tabloid The Sun. “I got up, and there was smoke everywhere. I couldn’t see a thing.” She desperately tried to reach the boys before being beaten back by a wall of flames, forcing her to jump out of the second floor of the family’s row house. Her boyfriend, Raymond Craig, escaped, then tried unsuccessfully to get back in. A neighbor outside heard Richard crying, “I can’t find the stairs.”

The Quinn boys could have been symbols of the spirit of comity that so many in Northern Ireland hoped would flourish following passage this spring of a peace accord between Catholics and Protestants. Their mother is Catholic, but she lived with a Protestant man in a mostly Protestant housing complex. The boys attended a Protestant school and chose their playmates without regard to religion. (“The boys were being raised natural, if there is such a thing in this place,” a parish priest told a reporter.) But with one grotesque act of terrorism, presumably carried out by Protestant fanatics, they became reminders of just how fragile any reconciliation may be. Even in a region numbed by acts of barbarism, the murder of the Quinn boys (an older brother, Lee, 13, was staying with his grandmother when the attack took place) was greeted with universal revulsion. Even the Reverend Ian Paisley, the extremist Protestant leader, condemned the killings as “a diabolical crime committed by evil people.”

In fact, Chrissie Quinn, a home-maker, had long been apprehensive about her family’s safety. Two years ago her estranged husband, John Dillon, also a Catholic, was shot and wounded by Protestant gunmen. She moved to Ballymoney, 40 miles north of Belfast, last October. Recently she had begun to feel a chill from her Protestant neighbors. “I knew I wasn’t welcome,” she told The Sun. “Some of the other Catholics got bullets in the [mail].”

Throughout Northern Ireland in recent weeks there had been escalating tension and violence, including the burning of 10 Catholic churches, over demands by militant Protestants that they be allowed to march through Catholic areas in commemoration of a victory over the forces of the deposed Catholic King James II 300 years ago. The night before the boys were killed, a Protestant gathering in Ballymoney only heightened Chrissie’s fears. “She had warned the boys they might have to get out of their beds in the middle of the night,” said Quinn’s uncle Robert Patton, “because she was afraid the house might be attacked.” After the murders, there was speculation that some in the Quinns’ community had directed the killers to the house. By Monday night, police were holding two suspects for questioning.

Following the tragedy, many of Quinn’s Protestant neighbors rallied to her aid, taking up a collection for what was left of her family. But nothing could soothe her anguish. At the funeral, she couldn’t bear to look at the three small white coffins that carried her sons. “She’s been left with nothing,” says another uncle, Harry Patton. “I don’t think anybody can ever recover from anything like this.”

Bill Hewitt

Joanna Blonska in London and Nina Biddle and Matthew Chapman in Ballymoney

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