Lyra McKee a ‘fearless seeker of truth’: fellow writers pay tribute
‘The people who took Lyra’s life are part of the past and will never be allowed to determine our future’
Twitter, for all its pile-ons and polemic, has its upsides. Frequently, out of the murk, interesting people appear, people you might never have met in real life. I became aware of Lyra McKee through her writing; her fierce words on everything from growing up as a young gay woman in Belfast, to the legacy of the Troubles. Her intellect and passion were instantly apparent. At the end of 2016, I was asked to put together a panel for a festival in Armagh about the experience of being a woman online, of abuse and how much to share for the sake of a story. When I asked Lyra to take part, she was initially a little nervous, because she’d had first-hand experience that had at times gotten serious.
The panel, which included Sarah Maria Griffin and Holly Shortall, was thought-provoking, and – it has to be said – provided grim conclusions. On how widespread abuse is and difficult it is to navigate being a woman online. Lyra was intelligent and articulate, funny and heartfelt. Afterwards, she told us about her mother, who she cared for, of how she was hoping to write a book.
Since then we kept in touch, and when it became clear – unsurprisingly – that publishers were interested in her work, we talked about the industry and I offered advice. She wrote about a Troubles cold case in Angels With Blue Faces, and eventually signed a two-book deal with Laura Hassan at Faber. Her book The Lost Boys, about missing children in the Troubles era, was due for publication in 2020. The work was often harrowing, and it affected Lyra, but she knew it was important to tell those stories.
An essay from Constellations – about a friend who died too young – was recently extracted in the Guardian, and Lyra got in touch to say how much it moved her. Typically, because kindness was her default, and she frequently amplified the work of others, she suggested the piece for inclusion in @sundaylongreads. And now all I can think of is how that piece is about someone, like Lyra, so full of potential who died in their 20s, leaving so many people bereft and uncomprehending.
Public Lyra was a brilliant journalist and advocate; someone who spoke up for others, and fearlessly probed at uncomfortable subjects. The Lyra I got to know was upbeat and kind; a devoted carer to her mother; a cat lover.
Her death is utterly senseless. A shocking waste. To wake up to the news of such violence on Good Friday of all days (no political or religious symbolism needs to be invoked, we know what this means). Lyra, at 29, was a blazing comet; fearless and full of integrity – and mischief, it has to be said.
I, like so many, am heartbroken for her partner, family and friends, and for all the challenging and brilliant work we will never get to see. Thank you, Lyra McKee. We will miss you.
A few months ago I was with friends in a corner of a restaurant in Belfast talking about this book that was coming down the line, The Lost Boys, something to marvelled at hanging in the air, that there was a young writer who could reach into the eerie spaces of what had happened to us before she was born, to know the things that haunted us.
It wasn't an accident. Prejudice forces you into self-knowledge and clear intellect and Lyra McKee had written about the pain and fear of her own early life. You can say that the lurking rage in wider politics has nothing to do with the rage that Lyra McKee faced in asserting her identity but they are the same thing, the same intent, the same murderous introversion.
There is a scale to how all this happens and we all allow ourselves a place on it, the offered hand not taken, the side-of-the-mouth remark not objected to, the belief left unexamined, the not standing up when you need to stand up, not allowing another's light to shine in all its singularity. Lyra McKee refused her place on that scale.
As a writer Lyra was drawn to subjects usually met with silence - she wrote about growing up gay in Northern Ireland, the epidemic of suicide among her generation in Belfast and in her forthcoming book she was investigating the unsolved disappearances of children during the Troubles. She could always see the imprint of the Troubles in the graves freshly dug for those too young to fully remember the conflict and it is just heartbreaking that a continuation of that violence has cut short her life too. Lyra asked the right questions and reported on the things that matter.
I will miss her candour, her humour, her determined curiosity and her warmth. Belfast has lost a distinct writing talent and a lovely young woman.
Laura Hassan, Faber & Faber Editorial Director
Lyra McKee was gifted, brave, kind and funny. I’m proud to have been her literary agent. I started working with her after Chrissie Giles at Mosaic published Lyra’s extraordinary piece about the effect of the war in Northern Ireland on her generation, growing up in Belfast after the Good Friday Agreement. She wrote about the legacy of the Troubles, about a city haunted by its recent past, and did so with tremendous wit and insight.
I sold her book, The Lost Boys, about the disappearance of children in Belfast in the 1970s, to Faber last year on the basis of a short proposal. In that document she wrote about growing up in a “conflict hotspot” in north Belfast, off the road known as the Murder Mile. She wrote: “Many people have grown to dislike the use of the word “war” to describe what happened here. The term “The Conflict” became a more acceptable alternative, even if it made a 30-year battle sound like a lover’s tiff. It’s got the ring of a euphemism, the kind one might use to refer to a shameful family secret during a reunion lunch… I witnessed its last years, as armed campaigns died and gave way to an uneasy tension we natives of Northern Ireland have named “peace”, and I lived with its legacy, watching friends and family members cope with the trauma of what they could not forget.”
As William Faulkner wrote, the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past. We’ve lost a tremendous talent, and today I’m remembering Lyra, and thinking of her friends, her partner and her family.”
Will Francis, agent at Janklow & Nesbit
‘The violence causes silence’ – ‘Zombie’, by The Cranberries, gave us one of the most dreadful rhymes in rock music, and one of its starkest truths. When a journalist is murdered, as Lyra McKee was, we see the dark corollary of this truth, the viciousness of the circle. In the North, as she knew better than most, it was never a secret. The Provos used to put it on their trashy posters, next to a sniper in a gimp mask and baggy army surplus: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing.’
In the North, the silence isn’t even silent. It’s violence taking you aside, wanting a word with you. It’s violence saying the quiet part out loud.
And when a journalist is murdered, as Lyra McKee was, our instinct is to honour her first, to light candles, not curse the darkness. It’s borne of decency, this instinct, and it’s right as far as it goes. We should give her every honour, and we will. But we shouldn’t make the mistake, when people like these come for a person like her, of refusing to mention them, of mistaking silence for decorum. She was a journalist, and the work she was doing is the opposite of silence. If we want to honour her, we have to keep breaking it.
So, let’s talk about this, as we honour Lyra McKee. It can seem impenetrably nuanced, even to well-informed outsiders. There can be doubts about where our sympathies lie. So, let’s get a few things straight. The Provos – the Provisional IRA – at least had a halfway complicated Venn diagram, but they were still a creepy death cult with a nucleus of straight-up monsters. These people, whatever they’re calling themselves this week, don’t even rise to that level. Some of them are connected – maybe an uncle who killed a pregnant woman with a bomb, or a cousin in Monaghan with a slurry tank full of Semtex – but most of them are just skanky crims with coke habits and notions. Whoever murdered Lyra McKee didn’t do it for a cause. He did it for a name and a percentage; a front seat on the next ATM job, a stint down south until the heat is off, and maybe a slice of some Charlie action in Blanchardstown. I hope he’s locked up six months from now, but if he’s not he’ll be shifting knock-off fags and Instagramming his Glock for the lads.
Lyra McKee was one of us. She was our people. She didn’t think she was, not at first – Belfast isn’t the easiest place in the world to grow up gay – but she found a way to belong here, a way to tell her story. She was our people because that includes a lot now, and it included her. It’s not like it used to be. But it doesn’t include them, not any more. Whatever you say, say that.
A new friend gets in touch from Paris. “I’m so sad about the murder of Lyra McKee,” he writes. “Derry was so peaceful and joyful when we met not so long ago. My sympathy to you and all journalists who have lost a colleague. May Lyra rest in peace.”
I didn’t know Lyra McKee as a journalist, but I had been looking forward to getting to know her as a writer.
Last month this newspaper’s books editor, Martin Doyle, marked her out as one of his ten rising stars of Irish writing, and I had mentally jotted down the title of her forthcoming book, The Lost Boys, as one of next year’s must-reads.
Instead, I found myself getting to know her early on Friday morning, as the news of her murder seeped through Derry.
I had filed copy earlier saying that shots had been fired and a woman injured. At 1am I received a text to say she had died. Fifteen minutes later came a barely coherent message: “Devastating news from Creggan. Lyra McKee NUJ member. Stunned. Take care if you’re working.”
Another said: “That could have been you.”
As a journalist, I have stood at more riots than I can count. In Derry – in parts of the North – it is simply part of the job. On Friday, as I attempted to explain during a radio interview how such riots would not be regarded as anything out of the ordinary, I could hear the incredulity in the English-based presenter’s voice.
Sometimes it takes tragedy to make us think outside of ourselves. It is, of course, a completely abnormal situation. The petrol bombs and burning barricades and hijacked cars and armoured Landrovers were part of the paraphernalia of the Troubles. They should not be part of the peace.
Yet it is a mark of how normal it still is that I know Lyra would not have felt unsafe, or in danger, as she watched the rioting on Thursday night. Indeed, she was far from the only one watching – the CCTV footage shows her standing among a crowd. She is curious, stretching up to try and get a better look, then snapping a picture with her phone and posting it on Twitter.
That curiosity is the mark of every good journalist I know. One of Lyra’s friends told me how she had only moved to Derry three months ago. Lyra had never experienced a riot, her friend said, and they had gone up because she wanted to see “her first riot”.
“She would have been asking to speak to whoever pulled the trigger,” her friend said. “She understood how young people can end up at that point.”
Such is the tragedy of Lyra’s murder, and the significance of her loss.
I have spent the days since reporting on her death for this newspaper, writing news story after news story while also searching for the right words to articulate what is a complex, nuanced situation and, attempting to shed some light on Derry and its past, present and future.
It has taken me days to write this, to find the right words to pay tribute to one whose words will outlast her.
As a journalist, all I can do in her memory is to contribute my own words, and hope that they have meaning.
An old friend gets in touch from Oxford. “Terrible news about your colleague,” he writes. “I have written a play called The Way We Are Now which is being performed at the Abingdon Drama Festival in early June.
It ends with a tableau listing a number of innocent women murdered or executed over the centuries. I will add your colleague's name to the list.”
Freya McClements is a writer and journalist reporting for The Irish Times from Derry
I am deeply saddened by the death of Lyra. It is particularly poignant as it comes at a holy time associated with resurrection and the hope of life. I am increasingly of the opinion that irrespective of religious or political beliefs we only have two types of people in Northern Ireland – those who are part of its future and those who are part of its past. The people who took Lyra’s life are part of the past and will never be allowed to determine our future.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado
I was horrified and sickened to wake up to the news this Good Friday morning that the brilliant activist, journalist, and writer Lyra McKee had been shot dead in Derry. Lyra was tirelessly devoted to those affected by Troubles violence and to those who were forgotten. The fact that she died as a result of senseless sectarian violence when working to counter it is absolutely unconscionable and unpardonable.
When we experience such a devastating loss, we reach for something to help to fill some of the space that has been ripped open in our community. We try to find the words. When I was asked to say a few words about Lyra, I thought immediately of her name, after the Lyre, a Northern constellation, which contains one of the brightest stars in the night sky. The lyre is, of course, also a musical instrument which symbolises art and literature, and which is associated with the figure of the creative artist. A fitting appellation for such a gifted and promising young author, who was brimful of creativity, passion, and empathy.
Lyra’s fellow north Belfast writer Anna Burns writes of Troubles-era Northern Ireland in Milkman: ‘The very physical environment…didn’t itself encourage light. Instead the place was sunk in one long, melancholic story to the extent that the truly shining person coming into this darkness ran the risk of not outliving it.’
Lyra, a young woman of the ceasefire generation, shone a bright beam into the remaining corners of darkness in the North in an effort to change its story and to light the way forward. Now she has taken her place as another shining star in the Northern sky. May she rest in peace, and may we continue to carry out the vital endeavour that she began, so that her work will live on through us.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, Visiting Research Fellow, Queen’s University Belfast
Lyra was the kind of person you felt immediately comfortable with. You could talk about anything with her, from politics to TV, books to the trials and tribulations of dieting!
She was a talented journalist and writer who was on the cusp of an incredible career – and she had found true happiness in the last year with her partner Sara, who she described as the love of her life.
I spoke with her about her excitement in moving to Derry, and her plans to build her life here. She was permanently upbeat and encouraging, always smiling.
Her loss is as devastating as it is senseless.
I was lucky enough to do a Tedx talk alongside Lyra in November 2017 at Stormont. Her talk was brilliant and radical – an honest, heartfelt record of her experience in America with religious fundamentalists. She gave me a lift to the after-party, telling me about her book deal and how excited she was about the attention her work was gaining in America. She was on such a buzz she kept taking the wrong turning!
Her humour was very self-deprecating and she hilariously joked about her resemblance to Harry Potter (whom she loved). Lyra was sweet, kind, full of irrepressible enthusiasm for life and, what was more, she was a true writing talent.
I had just that moment tweeted (a thing I do almost never): Deeply saddened and outraged by the murder last night of fellow writer – fellow citizen – Lyra McKee. Now more than ever when it feels as if there are no words we have to go on finding words.
What genuinely awful news to wake up to. I only knew Lyra online but it just took following her on Twitter to see how she constantly supported other writers and journalists while she was building her own career. I’d been reading her work on important issues for years, including gay rights and suicide in Northern Ireland, and was so excited for her new novel with Faber. There can be no justification for this senseless act of violence and my thoughts go out to her friends and family, but also all her readers. Heartbroken.
Lyra consistently shone a light on those who had been left out of the promise of the Peace Process: LGBTQ+ people, sex workers and those with mental health issues. She bravely chronicled the lives of men and women who have been forgotten in our current political debates through her journalism. Northern Irish journalism and literature is so much poorer for the loss of this vital voice.
Faber & Faber
We are heartbroken and appalled by the news of Lyra McKee’s death in Derry last night. Lyra was a writer of exceptional gifts and compassion, an inspiring, determined seeker of truth, and the most beloved of human beings. We are honoured to be her publisher.
More to follow
A Gofundme campaign has been set up to rise money for the family of Lyra McKee for funeral expenses and to decide on her legacy.
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