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Lyra McKee
Lyra McKee
Image: Brendan Gallagher

Lyra McKee: A determined journalist who told the stories of marginalised people and her country’s troubled past

Lyra’s work covered topics to do with the legacy of the Troubles, the fight for LGBT equality, and her own life.
Apr 19th 2019, 12:22 PM 45,305 37

LYRA MCKEE – WHO was shot dead last night during riots in Derry – was a Northern Ireland journalist dedicated to covering the topics and telling the stories of marginalised people and her country’s troubled past. 

Growing up off the Antrim Road in north Belfast, a stretch known as the Murder Mile because of the number of killings that took place there during the Troubles, Lyra wrote about her experiences coming of age in a city post-conflict, but one which still held onto the trauma of the past. 

In a piece for The Atlantic - Suicide Among the Ceasefire Babies – she wrote about the lives of her and her friends and the sharp increases in suicides in Northern Ireland over the last two decades. 

Lyra was just eight years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10 April 1998 and the guns finally fell silent in the North. She and her friends were part of the generation that became known as The Ceasefire Babies – the people too young to remember the worst of the conflict. 

In Lyra’s words: 

We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, spared from the horrors of war. But still, the aftereffects of those horrors seemed to follow us. 

Her piece goes on to discuss the effects that conflict can have on the children too young that have experienced the worst of wars, but who are exposed nonetheless to its traumas. 

She talks about suicide and attempted suicide in her friends, and about a generation trying to come to terms with their country’s tragic past. 

“But the problem hasn’t gone away, and there are plenty more friends and acquaintances who never made it into adulthood.

If I count their names on my fingers, I run out of digits. The tragic irony of life in Northern Ireland today is that peace seems to have claimed more lives than war ever did. 

Telling the stories that matter

Telling the stories of forgotten people, or those on the margins, is a recurring theme found in Lyra’s journalism. Often telling these stories brought her close to Northern Ireland’s troubled history. 

Her first book – Angels with Blue Faces – is due out this year, and deals with a cold case murder of a Northern Ireland MP during the height of the Troubles. 

She had recently signed a two-book deal with publisher Faber. Her second book The Lost Boys was due to be published next year. 

The book explores the disappearances of a number of children and young men during The Troubles. From the publisher’s blurb:

Many of them were not believed to be victims of the IRA or the UVF.  Some were kids who left home for school and never came home and their disappearances were never solved by the police. McKee will investigate what happened to them.

Lyra said at the time that she was honoured to join the publisher. 

“I am also incredibly grateful for the opportunity to tell this story and to hopefully help find answers for families who desperately need them,” she said. 

The books seem set to follow the line of Lyra’s other work – telling the stories that others don’t. 

Her work has been published widely, with bylines appearing in The Atlantic, The Independent and various newspapers and magazines nationally and internationally. 

Among other topics, she has written about the families of people killed in the Troubles investigating the murders themselves; about suicide among the Ceasefire babies; about the legacy issues of her country’s past. 

She was also an editor for the US news media magazine Mediagazer.

In 2017, she gave a Ted Talk on the importance of changing religious teaching on LGBT people and how it will change lives. 

She won a Sky News Young Journalist Award in 2006 and in 2016 was named as one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 in Europe Media. 

‘It’s going to be okay’

Lyra was gay and had recently moved from Belfast to Derry to live with her partner. 

At the time of her death, one of her best known articles was a deeply personal piece she wrote in 2014 - Letter to my 14 Year old Self - when she was 24 years old. 

The piece was a response to homophobic comments made by a Northern Irish pastor. It is a letter written to younger version of herself, consoling and comforting and letting her know it was going to be okay. 

A moving and powerful piece of writing, it was made into a short film by Stay Beautiful Films, and released in 2017, directed by Brian Mulholland and produced by Corinne Heaney – friends of Lyra’s.

Source: StayBeautifulFilms1/YouTube

The piece lays out compassionate guidance to young teenage Lyra, uncomfortable in her sexuality and unsure in her own skin. She guides her teenage self through the good and bad moments of her young life, reassuring her all the while that things will get better. 

From the piece:

“Three months before your 21st birthday, you will tell Mum the secret. You will be sobbing and shaking and she will be frightened because she doesn’t know what’s wrong.

“Christmas will be just a couple of weeks away. You have to tell her because you’ve met someone you like and you can’t live with the guilt anymore.

“You can’t get the words out so she says it: ‘Are you gay?’ And you will say, ‘Yes Mummy, I’m so sorry.’ And instead of getting mad, she will reply ‘Thank God you’re not pregnant’.

You will crawl into her lap, sobbing, as she holds you and tells you that you are her little girl and how could you ever think that anything would make her love you any less?   

Speaking to the Irish Times in 2017, Lyra spoke about the piece and the difficulties faced by young people coming out in conservative and religious households in Northern Ireland.

She called on the church to acknowledge the environment they had created in fostering hostile attitudes towards gay people throughout the years:

The church needs to acknowledge the legacy they have created. When people see scripture as a licence to violate and punish people… the bar is set much lower for the local thug who thinks he can kick my head in. The church needs to deal with that. 

 Finding her calling 

In the letter to her 14-year-old self Lyra also talks about her first experiences of journalism, and how at a young age she knew she had found her calling.

“In a year’s time, you’re going to join a scheme that trains people your age to be journalists. I know the careers teacher suggested that as an option and you said no, because it sounded boring and all you wanted to do was write, but go with it.

For the first time in your life, you will feel like you’re good at something useful. You’ll have found your calling. 

Lyra was shot dead last night during riots in the Creegan housing estate in Derry, in what police have labelled a terrorist incident. 

The PSNI says that a single gunman fired shots in a residential area of the city and as a result fatally wounded Lyra. 

Those who knew her, have described Lyra as a kind, funny, dedicated woman who was devoted to dragging Northern Ireland out of its dark past.

A candlelight vigil will be held in memory of Lyra this evening at Belfast City Hall. 

She is survived by her mother – who she cared for – her partner, her siblings and family and friends. 

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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